11 Questions to Ask when Considering a Career in Business Operations

What skills do you need to be an effective operations manager? Though there’s no single profile for the ideal operations manager, most successful managers do have certain skills and traits. If you’re wondering whether operations management is for you, you may want to ask yourself the following questions. The answers are based on surveying many ops people in many industries.

  • Am I good at getting along with people, particularly people from different functional areas or from different levels of the organization? Establishing good working relationships with all sorts of people is important if you want to be an effective operations manager. You need to work with strategists, comptrollers, and especially marketing personnel.

    You also need to have good working relationships with the line and other workers you manage. Though you’re not there to be their friend, they’re often your best sources of information.

  • Do I have enough technical background? Operations involves measurements and numerical analysis. Many good operations managers know nothing about calculus (although it doesn’t hurt), but you really need to know algebra and basic statistics. On the other hand, numerous engineers can't manage operations effectively.

    Except for industrial and operations engineers, engineering programs don’t teach about operations, and though engineers may be good at math, their basic operations intuition without training isn’t any better than anyone else’s.

  • Do I like my work to be predictable or constantly changing? Ideally, you like your work to be predictable. This drives you to continually improve your operations to be as predictable as possible. Adrenaline junkies who like the high of a quick fix just aren’t that helpful over the long run.

    On the other hand, no matter how good you are, you’ll always need to manage disruptions and changes. Keep that big bottle of aspirin handy.

  • Am I comfortable explaining difficult concepts to people? Unfortunately, you have to do a lot of this, particularly when you’re shooting down someone’s pet consultant or pet idea to expand capacity by buying an expensive robot to replace a non-bottleneck activity.

  • Do I mind getting my hands dirty? You really do need to get out and see your process. Whether that means going out on a delivery run for a service, watching operations (sometimes literally) in a hospital emergency room, or walking around a manufacturing line, you need to see and feel (and often measure) what the process is doing.

    Successful operations managers typically want to know how everything works. They’re always asking why and usually aren’t satisfied unless they know all the details.

  • Do I understand the details of what I’m trying to manage? If you don’t, you need to. You must get your hands dirty and walk the process. If there’s no process flow diagram, you need to draw one (and this teaches you a lot). You also need to talk to as many people involved with the process as possible: line workers, technical people, marketing personnel, and so on.

    You simply can’t understand your process well enough.

    However, bringing in someone from the outside to look at a process is often a good idea because that person often sees things that people close to the process do not. The outside person, who can even be from a different industry, may ask questions that challenge the “We’ve always done it this way” mentality and can provide a fresh look with a new set of eyes.

  • Should I check up on people after they’ve promised something? Of course, but formalize it and be polite. Trust, but verify on an ongoing basis. Put your operations skills to use and create a reporting and verification process.

  • Do I believe that people are self-motivated? This one has no easy answer. Some people are and some aren’t, and the percentages vary by industry. Most employees are much more motivated by making money to support their family (and perhaps their hobbies) than they are in deriving self-fulfillment from a job.

    So don’t be shocked that they actually leave their jobs on Friday at 5 p.m. sharp. That isn’t to say that they don’t care about doing a good job. Many do. The absolute worst thing to do when they come forward with suggestions or ideas is to politely put the suggestions on a shelf and forget them.

    Such motivation is precious, and you must nurture it. In all cases you should work toward an environment where making the work process better is viewed as a good thing.

  • Do I value simplicity? The first rule in process design is to keep it simple. Unnecessary complexity has no place in effective operations. Your job as an operations manager will be difficult enough, so you don’t need to add any complexity.

  • Am I open to change? Continuous improvement is at the heart of successful operations. This continuous improvement also means continuous change to make your operations better.

    The Deming loop, which is the foundation for continuous improvement, involves observing and assessing the current system, designing and implementing changes for improvement, and doing it all over again. Though change is inevitable in improving operations, you must plan and implement this change in a controlled way.

  • Am I always looking for ways to improve things? Do you always find yourself looking for ways to improve everything you come in contact with? It’s hard to be a process-oriented person and sit still.

    Whether it be standing in line at a store, waiting for service at a restaurant, or trying to maneuver the drop-off and pick-up lanes at school, operations managers always look for places to improve and always have suggestions on how they can do something better.

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