The Case for Operations: Skeleton Theory Part II

In my previous blog post, I made the case that a company’s operational infrastructure acts like the skeletal system that connects the body’s parts, supports the body’s structure, and enables the body to move as a cohesive unit. In this post, I am going to take the “skeletal system as operations infrastructure analogy” even further to illustrate why it is important for every company, every organization, every workplace, to have an operations infrastructure that is specific its own unique mission, needs, and internal culture.

A few months ago, I visited the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History – one of my all-time favorite museums. One of the permanent exhibits displays hundreds of animal skeletons, each completely and delicately reconstructed and accompanied by a paragraph or two describing the unique characteristics of the appearance, build, and behavior of that animal. Now, I am not much of a bird enthusiast (I live in a city, so I mostly see over-eager pigeons), but I was fascinated by the skeletons and descriptions of several dozen different species of birds. What captivated me was that the skeletal structure of each bird had evolved over time to perfectly support the needs and environment of that bird. Characteristics such as bone density, pelvic angle, foot structure, and ribcage shape, just to name a few, enabled the birds to engage in the flying, hunting, eating, nesting, and mating behaviors required to maximize chance of survival in their specific habitat.

The nuance in bird skeletons is a perfect metaphor to illustrate why it is critical for every company to define and continually improve its operational infrastructure. Every company has its own mission, programs, culture, stakeholders, and so on, and needs to make sure that the policies, processes, and systems in place explicitly support those components and capture what make the company unique and successful. For example, a nonprofit that needs to report monthly on activities under multiple grants may need a clear system for document sharing and collaboration to make sure that all necessary contributors submit their input on time and that everyone is working on the latest version of the document. A company that frequently reimburses employees for travel or other business expenses should have a standardized process that includes an expense form template, specific instructions for form submittal, and a timeline to ensure timely receipt of payment by the employees.  Both systems are important, but for each company, the focus is different depending on their needs and mission.

This operations infrastructure will need to evolve over time with the company as the mission shifts, leadership changes, or service offerings grow.  Just like with birds, there is no one-size-fits-all model for operational infrastructure: it must evolve to match the specific needs, goals, and missions of each individual company. 

Building (or modifying) your operations infrastructure is not a quick and easy process. It requires time, consensus, and lots of internal reflection over tough questions. But the benefits far outweigh the investment. Devoting time to thinking through the fundamentals of what your company does and how people are doing it ensures that work across individuals and programs within a company are focused and coordinated. Defining specific processes decreases susceptibility to avoidable problems. In short, shaping your company’s operational approach will help you to fly to your desire heights and catch the right fish!