Central planners are the closest thing most enterprises have to a crystal ball. Yet, no matter how much operational data they have to work with, even the most experienced and strategic teams cannot necessarily conjure up a strategy with the level of accuracy needed to guarantee a smooth operation.

This is why, when it comes to delivering service excellence, good visibility and interaction within the enterprise is key to increasing performance. Empowered with the right information, the right training and the appropriate level of responsibility within their organisations, front-line managers that were once struggling to cope with a complex problem or an unexpected resource issue are in a stronger position to meet demand and improve overall customer service.

Meeting in the middle

Invariably, most large organisations will operate a ‘top-down’ approach to strategic workforce planning. In most cases, it is the remit of the centralised planning department to take care of long-term resource planning, evaluating available budget and personnel requirements in conjunction with other priorities and change projects. However, when it comes to planning work and resources on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis the approach can vary considerably, even between teams working in the same or related functions.

Central planners forecast customer demand, account for holidays and other absences in order to determine required staffing levels. However, frontline managers and operations planning teams must work ‘bottom-up’, dealing with known commitments, availability and customer requirements on a more short-term basis.

As well as being responsible for planning and resource allocation, many firms also use central teams to carry out short term planning with little or no involvement from front line operations staff.

From a senior perspective, all of this sounds logical. However, experience shows that the potential disconnect can be very problematic, not least because it creates a lack of engagement at the front line. Moreover, unlike managers, centralised planners don’t always benefit from detailed knowledge of individual customer requirements or individual employee circumstances.

Unaware of all the pressures faced by front-line teams and their managers, central planners become frustrated. For their part, operational teams feel unfairly blamed for poor execution. In the worst cases, the two ways of working continually embed different planning assumptions, leading to loss of feedback and control. If left unchecked, lack of communication or inconsistency can create a gap that, in the worst cases, will eventually broaden into a chasm.

Walking in their shoes

If organisations ‘meet in the middle’ and both plan and manage on consistent assumptions, it soon becomes possible to challenge the existing status quo and utilise technology to manage performance and capacity more effectively. This is why, when it comes to operations planning, a communicative approach is key.

Other businesses opt for a more localised approach, whereby each business division or team has responsibility for managing their own work within a pre-defined, best-practice management framework. With greater visibility of current client needs and employee availability, this tends to be a more productive strategy. Indeed, experience shows that if front line managers ‘own’ the process of forecasting, planning and work allocation, they have far more control over the process and are better able to deliver consistently to the required standard and achieve performance improvements.

The best results are achieved when a centralised planning team use their knowledge and experience to provide guidance and long-range planning of headcount, strategic goals and so on, and local managers use this guidance while retaining ownership of short-term planning and control activities.

Throughout, continuous collaboration is important for keeping both sides informed. Front-line managers know what is expected and why they have been given a particular target or allocation, while central planners can understand the individual circumstances of each business area and how things have actually turned out compared with their original assumptions. Taking real-life metrics and information on staff availability at a more granular level, managers have the flexibility to adapt a long-term plan in accordance with short-term needs and priorities.  

Professional competence

In conjunction with good collaboration and shared visibility between departments, when it comes to optimising performance through operations planning and control, focusing on the behaviours and skills of front line managers and staff within service operations is also vital for any lasting change.

Often, the assumption is that, having introduced performance metrics, people will automatically change their behaviour to deliver high performance levels. Yet, while this information undoubtedly has a role to play, it offers little value if the enterprise does not work in a consistent, joined-up way.

This is why it is essential to equip front-line managers with the right skills to support their teams and manage their employees and workloads efficiently.

Operations management in particular remains a relatively unrecognised profession. While many talented knowledgeable people come up through the business to carry out the role, few have any formal skills training in operations management. For this reason, as with any other professional competence, training and accreditation can help raise existing standards. If successful, it offers the opportunity to transition managers from a culture of ‘keeping the lights on’ to a more forwarding-thinking, best-practice approach.

Alongside management skills, accurate and timely management information also has an important role to play in helping managers to make confident, informed decisions. Using technology to measure performance, workflow, forecast accuracy and other key metrics, for example, firms can generate important insights that highlight where improvements are being made, as well as identify areas that require greater focus.

Done well, striking the right balance between collaboration within the enterprise with usable metrics and a consistent management style will ease the burden on frontline managers and staff, making them happier and more productive. As well as boosting productivity, increasing transparency and confidence internally also gives managers a much clearer picture of work volumes, productivity and work in progress.

As masters of their own destiny, rather than battling to keep the lights on each day, managers become empowered to satisfy even the trickiest of clients and deliver against their KPIs – all of which leads to happier customers and, ultimately, a healthier bottom line for the organisation.

Neil Bentley is managing director, AOM International Ltd based in Birmingham UK.