The Importance and Requirement of Standardizing Operational Practices

Large businesses often operate in a number of geographically-dispersed facilities, which typically overlap in terms of the services provided or products produced. Moreover, these businesses regularly serve the same customers out of a number of different facilities, especially if the customers span a large geography. And despite the logistical challenges of managing multiple locations, all customers rightly have high expectations around consistency in terms of quality, customer service, and customer reporting, no matter what facilities are involved in their product or service delivery.

Unfortunately, too many companies still operate in a disjointed environment where either legacy, a false interpretation of the concept of empowerment, or the singular perspective of the individual plant manager determines the organization’s processes and procedures. This approach, however, hinders corporations from achieving their full potential in terms of customer service and return-on-capital-employed.

Universal Operating Structure is Key Success

The implementation of a rigorous and prescriptive universal operating structure is the most effective way to guarantee the highest level of standardization and scalability to deliver the greatest operational efficiencies and best performance against relevant customer KPIs.

Jozef, ‘Jos’, Opdeweegh has been a CEO of large international companies for close to two decades and recognizes the importance of standardizing operational practices for optimal efficiency. In the following, he shares his perspective and insights on the importance and hallmarks of standardized operational procedures.

Aligning Interconnected Facilities

When a company operates a number of geographically-dispersed facilities, they are likely interconnected in one or more of the following ways. They may share a supplier/customer relationship, with one facility producing components that are used further down in the assembly or production process in another company-operated facility. In other cases, such as in the distribution industry, facilities are interconnected as the products are collected and stored, or cross-docked, in various locations. More simply, the organization may serve the same customer out of different facilities.

In the case of interconnected facilities, though important, it is arguably not the average performance of the company against a number of critical customer KPIs that is most relevant. Instead, the variance around the mean, and specifically the negative outliers, is the most relevant component. While these worst performers will mathematically drag down the average performance of the company against relevant KPIs, they will have an even more harmful impact on the customer’s perception of the quality of operations. The quality of the end product is only as good as the weakest link in the chain.

Scalability of the Platform

Since it is a strategic imperative of companies to grow, companies with a dispersed landscape of operating entities will typically increase the number of facilities and its geographic reach over time. In an environment where a consistent operating system is successfully deployed, launching incremental facilities becomes a much easier task. The platform is much more scalable, as the processes and procedures that determine how the operations and support functions inside the new facility will be organized are already largely determined. Some minor tweaking may be required to accommodate a new service offering, a new product design, or different customer requirements, but the core of the proven solution will already be solidified.

Mobility of Human Talent

When a standardized operating system is in place, human talent is much more interchangeable and transferrable. Since the company’s professionals have been trained in a standardized environment, they can easily and efficiently be deployed to fill talent gaps in other operations in the group or to help address quality deficiencies in sister facilities. Additionally, these resources are ideal in helping to launch new facilities in different geographies, or new service or production offerings as knowledge is portable, universally deployable, and highly valuable.

Continuous Improvement

In a standardized operating environment, continuous improvement is a key imperative. Whether the improvement initiative finds its origin in one of the company’s facilities where a colleague has devised a better way of performing a specific task, or in an idea that emanates from a continuous improvement team, once the idea has been tried and tested it should be rolled out and deployed throughout the entire organization. In the standardized environment, nobody can take a shortcut. A bad idea will not be implemented in any location, and a good idea will find its way to all locations.

As such, to provide the best service to customers in the most cost efficient and effective manner, Jos Opdeweegh suggests placing a dedicated focus on the development and implementation of a comprehensive set of processes and procedures from the outset.

Executives Serve the Organization, not the other way around

inverted pyramid leadership graphic

A successful organization is dependent on several factors, one of the biggest being internal organizational structure. When running a business, big or small, this is one of the first elements needed to function, yet often times it’s overlooked and falls victim to outdated values. 

It’s imperative for executives of a company to reverse how they may naturally be inclined to run their organization and create an organizational structure that is rooted in the customer and employees. 

The outdated hierarchical structure

In a traditional strict hierarchy, decision-making is the sole prerogative of a select group of senior leaders in the organization. It’s an approach that centralizes power and is steeped in the erroneous belief that a happy few leaders are best placed to make the right decisions for the company on a strategic, tactical, and even day-to-day level. 

This pyramidal structure is a very autocratic and even militaristic approach to running an organization, whereby decisions are pushed down on colleagues without the solicitation of input or the willingness to listen to other ideas and approaches. As a consequence, the creativity and the valuable input of those in the organization who are closer to the challenge or the problem that needs to be addressed, gets lost. And over time, the organization numbs down and resigns to the limitations of the hierarchical structure.

Shortfalls of the traditional hierarchy

Beyond being an antiquated organizational structure, hierarchical leadership also unleashes many obstacles and stumbling blocks on a company, further complicating and hamper achievement of key goals. 

Negative impacts on employee morale.

Colleagues prefer to work in an environment that is inclusive, in a structure that values their input and contribution. The workforce of a company consists of individuals with varying backgrounds and experiences whose input enhances the long-term success of the company. People want much more from their professional life than the sheer repetition of a number of narrowly defined tasks, or the execution of top-down instructions without debate or input. A strict hierarchy leaves colleagues with the feeling of being underutilized and undervalued. It negatively impacts the feeling of overall wellbeing and belonging in the extended family that constitutes a successful company.

