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What Makes a Good Operations Manager? April 30, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
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The other day someone posed an interesting question on a LinkedIn group discussion: What are the three most-important characteristics of a good operations manager? A lot of the discussions I’ve been following lately seem to be preoccupied with issues like this. What makes a good manager? What is the difference between management and leadership? I hate my manager, should I leave this company? How can we get rid of all the managers so we can get some real work done?

This particular question caught my attention because of the focus on “operations management,” which is a topic that doesn’t seem to get much notice. We tend to talk about management in general terms, without regard to the specific functional area. This suggests that whatever makes a person successful as a manager in one function will transfer and guarantee success elsewhere, whether in operations, engineering, finance, marketing, or project management.

I agree with that to some extent. I believe there are some universal core values and best practices that apply to anyone in a management role. We also expect managers to have some measure of domain expertise in their specific function that enables them to assess the performance of their subordinates, develop tactics, and occasionally contribute as a member of the team. In the specific case of an operations manager, this domain expertise would probably include things like supply chain management and lean manufacturing.

I think there’s more to it. The functions are fundamentally different, and successful management requires more than experience in that function. Here’s the answer that I gave, the three most-important characteristics of an effective operations manager:

(1) End-to-end understanding of the value delivery system for the business, specifically where value is added. The operations team is responsible for the delivering the product (or service) according to specifications, schedule, quality, and other customer requirements. Operations managers should have a clear understanding of what customers value, how the value delivery system meets those needs, and the critical elements that need to be actively managed.

(2) Alignment with the strategic/competitive positioning for the business, i.e., are we competing on cost, time-to-market, technology, or something else? Customers have their needs, and meeting those needs is obviously important, but the business has chosen to compete on some basis. Operations managers must make sure their systems and processes support the business’s ability to effectively compete.

(3) A commitment to measurable performance and continuous improvement. Just making sure that shipments are on-schedule is not enough. Operations managers should be actively looking for opportunities to improve, whether in cost, quality, or throughput.

 

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