Rob Stone is an operations executive with the better part of 20 years of experience. He deeply understands the industry landscape and has been kind enough to share his thoughts surrounding organizational performance and improvement.
What if operations leaders could spend more time addressing, predicting and preventing issues vs. simply reacting to them?
Operations leaders’ days are frequently consumed by other stakeholders’ priorities. Whether a customer support escalation, providing inputs to a new business pursuit, addressing response time impacts due to a system outage – any number of instances possess the potential to require an “all hands on deck” response to a particular challenge. As a result, operations leaders often feel as if they are playing defense, forced into a reactive vs. proactive posture in their application of people, process and technology.
Part of this is the nature of the beast – operations functions exist to make sure the trains run on time. Still, one would be hard-pressed to find an operations leader who wouldn’t appreciate the ability to be even a little bit more proactive in their day-to-day.
Ultimately, operators want to be able to view execution challenges and diagnose their cause(s) with sufficient runway to be able to apply resources to address the problems. But how? How can an operations leader – chartered with ensuring critical functions are available to support growth – accomplish the goal of being responsive but also forming at least an educated assessment of what challenges are likely to be coming in the days and weeks ahead?
The answer, at least in part, is performance visibility. Operations-minded leaders live in a world of metrics, or key process indicators (KPIs). These data points, defined in advance, can inform a view of performance and help to answer the following:
- How are we doing vs. expectations?
- Are we below/at/above expectations? By how much? What is causing the variances – good or bad?
- If we’re missing expectations what are the plans to address?
Unfortunately for many operations leaders achieving visibility to performance requires an aggregation of information across multiple systems (email, Excel, PowerBi, Tableau, PowerPoint, etc.). Assembling the information is labor-intensive, even using data visualization tools to aggregate and display the information. As a result, an inordinate amount of time is often spent simply obtaining visibility to performance vs. expectations, leaving relatively little time to address the challenges or issues raised. Precious time and resources are required to gather a sense of “how we’re doing?” instead of knowing and spending the majority of their time devising a plan and addressing the problem.
Let’s look at a typical example of this scenario. One Monday morning, an account manager supporting a key customer account indicates that the customer is upset with the company’s service levels. According to this individual, the customer is upset that response times have degraded, and the overall level of support for the account has deteriorated to the point that they are considering shifting some of their business elsewhere. There is a meeting on Wednesday, and we need operations to attend to explain the issues and provide assurances that the proper corrective actions have been taken to resolve this matter.
An operations leader’s first thought is likely to gather data to assess the issues raised. What are our commitments to the customer and are we meeting those expectations? Are we meeting expectations for response time and how frequently? Is this latest issue representative of a broad, thematic issue or an outlier that is influencing perceptions? What function(s) were involved in the issue – are they internal resources or external? Having easily accessible data to each of these data points is critical to framing our response. Any missed expectations must of course be addressed, but whether it’s an outlier vs. a recurring theme matters in how to discuss it with the client. Aside from what the data indicate on performance, the most pressing question to answer is of course ‘what is the plan to address it’? All too often, determining the answer to the first question “did we miss expectations” requires Monday and Tuesday, leaving Tuesday night and perhaps a hurried Wednesday morning call to formulate the plan to address and present to the customer.
Surely an operations organization’s metrics must be tightly defined so that measurement can be possible. And an operations organization needs to ensure that its team members understand the significance of those data points and incorporate them into their business cadence. However, to enable an operations function to truly shift its focus to being proactive vs. reactive in support of the business, a single, management-level version of the truth is needed to assess the team’s performance so that as much time as possible can be allocated to solving problems (or preventing future ones) vs. simply finding out what is happening.