• Mike Whiteman

Ten practices for Operationally Excellent Managers and Team Leaders

What practices should Managers and Team Leaders adopt to be Operationally Excellent? Here's ten suggestions .....

1. Understand what customers want

Every team exists to deliver products or services to one or more groups of customers. It is how the team adds value - if it didn’t add value there would be no reason for it to exist. So the first question every Operational Manager should ask is “who are my customers”? These might be external to the organisation (the “ultimate customer” who buys the products or services of the organisation), a supplier or another internal team.

The second question to ask is “what do customers care about”? What are the problems or needs that customer have which the team exists to solve or deliver.

Managers should map out customer groups and use the sources of insight at their disposal to identify needs. Speaking directly to customers, conducting surveys, monitoring feedback and complaints are all great ways of gaining insights

2. Define how value is added

Once the Manager understands their teams customers, the next key question is “how do we add value”? The team must be clear on the range of services offered (what the team does for the customer) and how these services meet or exceed customer needs. Equally importantly, the Manager should help the team define what it doesn’t do – either because it doesn’t add value or is outside the scope of the teams capabilities.

For example, a finance team processing supplier invoices might determine that it’s customers are the Suppliers themselves and purchasers within the organisation. Feedback may suggest that timeliness and accuracy of payment are important and so the teams core services may include facilitating payments and resolving queries. But the team may also determine that it lacks the capability to make payments in foreign currencies and therefore can’t offer this service.

Managers should document these Services in the form of a catalogue and share this with their team.

3. Identify and eliminate Failure Demand

To satisfy customers’ needs and deliver services, teams must turn “inputs” into “outcomes”. These inputs could be physical or electronic and may come from customers themselves or other suppliers. For example, a payable team may take a Purchase Orders raised by a buyer and match this to an invoice provided by the supplier to facilitate payment.

Each input is a request for the team to act. The Manager needs to understand how many of these requests are “good” requests verses those which arise from a previous failure or have been misdirected. For example, the Payables team may receive phone calls and emails from buyers and suppliers to chase up unpaid invoices or query the amount paid. All this input takes time and effort but ultimately doesn’t add value – it is correcting or clarifying something that should have been done right first time.

The Manager needs to understand how much work (or “demand”) is coming into the team, how it arrives and whether it is “failure” demand. If this failure demand can be isolated and the root causes addressed, then the associated work can be eliminated. This has the dual benefit of creating capacity to do more of the work that the customer values and providing a better service experience.

4. Segment the work

Once the failure demand on the team has been eliminated, the remaining work received should be value-adding. However, the characteristics of this work may differ significantly and consequently should be handled differently.

Some work will be high volume and uniform in nature, whilst at the other extreme every request will be unique, involve significant customer interaction and consequently be complex to deal with. For example, a sales team may receive orders for standard catalogue items, updated customers personal details or requests to provide quotes for customised items. These are successively more complex and less frequent in nature.

It is important that the Manager differentiates work based on its characteristics and organises the team to deal with it accordingly. Work should be routed to team members with the appropriate skills and grouped in a way that maintains the rhythm of team members work.

5. Document processes

Teams deliver products or services to customers by following one or more processes; a sequence of steps that turns inputs into outcomes. Each product or service the team provides should have one or more associated processes that determines what is done, the sequence in which it is done and by whom.

Where a task or activity is performed repeatedly or by different individual team members it is important that the process followed is the same each time and uses the best method. This ensures that customers receive a consistent, high quality service that is performed in the most efficient way possible. This is particularly important for work that the Manager has identified as high frequency and routine in nature.

Processes are typically documented in the form of a “map” which visualises the steps, decision points and responsibilities. It may also be supplemented with detailed written work instructions that describe how a specific step in the process should be performed. For more complex processes with greater degrees of judgement and discretion a checklist of activities may be more appropriate than a structured map or work instruction.

