Decision Making For Dummies
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Operational decisions target how things get done both efficiently (speed and best use of resources) and effectively (how well did it work?). Operational decisions occur on a daily basis and can be implemented quickly. The direction you set guides what gets done. The values of the company, conveyed through leadership and the workplace culture, guide how work gets done.

Going to frontline employees for ideas

When seeking out efficiencies, no one knows better where to find improvements than the people immersed in the operation — frontline employees who face the customer daily and maintenance workers or equipment operators who know what is working and where barriers exist that they have to work around.

These employees work at the intersection where what gets done collides with how it is accomplished. How you tap into their expertise depends on your company’s structure and culture:

  • In companies dedicated to learning: Improvements to efficiency flow through both informal and formal information feedback mechanisms put in place to keep the company responsive. In these companies, employees tasked with making operational decisions have the same power to make change as those at the top of the organization.

  • In medium-sized to large companies organized by hierarchy, where decision-making is centralized in positions of authority: Those higher in the organization may forget to listen to frontline or operational decision-makers. As a result, a gap can develop between what upper management says it wants to see happen on an operational level and what is practical and fits operational and customer realities.

    If you’re seeking ideas for improving efficiency and effectiveness, ask staff implementing the day-to-day processes and listen carefully to the answers. Suspend any preconceived ideas you have about how things should get done. Your frontline troops know, and, provided that you’ve instilled a sense of trust in the workplace, they’ll tell you what you need to hear.

Company culture makes a difference in the search for greater efficiency. In companies where you get ahead by stepping on others, employees are less likely to respond enthusiastically to a request for great ideas because they’ve probably watched a superior seize their ideas and present them as if they were his. This kind of environment creates passive employees who wait to be told instead of taking initiative.

In a company where employees own their ideas and receive recognition for their contribution, however, creative adjustments are made all the time, enabling the company to keep pace with changing social and economic conditions. Respect is at the heart of good working relationships.

Making operational decisions: Things to think about

You’ll be making operational decisions if you work in retail; manufacturing; maintenance of roads, aircraft, or cars; or other areas where technical specifications or regulations provide a structured framework. Operational decisions are specific, concrete, and, more often than not, made in predictable circumstances with everyone being very clear about what role they perform.

Making operational decisions typically relies on procedures (following technical specifications in the case of equipment maintenance, for instance). As you gain experience, you apply that know-how to quickly trouble-shoot, diagnose, and take action.

If it’s your first day making operational decisions, your first task is to become very fluent with the regulations or technical parameters of the work, particularly the safety issues. Also ask questions when you’re in doubt or unsure of what to pay attention to, particularly in terms of safety issues.

Remember, when you’re navigating a different operational environment, there is no such thing as a dumb question!

Finally, try to team up with someone who’s got a ton of experience and is willing to share his or her expertise. A mentor can guide you through the decision-making process from start to completion, and you’ll gain a lot of insight a lot faster than you would working alone or reading a manual.

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Dawna Jones generates imaginative insights and applies 25 years experience in helping businesses and organizations make bold decisions. She co-designs the future of organizations, transforming them from "business-as-usual" to inclusive cultures of prosperity.

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