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Principles are Generic. Solutions are Not

Nigel Slack, author of The Operations Advantage, gives a few solutions toward operations processes that work for everyone in the organization

There is a common dilemma that faces any senior operations manager who has responsibility for operations that spread across different regions: how to push forward with a common improvement initiative when the various operations have to cope with, sometimes very different, circumstances? As one COO put it, ‘as soon as we issue guidance on how to implement the Group’s improvement initiative, we get the same complaints.’

Here are some answers

First: Remember that with operations, principles are generic - solutions are not. What works in one part of the business may not be appropriate in another. The complaint that ‘my operation is different’ is almost certainly true to some extent. Each part of the business will probably have different types of competitors, customers, suppliers, funding constraints, competitive aims, organisational culture, and shared history. One set of directions is unlikely to be as right for one operation as they are for another with a completely different set of circumstances. But principles are common. Any solution to whatever operations-based concerns you have will indeed depend on your circumstances, but they should be based on a sound understanding of the basic principles that underlie the way operations function. A solution is more specific and relates to a specific set of circumstances. This is not to say that one cannot be prescriptive about the best way to apply and adapt principles. But even when advice is couched in seemingly prescriptive terms, it should be treated as advice on how to employ general principles, not in any way as a route to some kind of dogmatic universal solution.

Second: Get everyone Group-wide to accept that things can be done better. It is the most important operations principle: there is NEVER one best way of doing something, but there is ALWAYS a better way. The improvement itself is more important than how it is achieved. All operations should understand the importance of building (and sharing) the knowledge that comes from their experience of making their improvements. 

Third: Focus on those aspects of improvement that are really important to you in your particular circumstances - chip away at the other things you don’t need. Remember the story about Michelangelo: when asked how he managed to convey such beauty in his masterpiece sculpture of David, he said that he chipped away the bits that didn’t look like David. That is what focused improvement should be like: focus only on those things about improvement that are important in achieving key objectives, and chip away the stuff you don’t need.

Fourth: When adapting operations principles to guide operations improvement, distinguish between four distinct, but related, aspects of improvement that are often confused with each other.

  • The broad approaches to improvement – the underlying sets of beliefs that form a coherent philosophy and shape how improvement should be accomplished.
  • The individual elements contained within improvement approaches – the individual primary ideas of what improves operations.
  • Improvement techniques– the methods and tools that can be used to help find better ways of doing things.
  • Ideas of how the management of the improvement process should be handled – many of the failures of improvement are caused by failures in how improvement efforts are managed.

Fifth: However operations principles are adapted to guide improvement, they are not in themselves operations strategies. So, the answer to the question ‘What is your operations strategy?’ can never be ‘Six sigma’ or ‘Lean’. The essence of an operations strategy is that it is individual and specific to one organization at one point in time. By contrast, operations principles are generic in nature. That is why they travel so well: they offer generic advice that is broadly applicable across a range of businesses. And that is also why they are not strategies. The choice of how you adapt generic operations principles is an important strategic decision, but it is not a strategy.

About the author: Nigel Slack is Emeritus Professor of Operations Management and Strategy at Warwick Business School and the former head of its Operations Management Group. He acts as a consultant in many sectors, including Financial Services, Utilities, Retail, Professional Services, General Services, Aerospace, FMCG, and Engineering Manufacturing.

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