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How Managers Can Balance the Tension Between Operations and Upgrades

December 9, 2019

Management skill

Any work team can only do so much at once. That’s why a leader needs to balance the tension between operations (doing the day-to-day work that pays the rent) and upgrades (getting better at doing that work).

This tension may be the biggest single barrier to upgrading your business, and it’s one you’ll have to address if you are to stay healthy. The good news is there are ways to balance that tension and navigate change.

Operations evolve

Change happens at two extremes:

Epic change often comes from on high in the form of a new system—a collection of processes, information, and technologies that provides a way of working. With the best of intentions, epic change begins with a grand design for a rosy future, a modern way of working that addresses most of the evils of the past. But no one knows what the business will look like in five years, and what curve balls will be dealt. Epic changes work best when they provide a new platform that is flexible enough to accommodate change for the coming years.

Grassroots change happens every day, whether you know it or not. When the established processes don’t work, customer issues stack up. We’re all hardwired to find a shortcut or workaround to address the specific problem at hand. If this means processing an order that creates an issue for the supply chain—or anyone else downstream—that’ll create systemic issues. If no real fix is created, workarounds accumulate, and your work system begins to atrophy. That makes day-to-day work progressively more challenging.

Upgrades are intentional

Fortunately, there’s a middle ground that managers can use to achieve a balance between operating and upgrading the team’s work processes.

With episodic change, you ensure that any upgrades to your team’s processes are channeled in small chunks. By adopting such minimalist change, you provide an opportunity for the team to focus on the best wins in concert. Rather than gaming an order as a shortcut to faster delivery times, the end-to-end team addresses the root cause—wherever that may lie.

A handful of simple changes can help you get the ball rolling:

  • Accommodate short-term fixes to ensure the day-to-day runs smoothly, but review these fixes periodically (monthly, weekly, or daily depending on the pace of business). Systems can be adjusted to address the root cause, rather than be allowed to atrophy.
  • Consult everyone, since your whole team wants to do better. Track their ideas and take appropriate action. Nuggets are guaranteed, and you’ll boost morale by engaging all team members—and acting on their suggestions. That way, everyone owns success.
  • Create a workstream for upgrading your operation. If you track colleagues’ time, set up a project code for each change. Allow everyone an allocation of time for this work. Track the results and adjust for your best returns.

You already have the team

Most businesses are staffed to operate efficiently—to do the day-to-day transactions and processing that bring home the bacon, pay salaries and rent, and fund any needed upgrades.

Taking on change without giving your best people the time to do the work sets everyone up for a big disappointment. But that doesn’t mean you have to rush out and hire. You can create capacity. Try this:

  1. Rank the 100 things your team needs to get done. Now imagine that you abandon the bottom 10%. What happens if these don’t get done? Are you still hitting your targets?
  2. Now rank the top three challenges that slow your team down. If you fixed one or more of these challenges, would you exceed your targets?

If you answer yes to both these questions, go ahead and drop the bottom 10% and invest your team’s newfound capacity in attacking those challenges. When you address the biggest time sink, you’ll create even more capacity to redirect into exceeding targets or upgrading again. Does that sound like a virtuous cycle?

There’s no secret sauce, silver bullet, or magic potion to resolve the tension between operating and upgrading. It’s a question of commitment. What operate/upgrade balance do you need to achieve your goals?

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About The Author

Graham Binks is CEO of primeFusion and helps his global client base make better use of technology. Over the course of three decades in tech, he has worked with over 250 businesses ranging from name brands like NIKE, P&G, and JP Morgan to many small/medium-sized businesses across North America, Europe and Asia. Binks is the author of three books, most recently Trusting Technology: Mastering Technology for Non-Tech Leaders (Post Hill Press, 2019).

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