The Systems Thinker Blog

Business Systems vs. the Misunderstood Operations Manual

Posted byRon Carroll

Do you have an operations manual? I doubt it. Most small-business owners don’t, unless they’ve purchased a franchise. Operation manuals require a lot of work to create, have to be frequently updated, and tend to gather dust from lack of use. Fortunately, there is a better way!

Recently, I did some work for a senior retirement center. I asked the manager to tell me about some of his business systems. He proudly opened an office cabinet and pointed to seven three-inch binders, the operations manual prepared by the corporate office. He said, “We don’t really read it, but we use it as a reference.” I looked over several chapters and found them to be well-written and quite thorough—A GOOD START!

But is a procedure in an operations manual really a system? DEFINITELY NOT!
For example, making a chocolate cake is more than just a recipe. An automobile is more than just an owner’s manual. A physical workout is more than just an exercise video.

The difference is this: A written procedure in an operations manual is just one component of the business system or process. The actual results you get depend on other factors that give life to the procedure during its implementation. Read on.

A Typical Business Problem

Three times a day in the retirement community, the staff serves meals in a large dining room for approximately one hundred people. They do a pretty good job following the procedure outlined in the company's operations manual.

Senior Center Dining RoomAt dinner time, for example, four servers begin working at 5:15 p.m. They first serve a round of drinks and salads, then soup, the entrée, and finally the dessert. After serving, they bus the dirty dishes back to the kitchen, wipe off tables and chairs, and completely reset tables for the next day’s breakfast. Servers are expected to complete this seven-step task no later than 7:30 p.m. to stay within budget. They are typically about fifteen minutes late.

A manager might look at the operation and wonder why the servers can’t seem to get done on time. He or she may even get frustrated and tell people to work faster, or they’ll lose their job. Pressure is often applied to solve this type of business problem.  

However, the serving system, as with other business systems, is more than just a written procedure. Most workers want to succeed, and you can help them.

The System Thinker’s Solution

In this situation, the Systems Thinker looks at the following:

  1. Are the servers a good fit for the job? Are they well-trained and do they work as a team? Is there a system owner/team-leader who is accountable for results, sets the example, gives guidance, and responds to problems that may arise?

  2. Do all the servers understand that the goal of being finished by 7:30 p.m. is a corporate, management, and budget requirement? “Failure is not an option.”

  3. Beginning at 5:15 p.m., how long should it take for each of the seven steps in the process. Do the servers start on time? Can they see a clock and know how they are progressing with each step? (self-administered feedback).

  4. Is the dining room laid out for fast and efficient service? Do the servers understand the best positioning of food carts to get the work done with a minimum number of steps? Are the carts loaded so there are no extra trips back to the kitchen?

  5. Does the company measure results? How many meals in the week are completed on time? Is there a little competition between breakfast, lunch and dinner servers? Can you make it a game and keep score?

  6. Does the serving team celebrate victories when they get th job done on time? Do they know their best time from beginning to end? Does the company provide any recognition or incentive for fast completions?

The Payoff

Four servers, completing the procedure on-time—fifteen minutes earlier than usual—is a one-person-hour improvement. There are three meals in a day, 365 days per year. This adds up to well over 1000 hours at about $10.00 per hour, or $10,000 dollars annual savings. However, this company has 360 retirement communities in the U.S. and Canada. The improvement could add—CHA-CHING—$3,600,000 to the company’s bottom line each year. Wow!

This is the power of Systems Thinking. It is more than just following a procedure in an operations manual. It takes into account people and personalities, system ownership, training, work environment, score-keeping, feedback, recognition, celebration, and so forth.  

The difference between an operations manual and a business system might be compared to the difference between a movie script and the movie itself. Actors, camera techniques, background music, special effects, and even the theater the movie is shown in, all influence the end-result.

Turning a written procedure into a blockbuster money-making business system is the Master Skill of the entrepreneur. It is your primary responsibility to make this happen. You or others can do it by applying the Box Theory™ Way!

Related Articles:
The WOW Factor: Six Ways to Supercharge Your Business Systems! (Part 1)
The WOW Factor: Six More Ways to Supercharge Your Business Systems! (Part 2)
Turn Dust-Gathering Procedures into Business Systems that Wow!
Boost Your Business Profit by Adding the Fun Factor!


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Tags: Systems Thinker, Business Systems, Improvement, Efficiency/Speed, Cost Cutting, System Example