Introduction to operations management
Introduction to operations management

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Introduction to operations management

3 What do operations managers really do?

In the next activity, you will take a practical look at the activities that operations managers perform as part of their daily duties. The interviews provide a good opportunity to study what operations managers do in practice, and compare the operations manager role across different sectors.

Activity 3: Assessing what operations managers do

Allow around 90 minutes for this activity

Before you watch the interviews in the videos below, look again at the input–process–output model and the section ‘What do operation managers do?’ of the reading [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (Walley, 2017).

Now watch Video 1, Video 2 and Video 3 in which different operations managers are interviewed about their role. Then answer the questions below.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 1: Interview with an operations manager in the private sector (Robin Howlett from Britvic)
Skip transcript: Video 1: Interview with an operations manager in the private sector (Robin Howlett from Britvic)

Transcript: Video 1: Interview with an operations manager in the private sector (Robin Howlett from Britvic)

The sector I work in here is what’s known as fast-moving consumer goods, FMCG, particularly beverages, soft drinks. In FMCG, we have customers and we have consumers. So the consumer is the individual who’s enjoying the drink, and the customer is the retailer.
So you might have grocery, you might have at home, you might have on-the-go. So we have customers in all of those. The biggest area is the grocery, which here are big supermarket chains. They are very demanding.
And in today’s environment, quite often we are set up to take an order and fulfil that order within 24 hours. And that can be on approaching 80% of our output. So that’s what we’re geared up for, and we’re very successful at it.
The volume will change seasonally throughout the year. Christmas is a big spike. Summer is a longer burn, but, yeah, it’s a big uplift. Our quieter times tend to be January after Christmas, January through to March. And that’s when we plan in quite a lot of our more intrusive maintenance on our lines to combine that, so the machines are always there available to run when they need to run.
Given the volumes that we deal with and the speed of response, a lot of it is organised well in advance, although our stock levels are very small. So we will have almost daily deliveries, sometimes during the day. It’s not stockless production, but we don’t have a huge raw material stock.
It’s planned through, I suppose you would call it, an enterprise resource planning, not wanting to mention which particular one. So you have bills, material, set-up. And then, when the planning is-- the planners will schedule things to happen during the day. We might plan a week in advance, but then on the actual day itself, restructure that plan.
It’s all done via computers. It’s done via ERP systems. There’s telemetry systems as well with some ingredient suppliers, so they know exactly how much we might have in a silo or a tank, for instance. Yes, it has to be specially coordinated.
Recently, we’ve had some environmental considerations to deal with. Just yesterday, we had a storm go through the UK, which caused some congestion on motorways. Local things like that do require a lot of intensive effort to ensure we don’t either starve of materials or cause a blockage because we can’t deliver.
There are lots of materials involved in the drinks. There are materials that go into the drain itself. There are materials that go into the packaging to ensure the integrity of the drink until they can get to the consumer. And there are other materials used actually in that transport process.
So if we took a few, so you’d have fruit juices, you’d have CO2 to give the fizz if it’s a carbonated drink. Obviously, there’s water. There may be some additional flavours. There are, on some drinks, some stabiliser and preservative systems. On other drinks, it’s entirely aseptic, so the main ingredient there is no bugs in the manufacturing environment.
So primary ingredients, that’s the liquids and the syrups. The primary packaging will be your preforms for you PT bottles, the caps, the labels, adhesives, also cans, and with the can comes the lid. Then the secondary packaging will be the packaging that holds those containers through to the retailer. It makes the case.
So it could be the tray, cardboard tray, a plastic shrink film on top of that. They get collated onto a pallet. The pallet, itself, could have a tertiary or third-level packaging around it, a shrink film, so that it doesn’t collapse when it’s being moved from, say, the warehouse onto the vehicle and during the vehicle’s run to the customer.
The process is extremely automated. On a typical production line, from the beginning of the syrup makeup to the goods being ready to go into the warehouse, you may have typically four or five people for the entire shift on that line. So now, you’re talking very small numbers.
So a typical day for an operations manager would comprise – we have a plan today. Some people call it Leader Standard Work. So the day will start, normally, with a shift handover meeting. So if you was a shift manager, you would be in a shift handover meeting.
Then, about an hour or so after that, you’d have the 24-hour daily meeting. And throughout the day, we have short-interval control meetings. So roughly every two or four hours, there will be a line side meeting as well.
So the day for a manager is fairly well-scripted. The meetings aren’t very long. They’re short and punchy with very clear agendas and clear outputs needed. In between, the managers have the time, then, to do whatever improvement activity needs to be done, or other planned tasks – maybe recruitment, maybe dealing with a supply issue. So the days, themselves, are fairly well-scripted.
The quality when you’re dealing with, especially, food ingredients, there’s a lot of regulation there, as you would expect. And that quality side begins way down the supply chain, so it’s very important when we’re dealing or thinking about a new item to bring in. There’s a lot of work gets done by the quality teams to assure that supply source. If they are established ingredients, then there’s an ongoing surveillance.
The quality side will also pick up to check that the blend is right so that there’ll be a recipe. It certainly involves some automated testing, as well, from the process streams, things like CO2, bricks, which is the sugar levels, can be automatically sensed in real time. But then, products might be taken samples, taste-tested as well.
There is automated fill levels. There’s lots of automation involved to sense that it is actually right every time. We couldn’t operate this sort of process without knowing precisely what’s going on.
Continuous improvement, certainly in our industry – and I guess it goes everywhere – is extremely important for all sorts of reasons. There’s always pressure on cost, so you have to continually improve to hold your margins. There’s changes in the external environment with, maybe, competition work, so you have to strive and work hard to maintain your position. So continuous improvement’s a given there. And of course, extra effort’s required to gain market share and to gain value for your shareholders.
Most of it’s team-based. So I mentioned earlier in the structured meetings a technique called short-interval control. That’s the start point, in a way. So every two hours or more, people are thinking about the previous two hours, they might be thinking about the next two hours, and what can they change and improve even at that level.
Then there are weekly forums across all the shifts for looking back and looking at trends, how things are going. And we always involve the process operators, whether it’s in an office or on the line, in the improvement of their task. They are the very best-placed people to do it.
So we don’t have so much specialists. We have to involve, and use, and utilise all of our people doing it. It’s very much a team-based thing.
End transcript: Video 1: Interview with an operations manager in the private sector (Robin Howlett from Britvic)
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Video 1: Interview with an operations manager in the private sector (Robin Howlett from Britvic)
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Download this video clip.Video player: Video 2: Interview with an operations manager in the service sector (Kate Bailey)
Skip transcript: Video 2: Interview with an operations manager in the service sector (Kate Bailey)

