Even with the most competitive offerings or the most capable people representing them, it’s almost impossible for companies to achieve great things without reliable operations.
Not all small and mid-sized businesses have dedicated operations support, of course. Until they grow more sustainable, smaller companies might integrate operations into other divisions instead. But the danger there is allowing your teams to work in silos. And “by denying the opportunity to collaborate and cross-pollinate ideas,” says The 20 Media founder Pratik Dholakiya, “businesses contribute to their own speedy demise.”
Guess what helps reconnect those dots to keep everyone working toward the same goal? A dedicated operations team.
If you think it’s time to scale your operations workforce, you’re in the right place. In this post, you’ll learn how ops teams run businesses like well-oiled machines and the best ways to build your own.
First, the basics: What are operations, and how does this business function work?
The Operations Team Productivity: Roles and Responsibilities
Would you climb Mount Denali without a guide?
It’s a little easier to climb a behemoth like Denali with a trained mountaineer who can plot the course, gather all the right supplies, and plan for emergencies like bad weather.
In a company, that’s the operations team’s job.
An ops team’s #1 mission is to manage and optimize the details that keep its organization running profitably. That means delivering the resources that enable other departments to do their job – at peak efficiency and effectiveness – and cost-effectively converting their efforts into products and services that meet customers’ needs.
Phew. Let’s break that down a little. Here are a few examples of how the team supports each of the company’s stakeholders:
Operations might be responsible for keeping plenty of talent in the recruitment pipeline, promoting interdepartmental communication, supervising other teams’ activities, and figuring out how to best leverage resources to prevent and solve problems.
Operations also lead business predictability by helping the C-Suite plan KPIs and holding them financially accountable. Some ops professionals are specifically trained to neutralize legal issues, too.
Ops teams rarely come into direct contact with customers, but it’s still their responsibility to make sure the company delivers the right products to the right customers on time. The product team relies on operations to recommend improvements, as ops are best positioned to weigh customer feedback against the company’s capacity.
As any great ops professional will tell you, ensuring quality output means ensuring value at the source. To do this, the ops team focuses on acquiring inventory and services that maximize productivity, minimize risk and costs, and deliver on customer expectations.
You might have noticed a common thread here. For just about all activities, operations teams prioritize quality management. Not necessarily Steve Jobs-level attention to every detail of the business, but enough to:
- Produce what needs to be produced without delays, errors, or rework.
- Drive down failure costs, both internally and externally.
- Find the best possible solutions to problems in any situation.
- Ultimately inspire all stakeholders to champion the company’s value.
Before it can manage the quality of other business units, of course, operations must first manage itself. What’s the best set-up to achieve all these goals?
How to Build an Effective Operations Team
Step 1: Start from the Top Down.
A functional and well-run operations team relies on great support from the top down. Beyond the usual traits of great leaders, your ops manager will need a solid grasp of:
- Various processes across the company, so your team can confidently coordinate and develop new methods.
- Supply chain management, including knowledge of manufacturing, logistics, and transportation, if you’re a product-based company.
- Problem-solving means pulling information from both an analytical and creative perspective.
- Learning how to communicate effectively with all stakeholders.
Sure, all leaders need to communicate and solve problems. But an ops manager uses these skills on a bigger scale to unite people and processes seamlessly across the entire organization.
TIP: You can make your ops manager’s job much easier by making lines of communication easy to access. Digital channels (like project management or messaging apps) should be accessible for your ops teams to use on the go when they’re on a call, for example, while regular meetings can be a powerful way to sync up teams (as long as they’re not too regular). A written manual on communications processes can help clear up any confusion.
With those resources in place, you’re ready to think about the structure of the rest of the team.
Step 2: Organize Your Operations Team Structure.
In their book, The Practice of Cloud System Administration, three Silicon Valley-based authors describe the three sources and categories of operational work:
|Sources of work
- Life-cycle management or the functional work — means to run a service within the company.
- Stakeholder interaction means meeting the needs of the people who use the service.
- Process improvement and automation mean the operational work needed to improve and upgrade various processes continually.
