Are we asking the right questions?
How do you keep the team spirit going upwards, when the whole world seems to go in opposite direction?
How do you find techniques and strategies to transform a business plan developed in the boardroom, into a living, motivating strategy implemented into the company core and mindset of every colleague? And how do you do it when times are hard, as we experienced in 2020?
The answer is having a strategy with goals and objectives, or simpler said, implementing good operational management. And when times are hard? That’s when you really see what the team can do for operations management.
To understand the factors that influence your workforce and your business—and then act accordingly—operations management must be related to more than cost securing and efficiency mapping. To make sure an organization runs smoothly and efficiently, your workforce must be supplied with not only information on quality, KPIs and delivery performance, but with soft values like engagement, interest, and attention. I believe this is how your greater purpose can be achieved.
Not fancy agency talk, but straight forward and inspiring goals
An operational management strategy might sound complicated and something that can only be achieved by hiring a fancy agency to design; meanwhile, it never gets implemented and is just left for dust in a desk drawer. Rather, it is something every company needs because it is a strategic way of bringing the company together, providing measurable goals, and determining objectives that make the company stronger.
There is no one-size-fits-all, however. Just as organisations come in different sizes, structures and cultural backgrounds, there are different styles and schools of thought when it comes to operations management.
A simple and common definition of operations management is the “administration of the best practises in order to achieve the highest level of effectiveness and efficiency through utilisation of the company resources” .
This involves the responsibility of ensuring that business operations are efficient in terms of using only the most necessary resources to meet the customer’s requirements. Operations management is primarily concerned with planning, organizing, and supervising in the context of production, manufacturing, or the provision of services. 
This means we apply the most appropriate practises: map, implement, measure, and improve. It’s a continuous ongoing process, far away from a dusty map or plan in that drawer. It must have a loop where inefficiencies and undesirable results can be detected (if not prevented), corrected, and improved.
To develop a strategy and stick to it, even when times are challenging, can be hard. The strategy might need alterations on the way, but don’t forget your main purpose. Again, it is when times are tough that a team aligned with common goals will make it through. Operations management is not one-quick-fix for all unforeseen futures.
Encouraging early problem solving, not procrastinating it
Once you have set your management team has agreed on its strategic goals, it’s time to establish projects and key performance Indicators (KPI) that will guide the operations toward meeting the goals. We use the SMART strategy: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound to help us keep track of our performance.
We have found that assigning KPI to the appropriate department is critical to our success. For example, customer satisfaction is one of our key goals, so the “Customer Delivery Performance KPI” is assigned to our Customer Service Department—the ones who are not making the product nor making the delivery. Rather, they are the “voice” for our customers, and using this internal voice of customers to drive a customer delivery performance from within certainly pays off.
In any organization, there are policies and procedures. These are established so that we can work within a controlled and systematic environment. However, we must allow our employees a certain degree of freedom, encourage innovation and ownership. How? We empowered them to make decisions through cross-departmental communication.
Can you Handle the Unexpected?
However, we have all experienced how external incidents can impact your strategies and plans. Of course, I am referring to the ongoing pandemic that has proven that when it comes to operations management, you must always expect the unexpected.
How We Managed the Unexpected
Elmatica has been in the PCB industry since 1971; in fact, we celebrated our 50th anniversary this year. It was not the best year for celebrations, however we do as we always do—we plan, adapt, and move forward. Not only did 2020 turn out as quite a different year, a bit surprisingly, it was the best financial year in Elmatica’s history.
So, what was our secret to staying aligned with our goals, keeping motivation up, and our colleagues informed and on target? We made sure to keep in mind: lead, plan, support, manage, perform, evaluate, and improve.
It may have taken the Wizard of Oz to predict the future, but we did our best. We looked at both our customers’ demands and our internal demands, and then we merged them to achieve the highest level of effectiveness and efficiency by utilising the company’s resources. Once the demands were mapped, the scope set, and the strategy composed, then we had some fun. It was time for implementation—the phase where many tend to fail.
We implemented EQMS—the Environmental and Quality Management System—where all document procedures, responsibilities, escalations, company structure, goals and priorities are set. This allowed us to spend time in three phases:
- The first phase was at the officer and board level, where the main pillars and scope were decided.
- Then, managers were invited into the project with input, feedback and further development.
- The last and critical third phase was where strategies were implemented and the entire company was involved in the communication through regular town hall meetings, internal newsletters and ongoing departmental updates.
Once a clear strategy was set and implemented, we could start collecting data from specific KPIs, evaluate, and then improve them. Because we had clear operations documentation integrated into our infrastructure that was easily accessible, it allowed our organisation to function more efficiently; we minimized the time spent searching for information. Research shows that digitalisation of processes and procedures can be the most effective investment to increase data security, optimize productivity, and reduce costs.
Communication and Implementation
At Elmatica, we have found that communication is one of the most important elements to achieving operational excellence. Everyone must be clear about what the goals are, why we have them, what our measurement of success is, and how we create a feedback loop for improvement.
To do this, we conduct quarterly company-wide town halls, where the CEO reviews our quarterly financials, reinforces the company goals, and recognizes individuals who have excelled. We also have a Managers Group that meets bi-monthly to focus on KPI (key performance indicators). Apart from these formal meetings, there are frequent informal meetings.
Strong communication has been especially true during the pandemic. When any crisis appears, information is the most valued asset one can get. We have all been in situations where you are searching for answers and feedback; when you don’t get it, this leads to frustration and anger.
Instead, continuous internal communication will help your workforce feel more secure, impact how they perceive the company, and improve the dialogue between departments and customers. You don’t want customers getting the wrong feedback, or even worse, no feedback at all because no one knows what they can or can’t say to customers.
Are less updates on cats and kids poor for your work energy?
At Elmatica, we have worked on our internal and external communication the past few years. Once shutdowns occurred in March 2020, we immediately formed a work group that met daily. This group initiated internal newsletters, regular updates on our website, and official letters to our customers and partners. In our official communications, we assured our customers that operations would continue, and offered “tools” in the form of Q&As from the customer service and sales departments. We wanted to be sure we provided information during a time when unpredictability was the only thing that was predictable.
But what about that daily chat around the coffee machine, the short message about one order, one issue with a stack up, a different material working perfectly, or the “not crucial for business but crucial for collegial relationships” update about the cat, dog or family? The pandemic was a brutal interruption in our lives that often created isolation. How could we ensure that operations would run smoothly and communication would continue if we weren’t face to face?
Our answer was to create virtual, pop-up events, such as virtual lunchtime and drink hours. We planned weekly events, from wine tasting and games, to inspirational speeches, virtual tours of historic sites, yoga, bingo, kahoots, face masks for moisturising those dry indoor faces, learning to bind your own fish bait and even a sheep shearing course.
Are you ready for the future?
We would all love a crystal ball that could predict the future. We may not have that crystal ball, but if we learn how to analyse our digital data, we can make some educated estimates. Our experience, backed with data, has helped us make a smart prediction of what is coming. Understanding the customers’ demand and pattern has allowed us to better prepare for capacity reservations and customer requirements.
Developing a system tailored to our operational needs, meeting compliance, and data analysis is key. A good traceability system and availability of historical data allow the engineers to carry out the failure analysis more efficiently and effectively.
The last year’s challenges have for sure taught us that to be able to build the ability to expect the unexpected, one needs a strong and committed team, routines on clear internal and external communication and focus not only on operational management but also relationship management between partners, customers and colleagues. Happy employees brings the company forward, and we can all need a pat on the shoulder these days, even if it’s a virtual one.
Raymond Goh is COO of Elmatica. To read past columns or contact The PCB Norsemen, click here.