**Through this ongoing series, Trilix sheds light on exemplary business leaders who believe in the fusion of operations and culture to help their companies inch closer to workplace excellence.**

In October, Bill Wray, Chief Risk Officer at The Washington Trust Company, visited Trilix to share with our team how he has successfully built a career helping his company to run faster, better, cheaper and happier.

Our appetite was whetted, and I couldn’t wait to dive in deeper to this concept with Bill when I visited him earlier this month at his office in downtown Providence, Rhode Island. What follows is a glimpse into our conversation about how Bill evolved his own thoughts about workplace excellence, why strong leadership is imperative to be a change-based organization and why so many companies never seem to be able to get out of their own way…

Me: Bill, thank you so much for carving some time out this morning to continue the conversation we started back in October. To begin, can you tell me a little bit more about your background and how that led to your current role as Chief Risk Officer at Washington Trust.

Bill: I have always been drawn to managing crises—“riding to the sound of the guns,” in Army parlance. I get energized when there are daunting challenges to solve and everyone else is headed for the exits.

I started as an Army engineer officer. My first civilian job was in commercial real estate investment research. In 1990 I began to do real estate workouts at Shawmut Bank, where they let me parachute into a chaotic environment to help create the structure and processes necessary to resolve near-fatal levels of troubled assets. My lack of banking industry experience turned out to be a positive, since I was not hampered by conventional wisdom (or, frankly, wisdom of any kind at that stage in my career!).

I joined Citizens Financial Group in 1993 in the Credit and Risk area. Over 15 years, as the bank grew by a factor of 40 in terms of assets, I took on a series of increasing responsibilities in technology and operations. By the time I left in 2008 I was Vice Chairman and Chief Information Officer.

I then spent six years at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island, starting as CIO and ending up as Chief Operating Officer. Healthcare is a complicated business and once again I had a lot to learn, but the fundamentals of dealing with challenges in a crisis environment were the same.

In 2015, I came back to the banking industry and to Washington Trust because of the opportunity to work with a great local company led by first-class people. As Chief Risk Officer, I have four primary responsibilities: enterprise risk management; credit risk management; technology and operations. I enjoy all aspects of my job and am fortunate to be working at a company with a long tradition of genuine commitment to its customers and its employees.

Me: You have written and spoken on the topic of operational excellence frequently. How do you define operational excellence? How does one get started in pursuing it?

Bill: I believe that there are three dimensions with which to measure operational excellence: 1. Financial: What will grow revenue? What will reduce expense? 2. Satisfaction: What will make my customers and my colleagues happy? 3. Risk Management: What will help me comply with law and regulation? What will protect my business from harm?

This may sound complicated in theory, but in practice it’s easy to get started. Begin by asking frontline employees about tasks that they know could be done more effectively. Address those first few impediments to excellence on a rolling basis, and soon it will be clear that the aggregate of small changes will positively affect the three dimensions. As your team sees that you are serious about making things better, and that they have the power to identify and prioritize the changes, they’ll start to get engaged in the process.

Once people get a taste of operational excellence—i.e. once they see things get faster, better, cheaper and happier—they won’t want to go backwards. You’ll have lit a fire for continuous improvement that won’t burn out.

Me: Was there one particular workplace challenge that really developed your beliefs about operational excellence?

Bill: Around 2004, Citizens bought Charter One, an $11 billion cash acquisition. The project to integrate the technology, operations and customer service areas of the banks was budgeted at about $300 million, and needed to be completed in 15-18 months. Even more daunting was the requirement to take out a very high percentage of the annual operating costs of the acquired bank without adversely affecting customer service.

While my team and I had considerable experience with integrations, the scale of this project was an order of magnitude higher than we had dealt with before, and the degree of operating expense reduction was unprecedented for a large deal.

That forced us to think about change systematically, along the lines laid out by John Kotter in his series of books. We had also begun to embrace continuous improvement techniques such as Lean and Six Sigma, which shifted our primarily tech-centric approach to a customer-centric and metrics-focused mindset.

During the integration period, I had responsibility for about 4,500 people in multiple states, so clear and consistent messaging was critical to getting everyone on board. The way I describe operational excellence today evolved from that messaging, as I learned what resonated with and inspired people.

Me: In reflecting on those experiences, why do you think other companies still fail to successfully implement change?

Bill: Achieving operational excellence is very much like achieving personal fitness. Everyone knows what to do to be fit—just eat less and move more—but few people are willing to do that day after day to allow those small improvements add up to significant net change. They try fad diets, or they try a couple of intense workouts, but then they fall back into their old habits.

Similarly, the techniques for achieving operational excellence in a business are straightforward, so we generally know what we need to do to improve. But it requires a steadfast commitment to behavioral change at all levels to make those techniques work. Everyone wants instant success without really having to do things differently, especially if it involves change to organizational structure and resource allocations.

I always say that to create a “capability cocktail,” you need three parts people, two parts process, and one part technology—in that order. Instead, people use software like a fad diet (and having tried fad diets I know they don’t work!) instead of doing the patient work of organizational and process analysis from which most improvement will be generated.

Me: What would you say to the companies that try to start programs to achieve operational excellence without also focusing on the right leadership culture? Can you have one without the other?

Bill: I don’t think you can. I know that at Washington Trust, everything starts with a foundation of a sincerely open leadership team that fosters a culture of “doing the right thing” for our stakeholders. Without that leadership engagement, no amount of technique can be effective.

If I go back to the fitness analogy, many people will say they want to lose weight or run a marathon, but they are not willing to commit to the slow, steady behavioral changes that will achieve those goals.  So corporate leaders may say that they want to reduce expenses or improve sales or do a better job of servicing customers, but may not actually be willing to do what is necessary if it requires that they change their learned behaviors and longtime practices. It’s much easier to blame their troubles on outmoded software and insist on buying the next shiny new program.

Me: I couldn’t agree more. Though it’s incredibly important to have the right processes and systems in place, without a culture to support the change, transformation can come to a screeching halt. OK, final question for you Bill… if you had to leave business leaders with three questions they must address tomorrow to get on the path towards operational excellence, what would they be?

Bill:  First: Does your leadership team all genuinely believe that you must improve to survive? Without that level of commitment, at best you can only achieve minor tactical gains. Don’t waste everyone’s time preaching about changes that no one really believes are necessary.

Second: Do you know how to execute this kind of change? You and your team should understand some of the relevant disciplines: for example, change management, project management, Lean Six Sigma, business analysis, enterprise architecture and so on. Having the right toolset makes the work of improvement much more productive.

Third: Are you personally committed to making the change happen, even if it affects your own role? The biggest barriers to change usually come from middle-managers who have learned to thrive in the status quo. By contrast, frontline staff are usually eager to reduce drudgery, and senior managers want to see the benefit of improved corporate performance. It’s the middle tier whose roles are most threatened and who often block fundamental change.

Me: Any final thoughts on the topic?

Bill: It may sound corny, but I can best sum this up by saying that the achievement of operational excellence is grounded in two old-fashioned virtues: first humility, to accept that things are not as good as they could and should be; second courage, to be willing to do whatever is necessary to allow your frontline employees to be their best on behalf of your customers. If you have those two qualities in your corporate culture and on your leadership team, everything else will fall into place as you learn to use the techniques and tools of continuous improvement. Without those two virtues, however, it’s certain that you won’t achieve the groundbreaking results that your customers and your employees deserve. Thankfully, you can choose to demonstrate those qualities—they are entirely within your control—even if many other things are not. My final words? Make that choice, and get going!

We are always looking for leaders to profile for our workplace excellence blog series! To nominate someone, click here.

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