In pursuit of the gold standard in operational excellence, Gilead Sciences’s U.S. Commercial Operations Leadership Team (COLT) created and nurtured a novel cultural mindset that yields bigger wins with each passing year.


The large pharma company was committed to streamlining processes and breaking down the silos stifling innovation. The objective: find ways to unburden the team of routine tasks so they can devote time and energy to imagine better ways of working that enhance the company’s competitive edge. With that in mind, Gilead set out to develop a robust, well-defined set of key performance indicators, reduce manual effort spent on non-value-add activities and fully leverage automated solutions.


“Creating Possible” was the mantra for transforming the culture for more than 100 U.S. Commercial Operations (CommOps) team members and individual contributors. The team embarked on a holistic operational excellence (OpEx) journey to drive change from within—in a visceral manner—rather than just comply with a mandate handed down from above.

The first question tackled: “What is ‘operational excellence?’ Is it speed? Quality? Service? Cost savings?” The team decided it is all of those—at the expense of none. Operational excellence at Gilead is the unwavering commitment to continuous improvement, that last year’s wins are not to be repeated next year because next year’s stakes are even higher.


Momentum of this cultural shift was fueled by an operational excellence framework engineered by ZS. The approach mapped out a structured way for Gilead CommOps team members to think about personal and professional achievement, meet department goals and excel at cross-functional collaboration. Supported by tools, trainings and methodologies, this approach helped members embrace best practices, coach peers and new hires, all while enriching the operational excellence culture organically over time.


Reflecting on the journey that started in 2018, Vice President of U.S. Commercial Operations Dawn Winn said, “Operational excellence means continuous improvement and creating value for our employees and stakeholders. Our OpEx program had a tremendous impact within the first 24 months and I am proud of all our CommOps team members for thinking differently and embracing this change. ZS helped us define our mission and provided the frameworks to accelerate our transformation.”

While the appetite for continuous improvement existed, it was confined to individual functions and departments. Siloed processes, limited cross-functional transparency, weak key performance indicators (KPIs) and lack of training all conspired to create an environment that neither recognized nor rewarded performance. 

Using the blueprint developed by ZS, Gilead’s U.S. CommOps accelerated success through essential tools and methodologies. “ZS’s chief objective was to lay out the path to enable CommOps to build momentum independently, without reliance on a third party like ZS,” said Neelesh Harmalker, a manager within ZS’s process excellence and transformation team.


“It’s about making sure CommOps has that mindset, that they are continuously driving to be better, whether it’s a small project or a large organization-wide effort. It’s about growth and sustainability, making sure that everyone is marching toward one goal.”


Together, Gilead U.S. CommOps and ZS established five pillars of operational excellence:

  • OpEx 101 training: ZS designed and led training workshops on topics such as LEAN practices, root cause analysis, identifying and visualizing KPIs and automated solutions such as robotic process automation. Organizational change management was an important component of this training.
  • Process improvement: ZS and CommOps leaders evaluated more than 50 existing activities to prioritize eight cross-functional initiatives that would deliver the greatest business impact through standardization, automation, reduced manual tasks and errors.
  • KPIs: ZS and CommOps defined 45 initial KPIs and a strong governance model to continuously track against departmental and organizational goals. “We identified goals at the top, then drilled them down to the functional level so there were KPIs and metrics across all levels,” said Udbhav Gupta, a ZS manager within the process excellence and transformation team. “Then, those KPIs can be reported bottom-up from the functional level and then at the department level to measure success.”
  • Opscars recognition: Celebrating success was vital to this transformation. ZS created an annual event called “The Opscars” to fete CommOps with a glamorous awards ceremony staged live at its debut and virtual in its second year. This gala rolls out the red carpet for sparkly gowns, acceptance speeches and all the glitter of Hollywood. Self-nomination is encouraged and motivates everyone to strive for award-winning performance all year long. The highly structured nomination process has a defined criteria set and formal judging panels from within—and outside—CommOps to enhance integrity. As a result, smaller-scale projects that might otherwise escape notice are celebrated for innovation and business impact. Opscars winners receive generous cash awards that reinforce Gilead’s commitment to excellence.
  • OpEx Champions: Professional development is key to transformation and the OpEx Champions program grooms enthusiastic team members to become ambassadors of change. Every year, six people are selected to help coach others and strengthen the operational excellence cultural mindset. Starting first as “practitioners,” Champions go deeper into OpEx foundational topics such as value stream mapping, robotic process automation, KPIs and change management. Later, they participate in a high-profile, cross-functional project. As these leaders advance to the master level, they lead best practice discussions, train colleagues and drive operational excellence through process improvement.

Gilead’s CommOps group saw significant cost savings in the first year and savings continue to accrue each month. Standardizing processes while eliminating redundant and non-value-add activities improved accuracy. Automation reduced time spent on quality control by 50%.


Engagement can be a soft metric elsewhere but not at Gilead. The vast majority (75%) of CommOps employees participated in the inaugural Opscars in 2019. In its first three years, the Opscars drew more than 140 award submissions, showcasing a significant positive business impact and a firm grasp of meaningful KPIs.


“The OpEx program introduced a new way of thinking and working across CommOps,” said 2020 Opscars winner Carolynn Chang, associate director of Commercial Strategic Insights at Gilead. “It’s rewarding to see how these methodologies increase our efficiency and help us become better collaborators.”


The Gilead organization earned accolades from Process Excellence Network (PEX), which selected the pharma company as a finalist in three 2022 Global OPEX Awards categories: Best Process Transformation Project Under 90 Days, Best Achievement in Transforming Organizational Culture and Best Transformation Project Delivering Customer Excellence. This is the first time Gilead has been nominated for these awards; winners will be announced in February 2022. The conference is also a great opportunity for Gilead to further learn best practices from OpEx experts and leaders.


“Many transformations fall short of expectations because they rely solely on the hard elements,” said Stephen Redden, managing principal of ZS’s business operations practice. “Gilead’s OpEx program succeeds thanks to the balance of soft elements like OpEx Champions and the Opscars and hard elements such as process improvements and a robust KPI program.”


Redden went on to explain that operational excellence is within reach of nearly all companies, regardless of size, if they start small and evolve from there.


“Our whole ethos has changed. Now that U.S. Commercial Operations is focused on continuous improvement, they’ve been able to shift time from routine tasks toward imagining what’s possible, to think long term and big picture. This new cultural mindset is personally gratifying for team members—great for morale—and for the company, it’s created a proprietary pipeline to innovation, a real competitive advantage that ultimately benefits patients,” Winn said.