Improving operations in the digital age
In a previous article, we discussed how automated business operations are an idealized goal for small business owners operating in a digitized economy.
In that regard, large improvements can be made with the strategic deployment of software across business functions, which would help reduce manual human interventions outside of the digital workflow to reduce the technical debt.
Please be assured that our goal is never to replace humans completely. The idea is to operate with a greater degree of efficiency and knowledge. Making operations efficient across your organization not only saves you money, it frees up your employees to perform tasks that they are better equipped to do and should be focused on anyway, such as providing customers with a personalized experience or pitching new ideas for business improvements.
Our recommendations are grounded on the philosophy of valuing your employees and inspiring them to help move your business forward. Given the technological advances in automation across all sectors and business functions and knowing that this trend will only continue to flourish, asking your employees to perform repetitive, mundane tasks is an exercise in futility. If you allow it to continue, it will ultimately say more about your business model than the person who fulfills that specific job for you.
Let’s demystify operations as a mind-numbing task. Instead, think of it as the connective tissue that spans the interactions between your business and your customers.
Here are some ways to help you move faster and more nimbly:
Overview of Operational Improvements
In general, the following checklist provides a transformation roadmap for a small business owner looking to implement business automation within the organization:
- Name an operations manager (or managers) to lead the charge toward developing operational improvements and implementing them within your organization.
- Work with your operations manager to align your employees and teams around specific customer objectives and experiences, not your internal business functions.
- Identify time-intensive tasks bearing little business value, prioritize them to be replaced with technologies in the initial go-around.
- Educate yourself and your team on “Agile” methodologies to improve the speed and effectiveness of the changes at your company.
- Whenever you add a digital asset to your company operations, align your team around it.
- Create and foster an inclusive culture of change and innovation among your employees.
- Keep “centralized” versus “decentralized” philosophies at the back of your mind.
We will discuss each of these steps in turn below.
1. Name Your Operations Manager(s)
The person or people in charge of operations is tasked with “making stuff happen.” It is their responsibility to understand the internal changes required to enact a new strategy and help you build the business capability to change quickly and effectively. That being said, the steps outlined below will help make this person successful:
- Encourage in times of ambiguity: Change is a journey. Many people struggle while traveling between A and B. Though your operations managers may be in charge of making things happen, your patience during the process is equally important. It will not help to throw them under the bus when change feels difficult or something inevitably goes wrong.
- Ensure trust and honest communication with the operations manager and other employees: It is essential for your organization to adopt and provide effective feedback, otherwise it will stunt your organization’s performance. The way your employees communicate back and forth and make decisions will eventually become your organization’s culture. If the foundation is negative, it will be difficult to undo.
- Create and maintain accessible communication, education, and documentation: Smaller teams often start with Google Suite accounts because of its ease of use, affordability, and integration of email, chat tools, video meetings, and file storage. You can supplement tools you don’t like with communication platforms like Slack, Microsoft Teams, etc. The point here is that all employees should know where to access important information, know where to look out for alerts, and be able to reach each other in a timely and professional manner.
2. Align Your Employees’ Focus toward Customer Specific Goals
- The most important task for your operations manager: Your operations manager needs to take on the task of changing the focus of your employees and teams – not merely concentrating on internal business functions but striving to address specific customer objectives and helping enhance customer experiences.
- Map the customer journey for your business: Do this for both the pre- and post-purchase experience. This will also help you identify and enhance the important touch points you have with your customer.
- Map your business’ tools and services to the customer journey: Not only will this help you understand how your business enables the customer experience, but it’ll help you spot the gaps where you aren’t helping the customer.
- Think about what your customer is trying to achieve across each step in the journey, focus on the problems and emotions along the way: Your competitive edge will emerge based on how you overcome those barriers in comparison to your competition.
- Reframe your team’s responsibilities to the sections of the customer experience where it makes sense to fully engage: This will help organize the goals of your employees to the customer and what they’re trying to accomplish—ultimately, they will focus on improving your conversion of new customers.
- Set customer-oriented goals to measure your team’s effectiveness in addition to sales targets: Create opportunities to get feedback from customers about their experience across the vital areas of your business. Use this feedback to start back up at the top and iterate on this process.
3. Identify and Prioritize the Tasks to Automate
This is where the “automated operations” initiative starts to come into play, as you begin to automate low-value, time-intensive tasks that are eating up your employees’ working hours.
- Map out your employees’ main tasks: How much time do these tasks take? How impactful are these tasks in terms of the end value provided to customers?
- Look at low-value, time-intensive tasks that affect multiple employees: These areas will highlight your operational sinks that help hold your company and employees back from meaningful and positive change.
- Research technologies that help replace, automate, or improve low value tasks: The time saved in business operations will enable your employees to work on new company initiatives and also improve their skills. In this context, you should consider the fact that business software typically contains product extensions or a product suite that will help identify capabilities to learn about and potentially plan for.
- Choose your preferred method for ranking technologies: You can, by yourself or with help from a trusted consultant, create a matrix where you score technologies across factors important to your business. Some common examples include ranking technologies based on cost (implementation and operational), technical difficulty, and business impact. Additionally, you could utilize an ROI modeling method to rank order priorities.
- Request information and demos from technology vendors and have them pitch to you: Once you have a clear idea about what you need the new technology to accomplish, find possible vendors and then make sure to ask detailed questions. Understand the utility and scope for sure, but also get a sense for their customer service. A transaction like this, which would transform your business, works best as a partnership. That is never a one-way street.