Employee churn and loss of talent.

Companies that adhere to a strict hierarchy are engaging in paradoxical behavior. On one hand, their human resources department is likely spending a tremendous amount of effort and monetary resources to try to identify and recruit the best possible talent. On the other hand, once the talent has been on-boarded, the organization has little interest in the individual contribution of the valuable new recruits. This will lead to a situation where the high potentials quickly get frustrated with the culture they are forcefully being inundated with and will decide to leave the organization in due time. 

The road to mediocrity.

The combination of a scenario where an organization stymies creativity through centralized top-down decision-making will over time create a workforce that is mediocre in terms of overall quality and core behaviors. The high potentials will leave the organization, frustrated because of their lack of ability to influence to company’s decisions and direction. At the same point in time, the company – through its performance management tools – will decide to part company with the worst performing co-workers. In balance, those who will survive in the long term are those who never challenge the status quo, who are risk adverse and non-inquisitive.

Suboptimal decision making.

Top-down decision making, without regard for the input and knowledge of those colleagues who are much closer to the issue and much more qualified to make or at least contribute to the right decision, is by definition suboptimal. Why would somebody come forward with a novel angle to an issue or an opportunity if that person knows that the sound advice will fall on deaf ears? A number of key considerations and knowledge sources that would greatly enhance the quality of the decision are lost. Therefore, decisions that are made in isolation and pushed down to the mass organization are unbalanced and uninformed.

The shift to the inverted pyramid and servant leadership 

Rather than applying an outdated steep hierarchy, executives should try to come to grips with the reality that the company does not revolve around them, but around its valuable customers and its hard-working colleagues. The leadership team really is in essence an enabler, an instrument to create an environment that guarantees the largest probability of success for the company and its key stakeholders: customers, colleagues, investors, and lenders. 

In organizational structure, which can best be described as “the inverted pyramid”, customer and customer-facing colleagues are viewed as the most important asset of the company. As we go down on the pyramid, we see the executives all the way at the bottom, as an indication of the reality that their primary task is to serve the organization and all of its constituencies. 

Customer-centric values 

In addition to the notion that the leadership works for the organization and its valued colleagues – not the other way around – the inverted pyramid also squarely puts the customers at the center of its purpose. Without the customers, the company has no reason to exist. In this context, it’s important to note that every individual is a salesperson for the organization. Driving consistent core behaviors, a positive attitude, and a high level of engagement with the workforce are the best possible ways for supporting incremental sales. 

When a prospective customer is looking to source business with a new provider, they are not looking for yet another glossy presentation. They want to experience in practice whether what is being portrayed in the sales deck matches the reality on the shop floor. Nothing will convince that prospective buyer more than a visit to a state-of-the-art facility that is already in operation and that is populated with a knowledgeable and enthusiastic workforce that can energetically articulate what processes they are responsible for, and how their hard work fits into the bigger strategic direction of the company.

Implementing a solid organizational structure will create a positive ripple effect that will reverberate throughout a company all the way to its customers. Success cannot happen if there is not a strong inner foundation for employees to be proud of and support, and this all begins by flipping the organizational pyramid.

Why Companies Make Harmful Decisions

why companies make bad decisions Jos Opdeweegh

In posing that question, I’m not referring to those infamous bad calls like Decca records rejection of The Beatles, or Blockbuster’s rebuff of a joint venture with Netflix. These are human mistakes — and with the benefit of hindsight, we can all of us believe we’d have made a smarter choice.

Rather, what interests me is why, given all the checks and balances, so many companies appear to take carefully thought through decisions that actively harm the interests of their stakeholders?

A Harvard Business Report estimated that up to 90 percent of all mergers and acquisitions fail; similar claims can be made for internal transformation projects, especially in the IT and digital sphere. Whatever way you look at the problem, it seems that despite access to the smartest minds, sophisticated forecasting tools and due diligence warnings, business leaders continue to get it wrong.

Observation has taught me there’s no single explanation. But after twenty years of corporate decision making — and with the scars to prove it — I’ve at least become attentive to some of the warning signs.

What follows are therefore my insights from experience. Interpret them as you wish, for every situation will be different — which leads nicely to my first observation, that gets straight to the root of the problem.

Business Complexity

The unfortunate reality is that many strategic decisions are not as binary as whether or not to award a recording contract — rather, they are multifaceted, involving forecasts of markets, competitors, savings and synergies… And what’s more, many of the situations are particular to circumstance, so references are seldom available or even helpful if they were.

In these sorts of complex situations, we all of us — and organizations are no different — resort to simplified solutions that allow for a quicker way through the maze. Academics call these heuristics — we know them as rules of thumb, best estimates, benchmarking and the like.

The trouble with heuristics, is that although they are to some extent inevitable, we risk addressing a simpler problem than the one we face — and worse, our biases and preferences creep into the proposed solution to issues that have been framed for our convenience rather than the reality of the situation.