Categories of work
- Emergencies like power outages or emergency requests from other teams.
- Standard requests include questions about how to use a service or reports of the problems users experience.
- Project work, or the projects that automate and optimize team/company systems.
“It can be tempting to organize an operations team into three subteams, each focusing on one source of work or one category of work,” the authors write. But that creates those dreaded “silos of responsibility.”
Luckily, there’s a much simpler way to organize your team: Make project work the priority.
If you want to run your ops team at peak efficiency, you’ll need to focus most of its bandwidth on projects. Projects save them running from emergency to emergency until they burn out, or from slowing down to deal with interruptions (a big productivity killer).
How do you prioritize project work while responding to emergencies and requests promptly? There are two ways:
- Assign an emergency response team. If one person owns emergencies, and other standard requests, means that the rest of the team is free to focus all its energy on projects. TIP: Make sure the ERT emails out reports to the rest of the team, including alerts logged, action taken, trends noticed, and recommendations going forward.
- Take turns. Using a useful calendar management tool, you can move the team through a rotation for on-call duty (emergencies) and ticket duty (standard requests). TIP: Schedule each shift for no more than a week. Say you had a team of eight people; this would give each member a full six weeks of the cycle to focus on projects.
Depending on the size of the team’s workload, your ops manager might want to assign both on-call and ticket duty to one person or multiple people to one task. As long as they cross-train all team members, you’ll always be able to cover unexpected absences.
Bear in mind, though, that it’s best to limit each rotation to one person for a smoother hand-off to the next. Involving entire teams might lead to unnecessary meetings. It’s also good practice for the ops manager to include him- or herself in the rotation so they can keep tabs on what’s going on.
Step 3: Optimize Your Teamwork.
Congratulations: you now have a well-organized ops team.
But team-building doesn’t end there. It’s a journey – starting with every team member’s commitment to using the following six practices.
A knowledge bank
By documenting and sharing processes and templates across the team, you can streamline project management, cut time and effort wasted on reinventing the wheel, and ultimately ensure customers get the best results.
TIP: As with your communication channels, make it as quick and easy as possible for everyone to find these resources – using a tool like Box, for example.
A system of delivery
Take a standardized approach to deliver high-quality products and services by establishing bite-sized, repeatable processes in which everyone knows their role.
TIP: Projects are best accomplished in small teams. While solo projects disconnect team members and inhibit feedback, large teams face setbacks from decision-making challenges.
A system of measurement
Collect objective data on everything you do. How else can you improve your team’s output?
TIP: Google’s Objective and Key Results (OKR) is a great model to use. The aim is to set aggressive quarterly or annual targets, create incentives for your team to hit them, then stack up against your results against your forecasts.
(Keep in mind that because they’re so aggressive, you should only run 70% of your OKR goals.)
To meet their many demands, operations teams should focus on getting the most done with as little time and resources as possible. Enter: time-tracking and productivity tools.
Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Team-building activities are beneficial for many reasons, including productivity. Think of opportunities to bring the team together to take a break, reconnect, celebrate wins, and have a little fun.
Team sports are a simplified example and one of the best ways to foster teamwork and personal connections.
A safe space to vent.
Operations are one of the most complex and demanding functions of the business. That’s why it’s also the most in need of transparency.
There will be times when team members need to deliver criticism, hold others accountable, and admit their own failures to reach goals. The most important lesson they can learn, though, is that effective team performance isn’t always about hitting numbers. It’s about being agile enough to deal with missing them and confronting sensitive issues for the collective good of the team.
Is everyone on board with all six practices? Remember: Feedback makes the dream work.
By now, you should have all the ideas you need to build a capable operations team, assign smart roles, and streamline operations over time.
That leaves us with one last important question: What happens when challenges arise?
Nobody enjoys finding shortfalls in their teams or processes. But especially in operations, where one mistake sets off company-wide chains of events, it’s the name of the game. As the leader, your goal should be consistency: bringing underperformers up to standards, encouraging top performers to keep doing their very best, and keeping burnout at bay.
Does your company have a small operations team? What other best practices do you use to improve team performance? Share with us what worked for you in the comments.