Once the process has been documented it can be used in several significant and valuable ways. Firstly, new team members or existing members wishing to acquire new skills can be trained using the maps. Secondly the documented process forms a reference against which observation can be made and feedback given.

But most importantly it a baseline for future changes and improvements. Managers should encourage team members to highlight wasteful activities within the process, test improvements and if successful build these into the documented process for others to benefit from.

6. Measure the Process not the People

Well-designed measures help the team to understand how they are performing against customer needs and expectations, how efficiently they are being delivered and what opportunities exist for improvement.

It is tempting to measure individual team members productivity, to reward high performance and act to address under performance. But the majority of individual performance variation is determined by the way in which the operational system is designed and managed. Much of the perceived differences in performance between team members are down to chance. Genuine personal underperformance is best identified and dealt with in other ways.

Worse still, measuring individual productivity often leads people to direct their creative energies into “gaming” the system, often to the detriment of the customer. For example, sales team members measured on how well they convert customer contacts into sales may deliberately not deal with customer enquiries that they perceive to be a difficult sell.

It is far better to measure the system itself and not the individual team members. How much work is the team receiving? What is the quality of that input? How much of the input is “failure demand”? How well is the team doing meeting the customer definition of quality? How long does the customer have to wait to receive service? How many interactions does the customer need to make to get what they want?

7. Cross train team members

In a well designed operational system, the skills required to perform processes will be known and documented. Team members must be trained in these skills to ensure they can deliver the product or service in a timely manner and to the desired level of quality.

The work itself is unlikely to be constant, either in volume or variety. With the right measures it should be possible to predict seasonal changes or those driven by external factors. The manager should plan to ensure there are sufficient resource to handle the volume of work received.

However unexpected resource constraints such as sickness or a sudden increase in work could cause the team to become overburdened potentially leading to backlogs or a degradation in quality.

One of the best ways to match the resources available to the demand without resorting to expensive short-term staff is to train team members in as many of the required skills as possible. This maximises flexibility, enabling the manager to dynamically move work between team members in response to changes in variety and overall demand. Taking this a stage further, by training across team boundaries it enables resource constraints to be minimised further.

For example, in an insurance organisation, cross training sales or service team members to handle simple claims can help to alleviate sudden unpredictable increases in demand caused by weather events.

8. Observe work and give regular feedback

The manager does not need to be an expert in doing the work itself, but they must understand how the work is performed. The manager should ask several questions. Does a standard exist for this task or activity? Is the standard fit for purpose? Is the standard being followed? How could it be improved?

The best way to do this is to “go and see” the work being performed. Observe what team members actually do, what issues they face and what issues Customers experience. Listen to calls, walk the process or follow a request from start to finish. Focus on how the work is performed and give structured objective feedback on what has been observed.

9. Ask "how could we do this better"?

Just because a standard exists, does not mean it is the best way of doing something. The Manager should constantly be asking themselves and their team “is there a better way”?

Through observation of the work the Manager may see that a team member has found a better way of performing a task. They should be encouraged to share this with their peers and incorporate it into the standard. The manager may identify customer frustrations or issues. They should highlight these and encourage the team to think about ways of minimising or eliminating the problem. The team should also be trained and encouraged to identify and eliminate waste in the process; anything which doesn’t add value to the customer or which potentially causes errors.

In all these situations the managers role should be as a facilitator, helping the team to work through the problem in a systematic way, not imposing their own ideas. The manager should give the team the latitude to try out new ideas, measure their impact and determine if the new way is in fact a better way.

10. Plan time around these things

How should a manager organise and prioritise their time? Meetings, emails, standing in for colleagues and “firefighting” can often absorb a great deal of the managers time and distract from the activities that add most value to their team.

The manager should develop a plan which schedules time to carry out the tasks described above at an appropriate frequency. Some tasks like side by side observation and feedback should ideally be scheduled on a weekly basis, whereas segmentation and process documentation may only need to be reviewed on a quarterly basis.

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