Gilead Sciences, the only pharmaceutical company shortlisted for the 2023 Global OPEX and Business Transformation Awards, continues to transform its culture through a well-established operational excellence (OpEx) program that has yielded significant cost savings and optimization, increased employee and partner engagement and improved turnaround times. At the 2023 Global OPEX conference, Gilead won Best Strategic Business Transformation Project, was the runner-up for Best Continuous Improvement System and was a finalist for Best Transformation in Organizational Culture. This achievement places the company above other industries where operational excellence has been part of their DNA for 20-plus years.

Gilead’s journey to operational excellence began in 2018. In pursuit of the gold standard in OpEx, Gilead Sciences’ 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 from 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 (KPIs), reduce manual effort spent on non-value-added 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 OpEx journey to drive change from within rather than to 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. OpEx at Gilead is the unwavering commitment to continuous improvement, making sure that last year’s wins are not to be repeated next year because next year’s stakes will be even higher.


An OpEx framework engineered by ZS fueled the momentum. 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 as well as coach peers and new hires—all while enriching the OpEx culture organically over time.


Reflecting on the journey, Dawn Winn, vice president of Gilead Sciences’ U.S. Commercial Operations, 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 KPIs and lack of training 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 director within the Process Excellence Expertise Center (PEEC) at ZS.


“It’s about making sure CommOps has that mindset and that they are continuously driving to be better, whether it’s a small project or a large organizationwide 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 OpEx:

  • 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. Organizational change management was a vital 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 minimized 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.
  • Opscars recognition: Celebrating success was vital to this transformation. ZS created an annual event called the Opscars to honor CommOps with a glamorous awards ceremony. This gala rolls out the red carpet for sparkly gowns and acceptance speeches. 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 nurtures enthusiastic team members to become ambassadors of change. Each year, six people are selected to help coach others and strengthen the OpEx cultural mindset. Starting first as practitioners, Champions go deeper into OpEx foundational topics. 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 OpEx 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-added 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 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, director of commercial strategic insights at Gilead. “It’s rewarding to see how these methodologies increase our efficiency and help us become better collaborators.”

Gilead went on to win a 2023 Global OPEX award for Best Strategic Business Transformation Project. Focusing on the transformation journey of its Promotional Review Committee (PRC) process, Gilead showcased how OpEx methodologies reduced cycle times by 20%, accelerated insights by 75% and achieved widespread adoption through change minimization. “This project was a hands-down strategic transformation winner,” said one of the Best Strategic Business Transformation judges.


This recognition reflects the success of Gilead’s maturing OpEx program, developed through a close partnership with ZS. Gilead is continuously evolving its mindset, training and recognition programs at all levels of leadership to drive innovation and enhance future work.


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


Redden went on to explain that OpEx 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,” Winn said. “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.”