STRATEGY: The Curse of the Operational Manager – Business As Usual

Managing operations is rarely regarded as sexy topic in management – and that’s too bad. Still, it is much easier to sell executives well-packaged products dealing with innovation, strategy, entrepreneurship – and, of course, leadership – than it is to raise interest in the science and art of getting people in complex groups to achieve common goal. Our business schools often compound this problem by teaching marginally useful subjects such as economics and business law, while barely addressing the complexities of managing people.
And yet the fact remains; having strategic vision without excellent management is like race car without transmission.
Let us be clear, managing operations is not the same as “operations management”. The latter term has developed from engineering and scientific management. Its contributions include topics such as queuing theory and statistical process control. It contributes to our understanding of how to effectively implement “technical” systems. Managing operations is about connecting business strategy to business success through effective “human” systems.
Mary Parker Follett famously defined management as, “the art of getting things done through other people”. Anyone who has been manager can appreciate the almost mystical complexity of those last three words “through other people”. For people in groups, organising is an unnatural act. Without explicit guidance, any group of six people that is given task will tend to proceed in six different directions. The essential contribution of the operational manager is to coordinate technical systems, values and skills with strategic goals to achieve the unnatural result of coordinated behaviour among participants. In other words, “management is fundamentally behavioural”.
Strategy, of course, is important. But the time spent on developing strategy, as opposed to achieving it, is small. Most of manager’s time should be spent on the execution part. Ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tsu goes even further by arguing that even bad strategy pursued with enough commitment can often lead to success. What then leads to commitment and to being able to mobilise that commitment effectively? Inevitably, this points toward the need to deal competently with people’s values, perceptions and feelings. It may be more satisfying to deal with the relatively well structured problems of policy and logistics. It may be more fun to imagine oneself as conquering general, strategising and commanding. The question though, is not what is gratifying, but what is effective; and that is being able to influence behaviour.
Effective operational managers pay attention to people. They spend time understanding what their people do and, more importantly, why. They set stable and predictable patterns in the organisation that eliminate ambiguity and noise. And they make things very clear. They make sure strategic goals are understood and accepted. It is relentless exercise of communicating, challenging, checking and support. It involves thousands of incremental gestures and actions geared towards creating the discipline of effective execution.
That is why management ultimately is behavioural endeavour. Some may argue that is obvious, but the evidence in organisations in our experience would suggest otherwise. Perhaps one reason for this misperception is that when good operational managers are done with their work, it isn’t apparent that there was anything that needed to be done in the first place; it looks easy. This is the curse of the operational manager; if you don’t perform, it results in problems, but excellence does not result in recognition of success. Senior managers often fail to reinforce the value of what an operational manager “does”, preferring instead to reward those managers who make bold promises or who appear to be good in crisis. Good operational managers on the other hand exhibit many behaviours that frequently go unnoticed by senior managers – such as the time spent coaching their direct reports, to walking the shop floor regularly, to following up on even the smallest of promises. All of those gestures combine to set the behavioural tone for the rest of their staff.
The failure to appreciate what good operational managers do may also create dangerous cycle in organisations – where the importance of execution over time is neglected, regarded as mere afterthought – and then eventually rediscovered again. When operational managers are either removed or leave out of frustration over senior managers’ inability to both recognise and support them, the organisations they worked in begin to slowly descend into operational chaos. Areas that once looked straightforward increasingly become riddled with problems – starting with little ones, but spiralling and compounding into serious and chronic behavioural ones. That then often leads to senior managers having to take drastic action, like restructures and lay-offs. Many of these cases could have been easily avoided had the focus on good operational management been there at the outset.
This is why operational competency is not the same as “being nice”. Motivating people is not (merely) about paying lip service to people being “our most important asset”. Competency in people management involves the ability to build consensus and commitment by understanding what needs to be done regarding the differing values, perceptions and beliefs of those involved. It involves knowing how to build trust and embody respect. It is grounded in communication, which is about far more than the use of words. It also involves matching people skills and technical systems to maximise effective work.
For example, we consulted with client operating in highly specialised, technology-intense environment. They were recognised around the world in their field. After some basic analysis, however, we found significant opportunity for improving production which, once corrected, resulted in roughly million dollars of additional annual revenue without an increase in operating costs. That’s an annuity of million dollars year added to the bottom line. On the surface, the problem was simply technical issue related to instrument calibration. How could team of outsiders, whose expertise is not technological, identify such basic technical problem? Surely the engineers should have discovered the error?
The problem was not one of technical competency – it was behavioural. Certain behavioural dynamics in the business had stopped people from asking the right questions and looking for the right answers. The business was stuck in pattern of behaviour that made the technical deficiencies invisible. Correspondingly, it was behavioural changes as result of the consulting engagement that made the problem visible. Once seen, the problem was easily corrected. This is type of problem we have seen again and again, even in Fortune 500 companies. Clearly, technical response to this problem cannot be effective, since the technical solution was readily available, yet it was not being implemented. The critical difference that produced this million-dollar-a-year annuity was changed “behaviour”.
As management consultants, academics and business owners, we have had the privilege of working with diverse companies across the world, from Fortune 500 to small enterprises. All are engaged in an ongoing quest to be more successful. As participants in this quest, we have experienced how difficult it is for senior managers (including ourselves) to accept that there is no silver bullet, no simple “organising idea” that produces success. Success comes painstakingly from the everyday graft of execution and is only achieved by excelling at managing operations and people. It means shifting the focus away from “flavour of the month” solutions that only deliver empty catch phrases and trendy management words. One of the famous 14 points created by W Edwards Deming, the father of TQM (Total Quality Management), was “el

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