Effective Operations Management requires multiple levels of analysis and monitoring. Each level is usually well-defined within an organization, though they may vary among organizations and industries. The size of an organization has a strong influence on the number of levels and the makeup and responsibilities of each.
In this installment of “The Third Degree,” one possible configuration of Operations Management levels is presented. To justify, or fully utilize, eight distinct levels of Operations Management, it is likely that an organization so configured is quite large. Therefore, the concepts presented should be applied to customize a configuration appropriate for a specific organization.
All functions of the eight levels of Operations Management described herein must be performed for an organization to be sustainable. The number of levels it uses and the boundaries between them are driven by the available resources and the needs of the organization.
To analogize the Eight Levels of Operations Management, various types of flying craft are used to symbolize the characteristics of each. The operating altitude and speed or maneuverability of each represent, respectively, the amount of detail with which each deals and the rapidity of task-switching that may be required. A summary is provided in the Operations Management Altitude Table of the supplement shown in Exhibit 1.
Each Level is named for its associated flying craft; visual reference can be made to each using the Icon shown. The Altitude cited is typical of the craft, but the number is less important than the qualitative message it is intended to impart, such as “much higher than previous level (don’t get mired in details)” or “very close to the situation (details are critical).”
The People column provides examples of roles that are commonly involved in each level of Operations Management. However, role definitions and, therefore, responsibilities, may differ among organizations. The Focus and Purpose columns provide examples of the types of responsibilities typically associated with each level. These are far from comprehensive; the responsibilities of Operations Managers can vary widely and in multiple dimensions.
The “Altitude Table” is intended as a quick reference, reminder, or resource allocation decision support. Thus, it provides examples and visual cues, but little detail. To provide greater insight into each of the Eight Analogical Levels of Operations Management, more detailed, but still brief, descriptions follow.
The International Space Station (ISS) orbits Earth at an altitude of 245 miles. Great height offers a wide field of view (FOV), but, when combined with a 17,000 mph speed of travel, details are difficult to discern. A Board of Directors must monitor many trends, events, and other influences on the organization, but should not be involved in widget processing.
Completing an orbit every 90 minutes or so, the ISS symbolizes the frequency at which global occurrences should be monitored in support of proactive business decisions. This icon was chosen because of the presence of humans on board. Many capabilities exist in the types of satellites we may often think of, but they are operated remotely. To properly support the organization, the highest level of Operations Management must not simply “phone it in,” but be present and engaged in observation, analysis, and decision-making.
Analyzing the competitive landscape requires closing the distance substantially to the subject at hand. At 80,000 ft, details remain obscured, particularly at 2,200 mph! However, this combination allows high-level managers to stay abreast of market trends, emerging technologies, and actions taken by competitors.
This icon was chosen because it represents the FOV, speed, and “above the radar” capability to be a “player” in a competitive market. Also, because the SR-71 Blackbird is simply awesome.
Closing the distance further, the focus becomes internal to the organization. Portfolio management involves ensuring that all projects, product lines, and operations are sufficiently resourced to be successful. It may be necessary to change course or reprioritize quickly as circumstances change in various segments of the organization.
This icon was chosen to represent the maneuverability needed to support the organization at this level. Although a 10,000 ft altitude is cited (maximum hover altitude), greater altitude can be reached for rapid travel (e.g. change of priority). Much lower altitude can also be maintained to collect information or make observations.
A combat helicopter, specifically, was chosen as the visual representation because the presence and movements of this level of management can be intimidating. This is particularly true when observed hovering at low altitude near a specific project, department, etc. It may lead one to wonder if missile fire (i.e. funding cuts or removal from the portfolio) is imminent.
Hot Air Balloon
The low-altitude flight of a hot air balloon is much less menacing than that of a combat helicopter. At the program management level, reallocations typically occur slowly and predictably as projects are completed or phased out. Hot air balloons are propelled by the prevailing winds (i.e. directives from higher-level management). As such, maneuverability is limited, but a skilled aeronaut can navigate these winds to bring optimal performance to the organization.
A drone is extremely maneuverable within its operating range; it can change course and/or altitude rapidly, much like a helicopter. It is much less menacing, however, because it is unlikely to carry anything ballistic. To the contrary, the drone’s role includes observing, guiding, and, when necessary, prompting a team to ensure performance to expectations. This is the level of project management, where the project manager may need to support several stakeholders in rapid succession and with varying levels of intervention. We are not yet at the level of widget processing, but this is the highest level of Operations Management that is likely to be familiar with it.
Unlike the neighbor kid that terrorizes the sidewalk from the second-story window, a water bomber, a.k.a. airtanker, is an extremely important resource when things go wrong. A water bomber is an airplane that drops large volumes of water or fire suppressant on a wildfire to extinguish the flames and quell its advancement.
The water bomber is a crucial component of the effort to minimize damage and prevent total, irrecoverable disaster. Maintenance technicians, engineers, planners, and others are often engaged in metaphorical firefighting, resolving equipment and material issues, among others, as fast as humanly possible. The water bomber icon is an excellent representation of the nature of these individuals’ activities in times of crisis.
Though it is highly unlikely that a water bomber would be converted to a crop duster in the aircraft context, it occurs regularly in the Operations Management context. When no fire is blazing, technicians, engineers, and others develop and implement preventive measures to ensure operational performance. Equipment reliability and quality assurance are key areas of interest. Individuals at this level are not responsible for processing widgets, but they are responsible for maintaining widget processing capabilities.
Much of the continuous improvement effort also takes place at this level. Analyzing performance, developing improvements, and testing require this hands-on level of Operations Management. A crop duster applies pesticides and fertilizer to ensure a healthy crop at harvest time (preventive measures). The crop duster also tests different chemicals and application techniques to achieve the best result (continuous improvement). Processing widgets requires the same types of effort as growing crops.
At an altitude of 0, there is no flight. Individuals at this level are the “front-line” employees, the widget processors; they are performing what the other levels are observing and supporting. They are responsible for a well-defined set of tasks, often repetitive. As such, they are most familiar with widget processing and invaluable sources of information.
The ground level relies on the crop dusters and water bombers to ensure that they have the capability to perform at their best. This dependency is symbolized by the choice of icons for this level – trees that may, at some time, require water bombing to save them. This also represents the difficulty often experienced at this level to “see the forest for the trees.” Many times, the forest is not presented to them; it may even be purposefully hidden from them, but that digression is a topic for another time.
From this discussion, it should be clear that there is nothing magical about the number eight; more or fewer levels could be defined. However, an eight-level framework is convenient for the presentation of the range of responsibilities that exist under the Operations Management “umbrella.” Within each level, the example responsibilities and participants are sufficiently broad to capture the nature of typical roles, while also avoiding excessive overlap in levels that could be confusing. In practice, there may be significant overlap, but in presentation, it is counterproductive.
The framework presented is also well-suited to the aircraft theme. These icons are easily recognized and differentiated, facilitating comprehension of the framework while presenting opportunities for entertaining comparisons and extended analogies.
When Mars has been colonized, the framework may require expansion to include an intergalactic level of Operations Management. Some icon candidates are shown in Exhibit 2.
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