Operational Improvement and You

From #104, January-February 2003

Operational Improvement and You

B Y   M E L   B R A V E R M A N

Once I asked a general manager, whose store had many operational and financial problems, how she decided her work priorities on a daily basis and for the longer term. She responded "I don't have to decide. I come to work and either my staff or someone on the phone let's me know my priorities." Having been a general manager, I understood her response--her priorities were the issues that were brought to her immediate attention. This is not unusual in a retail environment where we tend to react to what is in front of us. When there is a staff, customer, or vendor issue that is brought to us we try to resolve the issue quickly.

While this may make sense at the time (and at times it is very important to deal with the immediate issue), if we allow ourselves to be "manipulated" in this manner we may spend the majority of our time "putting our fingers in holes in the dike" without ever addressing the real issues that create so many holes. If we are content with working to maintain the status quo of our cooperatives this "what is in front of me" approach to priorities may prove adequate. But I can think of times when this approach would not even allow us to stay at current performance levels.

Early in my management career I was working at a store that had achieved significant financial success in a very short time frame. One day I was having coffee with a seasoned general manager who had been one of my mentors, and we were discussing how well my store was performing. When he asked me what my plans for the store's future were, I said I thought I'd just take it easy--things were going so well it seemed like a good time to relax. He hesitated for a moment and then said, "When things are going well, that is the most appropriate time to chart out future improvements." He went on to explain that when I have operational problems I probably will not have the ability to look to the future--I will be consumed with correcting the problems. I was a bit upset, since I thought I had achieved something and wanted to "coast" on that achievement. But as I thought more about it I realized he was absolutely correct in his stated approach.

I offer these two stories because the situations are so diverse--one store is experiencing significant problems and the other is experiencing surprising success. Yet neither general manager was looking towards the future and what could give their stores the greatest opportunity to obtain or maintain success. While the situations are different they both deserve the same response--a well-considered plan to improve the operations of their stores. If it is easy to understand the need for improvement when we are failing, it is also important to think about continuous improvement when we are experiencing success. In the first situation improvement is a necessity while in the second situation improvement is a golden opportunity.

Once we are committed to improving store operations, there are many reasons why we should spend time and energy in a planning process instead of just attacking the areas we feel would benefit from our attention. Some of those reasons are:

  • There is more than one way to accomplish a goal, and planning will allow us to choose the most appropriate course of action to achieve the desired improvements. Planning allows us to see potential impacts prior to their taking effect.
  • The planning process is an excellent tool to ensure that key personnel assist in formulating the improvement approach, which then creates greater opportunity for them to support the chosen approach.
  • Planning creates a roadmap to improvement so all staff may understand the direction the cooperative is moving and have the opportunity to offer suggestions to help create the best possible implementation approach. General managers must model the behaviors they want their staff to use.

Constructing an improvement plan is not very difficult if we use a well-thought-out approach. One approach I have used and recommend has the following four phases:

  • Assessing current performance.
  • Prioritizing areas you intend to improve.
  • Setting goals for areas of top priority.
  • Monitoring achievement and giving regular feedback.

One aspect of operational improvement not previously mentioned but that is very important: celebrate success! We may spend much time and energy formulating and implementing operational improvements. A healthy cooperative also spends time and energy appreciating its accomplishments and making sure the entire staff can feel good about the cooperative's achievements.

A four-phase approach to constructing an improvement plan

If the planning process is done well it can be a very valuable tool regardless of how many improvements the cooperative is able to accomplish. It can enhance staff knowledge of operational strengths and weaknesses, help department managers understand what similar departments in other stores are able to achieve, be a powerful team building tool, and become the blueprint for continuous improvement for years to come.

Another potential outcome of the planning process is the goals agreed to by each department manager can be used as the basis for their annual review. If each goal is monitored and both the department manager and their supervisor are communicating regularly about progress towards goal attainment, the annual review will hold no surprises.

The value of creating an operational improvement plan can be greater than the desired results of actualizing the plan. The need to improve our operations, whether we are basking in success or buried in problems, is constant.

Mel Braverman is a consultant working with Cooperative Development Services: [email protected].

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