One antidote — so far as any is effective — is to be extremely careful when simplifying or estimating significant variables. Any benchmarks we chose and assumptions we make, must also be modeled over a wide range of outcomes. The greatest danger of heuristics is actually a regression to the mean where risks and opportunities are smoothed into a safe bet which, in the event, turns out to be anything but.

Human Impulsiveness

Linked to our tendency to simplify, is a pressure to act — fueled by a deeply ingrained corporate mindset that regards not doing so as a missed opportunity or cultural failing. Organizations increasingly demand that their leaders move at pace, and while this has its benefits, it can also lead to premature decisions that are ahead of the curve.

In transformational projects, the term ‘bleeding edge’ refers to the impact of decisions — typically, those involving the early adoption of technology — which lead to unexpected costs and consequences which harm rather than enhance competitiveness. The underlying reason is that supposed ‘first-mover advantage’ inevitably comes with significantly greater risks. In almost any sizeable market, the lesson of case study after case study is that a little more patience would often have led to a better outcome.

To some extent, this is as much an institutional as an individual problem. I often sense that companies weigh the ‘regret risk’ of missed opportunities more heavily than they do the years of successful delivery. Investors — like sports fans — are both impatient for success and quick to point out the triumphs of others. What they are less good at doing, is recognizing the potential for pitfalls and giving due regard to the judgment of those who avoid them.

There is no cure-all solution to impulsiveness, but it is good practice to ensure decisions can be made over sensible timeframes, to resist the pressure to lead on every front, and to establish agreed expectations for investment and return over time — and then stick to them!

Reward versus Risk

At the heart of the type of decisions we’re discussing is the assessment of risk versus reward.

Of course, no opportunity of any consequence is a certainty — investors, colleagues and customers all understand that. It’s also fair to say that most successful executives need to be less risk averse than say, librarians. But while that’s a good thing, my experience is that risk and reward assessments are often made in a manner which gives undue weight to one over the other.

Think for a moment of all those inspirational quotes you’ve seen at management conferences: Whatever you dream, begin it — for boldness has power and magic! (Goethe); Security is mostly superstition… (Hellen Keller); Do not fear mistakes; there are none!’ (Miles Davis)

Extracts like these can be fine as a means to inspire a sales team or encourage creativity, but their underlying message can — and in my experience often does — contribute to a mindset which lionizes risk taking.

I’m not suggesting that the potted wisdom of Miles Davis is taken too literally by senior executives. But when it comes to major strategic decisions, the notion that boldness equates to virtue remains a powerful force, and a significant hindrance to a full and objective assessment of downside consequences.

The dream of reason

We should also recognize that objectivity is more of an attitude than a destination we ever arrive at. The belief that we can accurately predict the future through analysis and situational modeling alone has been the downfall of many an economist — or for that matter politician.

In practice, we live in a less than rational, often emotional, and certainly disruptive world — companies and organizations can never fully predict the response of others, or indeed, the impact of change on their people and its consequent effect on a multitude of other factors. Which is why softer considerations are just as vital.

Culture and Communications

In analyzing harmful decisions, the diagnosis often points less to the actions we have taken, than the way we went about them.

For example, bringing together two organizations might seem straightforward on paper — but as with personal relationships, there’s more to a good match than aligning compatible skills and qualities. Too many mergers are predicated on the assumption that the mores of one party can be imposed on the other — giving scant regard to the importance of culture, communication and values as drivers of performance.

Successful ventures pay attention to these softer qualities, avoiding the imposition of changes that are diametrically opposed to the past, or rewarding individuals with extended remits for which they have little understanding.

The same cultural empathy should apply to for our search for synergies, sales growth or even colleague engagement — we should not assume that crashing together, or worse, imposing one style on the other, will bring success.

Think Borg and McEnroe — both exceptional tennis players, but not the most compatible doubles pairing.

Imbalance of stakeholders

This understanding of partnership is never more important than in the balance of stakeholder interests. All commercial organizations have at least three key constituencies: their investors, employees and customers. And while all of these will want the company to prosper, they each have subtly different needs and emphasis.

Successful organizations make decisions in a way that ensures all stakeholders take a fair share of the risks and rewards. That means investors accepting there are other calls on cash than paying dividends; employees understanding that job security comes from embracing change, and customers having realistic expectations on price and value despite the leverage they may have.

Conversely, if the interests of one stakeholder group begins to dominate, it can be a green light to harmful decision making. Over the lifecycle of a business, there will, of course, be times of different emphasis — but on the whole, sustainable decisions are founded on meeting the needs of each constituency, while avoiding the ascendancy of any.

And finally…

I could go on with a host of other reasons…

But I’m conscious there’s a limit to the value of observations from experience, and particularly aware that hindsight makes prophets of us all — or in my case, the best Monday morning quarterback to never grace the field.

Perhaps the most important thing, in seeking to understand why so many companies make harmful choices, is to recognize it’s not the corporate entity that makes those decisions at all — it is people!

And as human beings, we are all of us in equal part blessed and susceptible to the paradoxical mix of talents, frailties and hubris that drive our exceptional achievements as well as our greatest mistakes.