4. Educate Yourself and Your Team on Agile Methodologies
For decades now, development teams have utilized Agile project methodologies to increase the speed at which their teams learn to ultimately adapt and utilize better tech products. These methods have, and will continue to be, ingrained into corporations.
- Name an Agile champion in your organization and support their certification: You may already have a current or would-be project manager who could benefit from this experience. Ensure a learning plan for other employees as well, if you believe they can help implement the right changes in your organization.
- If you haven’t already done so, invest in a modern project management tool: Project management tools are as effective as the teams that support and run them, so keep your employees’ work styles in mind when you make your choices.
- Tread the line carefully when customizing: The most common examples of Agile technologies that get implemented are Scrum and Kanban, although many organizations end up developing their own versions based on their requirements and work culture. While tweaks should be made to find the right cadence for the team, straying too far will backfire.
- Document project guidelines and charters: Capabilities such as project management should be treated as an asset—thus, they need to be groomed and well-documented. This also helps while onboarding new employees.
5. Align Your Team Goals to Digital Asset(s) You Have Added
If customers can begin to transact with your company in a new manner—for example, via an owned or paid app, website, loyalty programs, or email lists—make sure that your team is driving customers forward, reinforcing and assisting through these new channels. Not doing so will create inconsistent experiences and confuse customers.
- Have a list of “power users” or important customers who can provide thorough feedback during the development and rollout process: Investing in new digital channels should be driven by your customer’s demands, not blind faith or “gut feelings.” Having detached external stakeholders involved in the process will provide a great voice of reason.
- Use your operations manager to help develop change guidelines: The technology additions may change the way your employees operate, along with specific responsibilities. Prior to rolling out your next business change, make sure that the change guidelines for your employees are determined and communicated BEFORE the change. You can then adjust, if needed, once the change is launched.
- Don’t forget about updated documentation!
6. Create and Foster an Inclusive Culture of Change and Innovation
Hierarchical, hostile, and monocultural management are practices we’re happy to see go. Also, it’s not enough to simply get rid of those barriers in your organization, you also have to inspire change. A wise colleague once told me, “Don’t manage change, make people run toward it.” Those are words to live by!
- Develop a vision for your future: Get your employees involved during, and fully vested in, a transformation process. This can be in the early stages of development or through providing constructive feedback on the drafts. Once you hear their feedback, mull over your options until you come up with the right answer for your company. The point here is to aim high, even for seemingly unachievable goals, and then strategically run toward it.
- Create semi-regular times for your team to share thoughts, think big, and be creative: Provide some structure around these sessions and define the objectives for how they are to be utilized, so that they revolve around the business but provide employees with the flexibility to dive into subjects they are passionate about. These sessions may spark new ideas that improve your business and more importantly, help your team rally around innovation.
- Have semi-regular business updates where employees can fully engage—for example, by running learning sessions: These often take the form of retreats, quarterly business reviews, etc. Not only do such meetings provide a sense of ownership, they also provide employees with opportunities to highlight their expertise and disseminate their viewpoints across the organization.
- When possible, support and sponsor growth and learning opportunities: Some great examples are online courses, books, and registering for conferences, business news, or industry news / group membership fees. These are relatively low-cost investments that have an accumulative learning effect and show your employees how serious you are about their growth.
7. Keep “Centralized” versus “Decentralized” Philosophies at the Back of Your Mind
As your organization grows and technologies and workflows become more complex, the lines of responsibilities will become foggier. This is especially the case if you operate more than one business, or if your business has multiple locations or storefronts.
Capabilities that were initially centralized may become bottlenecks to change in your organization. Conversely, having your two stores operate differently may have helped adoption in the local market, but now you may find that each operation has developed its own set of counterproductive problems that are expensive to remedy.
- Centralize components that “keep the lights on”: This is why you’ll often see HR departments, recruiters, and finance officers operate as tight groups within an organization.
- Centralize standards, distribute responsibilities: Let your experts manage the standards for your company’s specific processes while making sure that the employees involved understand the guidelines and are responsible for following them.
- Have clear sign-offs or approval procedures: Regardless of whether a workflow process is centralized or distributed, having a well-understood process for approval of a decision provides clarity and limits problems from “bubbling over” and reaching your customers. While it’s impossible to forecast every potential issue, asking “what-if” questions can be a useful exercise to forestall some preventable problems.
The Final Word
It is important to note that aside from making your business operate more efficiently, the recommendations above will likely provide you with a competitive edge in attracting employees—this is a leg up in a market where many are finding it hard to maintain a full staff. You are more likely to attract top talent because your company is more innovative but continues to value its employees’ perspectives and empowers their growth.
To summarize, a business’ operations are designed to provide answers for the “how” part that is implicit in “what” you’re trying to do. The “what” might be a technological or machinery-driven improvement, but we have focused here on the human implications of the change(s) to your business and on ensuring that the change happens effectively and rapidly.
Does this sound overwhelming? It doesn’t have to be.
Look to Unravel as a partner and coach to help you navigate this gray space.
Click on the “Post a Challenge” and “Schedule a Conversation” buttons to start a dialogue about doing just that. We would love to listen and learn about your most pressing change initiatives and discuss how they are progressing.
We know that we can add value, and we’re here to help. So be bold in your initiatives and reach out to us.