Is there such a thing as a useful operations manual?

The Larch
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I started out my career designing image processing algorithms and hardware. At one point I rather inexplicably diverted into management consulting and took interest in issues such as operational effectiveness, cycle time reduction, and quality management. A while after my defection an old colleague of mine, who was at that time working on his PhD in image processing, asked me in an email what I was doing nowadays. Having tried to explain to him what I was doing, I got a reply with only one word in it – “perverted”.

In some of my darker moments as a management consultant, especially when working with quality management systems, I tend to agree with my former colleague. The quality management system manual, or using my preferred term, operations manual (OM), is too often that Dilbertian “big honking binder” that everybody treats as a “dead raccoon”.

All is not gloom though. There are a number of compelling reasons to create and use an OM and there are success stories out there:

  • An OM is a good place to store and make available good practices, a place for storing tips and tricks that have proven to work in each particular organization.
  • An OM can be used as a basis for discussions and deliberations about good ways of working within the organization.
  • An OM is the basis for training and training material regarding the organization’s way of working.
  • An OM may be required as an evidence that you have practices required by various laws and regulations in place. Such specific documented practices are for instance required for manufacturers of medical devices and aircraft.
  • An OM with common practices facilitates collaboration. If everybody in a global organization agree upon the typical steps in their project development process, then project managers can get a fair picture of the progress of the project and subproject teams can coordinate their work.

The benefits of the right number of good, required, and common practices are hard to dismiss. Try this corporate policy from hell to convince yourself: “It is our policy to throw away and forget past experiences, to ignore the law, and to let every project reinvent their ways of working from scratch.” If you really believe that the above policy is a good one, then you can stop reading here.

Those of you who are still with me may now ask (1) what a really useful OM would look like and (2) what it should contain, not to be treated as a dead raccoon by the staff, and (3) how should the management of it be organized so that it would continue to reflect the best practices of the staff that actually perform the work. I will attempt to address these question in later posts.

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