Transcript: Video 2: Interview with an operations manager in the service sector (Kate Bailey)

My background in operations is working in manufacturing. So I have experience of working in both contract electronics for a global contracts electronics manufacturer, but I also work for Toyota as well. I now work in management consultancy. And I work with clients in the service sector, so retail, financial services. And I support clients in delivering better processes to meet their customer needs.
The work that I’m involved in is often where a client has a particular challenge. So for example, in retail, they may not be delivering on time to their particular customer. So often, they ask me to come in and help and understand what barriers they have in their operation in meeting what it is that their customer’s asking for.
Yes, I do see myself as an operations manager. I have to manage my own operation in delivering the service that the clients want from me.
So the clients, they are often demanding. Often, they’ve got a very – or they’re at a crisis point, so they need to make real improvements to their business, because they’re failing to meet the demands of their customers, or they’ve got a serious problem that they’re trying to solve. So my job is, actually, to help them understand what that problem is, to work their way through that crisis, and actually allow them to deliver better operations to serve their customers better.
First of all, we have to understand what the client’s problem is. So that will involve diagnostic – understanding their processes, understanding what’s happening in their particular operations, and what’s going wrong for them.
So my background is in lean thinking. So I use the lean framework, often, to diagnose problems. So often, this is actually just trying to understand the processes, what the actual processes are, what the inputs to those processes are, and whether those processes are performing.
So for example, if it’s they’re trying to deliver a service to the customer in a particular time, is that process actually delivering it in that time, on-time delivery. A lot of the time, we’re mapping out the process. We’re mapping out, what’s the inputs to that process, what’s actually going on in that particular process, and then what are the actual outcomes of that process? Is it delivering whatever’s needed for the customer?
What I find is that the common mistakes in any operation is that they look at the financial outputs of the process. So they often look at how much money we’re making, what’s the revenue, or what’s the cost of the process, rather than actually looking at how well the actual process is actually performing. So it’s often looking at metrics which have passed, rather than looking at how the process is actually currently capable of delivering value.
Sometimes it’s even not measuring quality, or not really, sometimes, understanding what quality means for their particular operation. So often find, they don’t even have quality measures. So it’s really sometimes difficult to understand how well that process is actually delivering that quality if you don’t measure it.
So yeah, there is common mistakes around process design. Often, operations is overlooked in any organisation, and they expect the processes to, sometimes, emerge, rather than thinking strategically about how those processes should deliver the value to the customer, how they should be constructed.
A common mistake is, they’re not designing a process for the people who are actually going to deliver that process. And often, the processes can be overly complex or too administrative, and people often, then, find it very difficult to follow a particular process. And it’s then no surprise that the operation doesn’t meet its objectives.
I support the idea that continuous improvement is absolutely vital for any operation today. The markets, whichever market you’re in – retail, financial services – all highly competitive markets. And the only way that you can actually keep ahead of your competitors is to continually improve. So any operations manager has to consider continuous improvement as a core part of their role.
A day in the life of an operations manager in a service environment is very much around, what does the customer need on a day-to-day basis? So if you’re a manager of a contact centre, for example, you are ensuring that the calls are being answered in a timely manner, that the customers’ needs are being met, so whatever queries or questions that they have, that they are being answered successfully.
So on a day-to-day basis and on an hours-by-hour basis, there will be a set of metrics that they will be looking at. They’ll be looking at how many calls are coming in, how many calls have been answered, and the average time for those calls to be answered. And it’s trying to understand, in the hour-to-hour, what issues are actually rising, and how, then, can they fix them there and then to make sure that they continue to deliver the service to their customer.
End transcript: Video 2: Interview with an operations manager in the service sector (Kate Bailey)
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Video 2: Interview with an operations manager in the service sector (Kate Bailey)
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Download this video clip.Video player: Video 3: Interview with an operations manager in the public sector (John Nelms, Hertfordshire Police)
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Transcript: Video 3: Interview with an operations manager in the public sector (John Nelms, Hertfordshire Police)

