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The Operations Advantage: Author Q&A

19th April 2017 | Nigel Slack

Nigel Slack does a Q&A of key concepts in his book, The Operations Advantage

Operations Advantage (9780749473549) 

Why do Operations get a bad reputation? Is it simply because of their repetitive connotation or is there another reason?

It’s partly because of the way other functions see operations as boring/repetitive, but it’s also because operations managers are so concerned with keeping the show on the road that they neglect the equally important requirement to develop capabilities for the longer term. It’s difficult to focus on avoiding short-term problems while thinking long-term. It’s an issue that is common to all managers of course, but in operations, the short-term is very short-term and the consequences of losing control are very immediate. Also, managing operations is a very disaggregated business. In finance, for example, one aggregates everything to Pounds, Euros, Dollars, Zlotys etc. You can’t do that in operations. That makes everything detailed and complex. The tendency is for other managers to see operations as just dealing with the detail.

Does operations management rely solely on operations managers? Can everyone in a business participate toward successful operations management?

Yes, any manager can help operations be better, and (just as important) let operations help them. All managers can help operations by thinking through the implications of their own decisions on operations. This does not necessarily mean letting operations of current capabilities limit what they want to do, but it does mean giving operations a clear steer, and the time, to develop appropriate capabilities. The things that most upset inter-functional relationships with operations are ambiguous messages and surprises. Remember also that operations provide skills and experience that can help any part of the business. All parts of the business are (at least partially) operations. If you manage resources, if you have processes, if you have (internal or external) customers, if you think that you should be adding value for the business, then you run an operation. It may be a finance operation, or a marketing operation, or a human resources operation – but it’s still an operation. And you should be exploiting operations expertise to run your operations better.

Besides resources and processes, what are the key factors toward successful operations management?

The main factor is not assuming that all parts of an operation should be treated in the same way. In operations, one size does not fit all. In other words, a key factor to success is developing different ways of managing parts of the operation that match their varying objectives. The different parts of any operation will differ, but not necessarily in the way you might think. Clearly operations that serve different markets and use different technologies may need to be managed in different ways. Yet these obvious differences can be a distraction. What really matters is that different operations have different operating conditions. Four of these in particular have a major influence on how operations need to be managed. They are the volume an operation has to produce, the variety of activities it has to cope with, the variation in the demand on its services, and the visibility of its activities to its customers. These four factors have a huge influence on managing any operation or part of an operation.

Besides resources and processes, what are they key limitations to successful operations management?

One word – culture. More specifically, the lack of what, in the book, I call a capability culture. At the heart of a capability culture is a belief in the importance of operations strategically as well as operationally. This should mean that everything that the operations function does is geared toward building the capabilities that will encourage the business to reach a competitive advantage. More than that, it should mean that the operations function can bring something exceptional and distinctive to the business. The biggest problem with operations is frequently a depressing lack of ambition. Sometimes this is because operations managers have so many things to deal with. Sometimes it is an ignorance of the basic principles of operations management.

How big of a role do strategy, goals and benchmarking have for a company’s operations?

At the risk of repeating myself, business strategy is hugely important to operations, and operations is hugely important to business strategy. One of the central principles of operations management is that businesses that compete in different ways should want different things from their operations. And if they want different things from their operations, they need to be managed in different ways. Another principle is that, because operations is at the sharp end of creating value for the business, it has an opportunity to learn from its experience to develop unique and valuable capabilities that can be exploited in business strategy. As far as benchmarking is concerned, the best advice I can give any operations manager is to get out more. Whatever your operations problems, someone has the same ones, but worse. Learn from how they cope with them (or not).


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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