Given the technically sounding title of this column, I thought it would be best to begin by explaining my definition of operational and non-operations tasks. Then, once defined, explain why you don’t want to mix them.
Operational tasks are the mission critical activities and department processes that, by definition, take precedence over all other department activities. In Information Technology (IT) groups it’s running the daily and nightly production. In Finance groups it’s opening and closing the monthly books and dealing with budgeting and cash flow issues. In Human Resources groups it’s salary planning, hiring new people, performance reviews, and dealing with unexpected employee related issues.
Non-operational tasks are everything else. It includes all of those things you would like to do within your department to move forward. This includes project work, documentation, cleaning common office spaces, implementing new processes, other activities that help move your department forward.
At a conceptual level, if possible, you don’t want to assign operational and non-operational tasks to the same person. The reason is that operational tasks, by design, have to come first. As a result, it becomes very difficult or impossible to ensure that your team’s non-operational tasks can be completed on time. This is the case because it’s very hard to know exactly how much of your team’s efforts will be spent on production-related activities in a given day, week or month.
As an example of this concept, I spent many years managing IT groups. Given the nature of IT in most organizations, it’s very common, and often a necessity, to have employees responsible for operational tasks and have various project related goals. The problem for the employees is that their project work often has many interruptions, stops, and starts because when production related issues occur, their project work stops. The problem for me as the IT Manager was that in addition to my production responsibilities, I was also responsible for meeting pre-defined deadlines on our project work. Given this scenario, production-related problems were extremely stressful, not only because of their high visibility and importance within the company, but also because it dramatically reduced the chances of my department meeting its project-related commitments and deadlines.
My suggestion to you, as you may expect from this column’s title, is to the extent possible, divide your staff between those performing production-related tasks and those performing non-production related tasks.
If you are in the situation where your team members must be given both types of responsibilities, consider the following:
- Work to improve your processes as much as possible to minimize the number and length of production-related interruptions.
- Try to minimize the number of formalized project deadlines to people outside your department.
- If you must give specified deadlines, overestimate their timeframes to properly account for production-related interruptions.
- Keep a close eye on project progress and deadlines. The sooner you know that a project is falling behind, the more time you will have to make the appropriate adjustments.
- Keep those you have commitments with continually informed on the progress of their projects and amount of time your department is spending on operational activities. This transparency of project status and required production activities may minimize the political issues related to missing project deadlines.
Even under the best of circumstances, mixing operational and non-operational tasks is not ideal, but with careful planning and reasonably stable operational processes this scenario can be effectively managed.
Until next time, lead well, always communicate, and think business first and technology second.