I’m what’s called the Force Duty Officer, in a police control room. So I’m responsible for the operations of any policing operation running across the whole county. So, anything that requires a police response, it is my responsibility to make sure that we deploy the right resources to it in the right time and we get the right result out of that.
So my role as the operations manager, if you like in, the police control room is to monitor all the jobs that are coming in, make sure that my team have applied the correct priorities to it – so they’ve assessed the threat, the harm, and the risk of every job – and, based on that, make sure we prioritise the jobs and we’re sending the right people to do the right job at the right time. So we’re sending people to do the high-risk jobs first, and anything that’s low-risk is put to the back of the queue. It’s still kept an eye on, but it’s not dealt with in the same priority as something as a high risk. So my job, really, is to check on the prioritisation of the jobs and make sure that we minimise the risk to people by sending the right resources for the right jobs.
We have to make sure we assess the risk of the job properly, to make sure the job is done right. If we get the assessment of the risk wrong, the whole job goes wrong. The resources within the operations centre, again, vary greatly on the amount of demand we’re expecting to get. So, at our peak times, when we’re expecting a lot of phone calls, usually again Friday and Saturday late turns, we can have up to 20, 25 people taking calls in here, a similar amount of people dispatching the resources and controlling the jobs, plus supervisors. At our low-demand periods in here, we can run down to probably four or five call handlers taking the phone calls and anything around 10 people actually dispatching and controlling the resources.
The range of resources we control are very extensive. So, right from a foot patrol officer walking the streets of one of the towns, any patrol cars, anything on the motorway, some motorway patrol cars, right up through dog units, firearms, up to helicopters, anything that the police can deploy to an instant is deployable to myself, through the operations centre.
The amount of resources we control on a daily basis depends greatly on how many calls we’re expecting to come in and what is happening. So that can vary from Friday late turn, when we’ve got a lot of nighttime economy issues with pubs and clubs. And we can have anything up to 200 officers available to be deployed outside, whether it be on foot, in cars, dogs, firearms, helicopter, whatever we need. That can then vary greatly to 2 o’clock on a Sunday night, when there are very few calls coming into the operations centre, when we can have maybe as low as 20, 25 officers available across the county to deploy.
The reason for being, for any police force, is protection of the public, reassurance of the public, and preventing and detecting crime. So the output is that we do those things, that we protect the public, the public feel reassured by what their police force is doing, and that we prevent and detect crime. So, everything we do is designed to do one of those things.
They expect us to respond to their phone call. So, when they ring us, we should be answering the phone call as quickly as possible. We should understand what they want from us and ask them the right questions, so that we can get the full details, so that we can assess what’s going on and what the risk is. And then, the reassurance to the public is making sure that they know what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it, and they feel we are taking it seriously and acting on their behalf to deal with whatever problem they might have.
There is no typical day in what we do in policing. It is purely based on what happens when that phone call comes in. It can be a very, very quiet day, with no crimes being reported, no antisocial behaviour being reported, no traffic accidents coming in, or all things can happen at the same time.
So we have had days when we’ve had serious crimes come in at the same time as we’re dealing with a motorway accident. We’ve had high-risk missing people at the same time as we’re dealing with a petrol tank had broken down on the motorway. It depends greatly on what happens at any one time. You cannot predict what is going to happen at any one time, in this job.
So, if I run you through a job, from start to finish. So we may have a call from a supermarket, saying that someone’s stolen some food from the supermarket and they’ve run off down the street, being chased by the store detective. Fairly common. Happens in most town centres, three or four times a day, every day.
We would send foot officers and officers in cars, to try and find the person. We’d also send an officer to the supermarket, to check the crime scene. A theft in a supermarket is a fairly low-level crime.
But if the crime’s just happened and the offender is running away, there’s a good chance of catching them and detecting their crime straight away. So we treat it quite important. So we send the officers to it. They would try and find the person and hopefully find them and arrest them.
They then have got to take that person to a police station, to the custody unit. And, as well as doing that, we’ve also got to get people to go to the shop and take statements, look at CCTV, find other witnesses to the crime, to make sure we can prove the case later on.
End transcript: Video 3: Interview with an operations manager in the public sector (John Nelms, Hertfordshire Police)
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Video 3: Interview with an operations manager in the public sector (John Nelms, Hertfordshire Police)
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  • Apply the input–process–output model to each of the operations discussed.

