On improvement and IT Operational Excellence

Way back in the early ’90s, back before I had an IT career, I did a temp job as a telephonist in a call center at a bank. My job was to answer calls for a promotional phone line that nobody called. I ended up doing a lot of reading and a lot of watching.

Telephone banking was pretty new back then and this particular bank was regarded by the industry as the best. As a result of this, they had many visits from folks wanting to know how they did it. They would do tours and answer lots of questions. They seemed very forthcoming. In fact, to my colleague and I, they seemed a little too forthcoming.

One day the call center manager had a quiet few moments, so she came to talk to us and see how we were doing. My colleague asked about the tours, and asked why she was being so nice and answering all their questions. She smiled and agreed with us that there is a secret to success in this venture, that they do share a lot of information with their competitors, but not the stuff that makes a difference. Obviously the key to their success was not technology – they all had the same stuff. It was operations. Just like now, operations is the differentiator but back then it was a trade secret.

Now lets come back to today and talk about IT operations. The world has changed. No more is hanging on to knowledge considered a key to cornering the market. This means that modern Internet companies are much more willing to share their ideas. There is lots of stuff out there about how the big successful shops do stuff, they share their tools, they talk about their operational practices. It is great stuff. I soak it all up, have learned a ton and I am truly thankful to them for sharing. Here’s the thing though, very often we actually miss the real secret. It worked for them because THEY FIGURED IT OUT FOR THEMSELVES.

So we need to work out for ourselves what works and what doesn’t. It’s only right and proper. We can look at what the big boys do, but we must constantly remind ourselves that what worked for them probably is not necessarily going to work for you. We understand that already. We call it a cargo cult.

So, what do we do? Here is my suggestion:

1. Understand the purpose of your organization. Your company is there for a reason. What is it? This is more than the what and the how, this is also (and especially) the why. You need to fully internalize the purpose of your company, and your division, and your team.

2. Understand what you do. How does what you do add value to the business? How do you help other teams add value? How do they help you? What works really well? Why? What doesn’t? Why not?

3. What small thing can you do that makes the company fulfill its purpose better? That does not necessarily mean you have to do all your stuff better. In some cases that may be true, in other cases it may be better to take a hit so another team can do better. If the organization is better as a result then it is a win.

4. How do you know if you are making progress? Well, by measuring something that roughly approximates the purpose of the organization. If this measure goes up then keep doing what you are doing. If it goes down then stop.

Go back to step 2 and repeat.

This is not new stuff. These ideas have been around for a long time. I claim no credit here. I distilled this from a long list of people and practices. I suspect that all the management fads of the last few decades where developed this way. Once that company gained success, instead of others doing the steps above, they just took the result and then we get stuff like Management By Objective.