Improve performance by asking one simple question
"Is what we do routine or unique?" That one question could lead to improvements in organizational structure, productivity and work satisfaction. To answer that question, you'll need to understand how to identify routine and unique work. In this post, I'll introduce the concept of "operational work" and "project work". If you don’t have any experience with these two concepts, I promise you’ll develop a "feel" for them within the next two minutes.
The following examples illustrate work that is best run like a project:
- The building of infrastructure such as roads, bridges and lines for water, oil, gas and electricity.
- Designing products like cars, electronics and software.
- Creating processes like the opening of a bank account, how to recruit employees and how to govern investments.
- Introducing services such as a bus route or a new government program.
Work required to make changes to any of the above may also be project work. Examples of such changes include producing a corrective action for a product defect or extending a line. These examples have one characteristic in common. The work and its result are both unique. Now let’s look at work that is typically not managed like a project.
Have you ever experienced work that is the same from one day to the next? Where work products are the same day in and day out? This is called operational work. Operational work typically consists of routine processes. A routine process is a series of actions that have been proven to generate consistent output given consistent input.
One of my close friends gave me the following example as a contrast between operational work and project work. The typical work you see in a restaurant is operational work. The serving staff greet and seat customers, take orders based on a standard menu, serve meals and take payments as they have countless times in the past. When the restaurant caters for an event like a wedding, that work may be treated like a project. It is treated like a project because the final product and the way it is ordered, prepared and delivered is different from what the restaurant has done in the past. In fact, it is not only different; it is unique.
Think about it
Close your eyes and imagine a typical restaurant during a very busy time. A customer walks in and asks for a special event to be catered. The manager tells one of the serving staff, who has no experience other than waiting on tables, to look after the customer. Can you picture what would likely happen?
Now think of your company. Can you picture work currently classified as “operational” that is not being done very well? Can you see some similarities between how that work is managed and the restaurant? How would you propose this work be managed differently? On the flip side, is your company doing project work that could benefit from becoming operationalized?