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By now you should be able to apply the input–process–output framework well to each of the operations described in the videos. You can see that Robin Howlett has to manage a small number of people but the factory and distributions centres are highly automated, with lots of capital equipment. The focus is very much on keeping the plant running so that it meets its market demands and return-on-investment obligations. Robin also has to deal with input resources from outside the organisation in what is called a supply chain. You may have been surprised how many separate ingredients and packaging items there are within this supply chain. In this example, the process is readily identifiable and you can see the resources flowing through steadily. The outputs are fairly easy to define (packs of drinks).

The police example shows the real contrast between the manufacturing and the pure service process. John Nelms provides a list of inputs to the process, showing the range of resources they control both inside and outside of the operations centre. They have resources such as dog units and helicopters within their range of resources. John also describes of one of their processes – the detection and arrest of a shoplifter. You may have realised that there is much more variety in both processes and outputs in this service compared with the FMCG.

In the case of public sector operations, outputs can be tricky to define and there can be problems defining who the customer is. For a police service, who is the customer? The person being transformed is often someone who has been arrested, not the general public who pay for the service. This separation of participant, payer and beneficiary is one of the additional complexities of public sector operations.

Kate Bailey’s discussion allows you to think about management consultancy as an operation, with the inputs of skilled people, complex processes of interacting with clients and the wide range of customised outputs of solutions and advice to customers. Kate also highlights one of the biggest mistakes that managers make – they frequently don’t pay sufficient attention to the design of their processes.

  • What tasks do the three managers spend time on most days? Does this vary by type of operation in any way?
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You can produce an extensive list of tasks that the operations managers have identified and the generic problems can be very similar in each of the operations. One good way of listing these is to follow the example of Slack et al. (2007) and use the three types of activity – design, planning and control, and improvement – to classify these operations management tasks. You will have seen this in the reading.

Design tasks Planning and control Improvement
Product/service design Workforce planning New product introduction
Layout and flow Shift patterns Continuous improvement
Work allocation Team-based working
Scheduling of orders
Capacity plans
Stock control
Quality planning and control
Error correction

All the operations managers mention some aspects of planning and control. The police operations involved rapid response to high risk incidents and prioritisation of work. The FMCG example showed how the operation was often only given 24 hours to respond to an order from a large retailer. All of the operations experienced fluctuation in demand, often through seasonal patterns, based on factors such as time of day, day of week and weather patterns. All of this complexity and variety needs to be managed. All of these operations would be easier to manage if there was no seasonality or variety. This highlights that operations managers often see change and innovation as a disruption to an otherwise stable process.

Robin Howlett explained the changing role of the operations manager where there is now much more emphasis on continuous process improvement.

  • What do the managers say about coping with innovation and change?
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One thing is clear from each of the interviews: operations managers much prefer stability and repetition to constant change of processes and outputs. In the case of the manufacturing example, the introduction of new products or platforms means that parts of the process need to be entirely reconfigured over a considerable period of time. During the transition period, there are problems with coping with much greater complexity and variety in the process. In the service operation the managers need to think about employee knowledge and skills, any redesigning of the process or layout (because this often includes a change to the service concept) and issues of obsolete stock.

A key issue is that the external environment often changes faster than operations can adapt. Similarly, there are internal pressures to cope with new ideas or innovation, such as new product introductions. As Walley (2017) states, operations managers are often responsible for the delivery of strategy or ideas, even when they have had little or no involvement with them. Those outside the operations function have to understand the time, skill and effort it takes for operations to be adapted to these change requirements.


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