First published in Linkedin:

The new catchphrase in business? How to create an operating rhythm.

We are often asked what it means to create an "operating rhythm" and how it can work for a small business or indeed a larger corporate.

Creating an operating rhythm is easier than you think – but there is a specific catch. Understanding this "catch" can be the difference between getting productivity change sooner as opposed to later. (We have one particular case study where a large company implemented an operating rhythm and then took 7 years to meet its objective, when it could have been achieved in 3 years. More on this later).

What's the underlying objective of creating an operating rhythm?

Simply stated – productivity. Why? Imagine you lead a team of 10 people. They have the same role, the same objectives. However, they each have a different way of doing things. There is no commonality in how they approach each task. What would happen if they started to adopt a similar approach to each task? They would each become more efficient, the operation would be easier to manage, and productivity would increase.

This is the underlying objective. The “above the line” objective may be different. The CEO might wish to drive cultural change, wanting the business to live by its values, or drive differentiation through customer service. Irrespective of the "above the line" approach, it is critical to draw the link between operating rhythm and the underlying theme of productivity.

Another way to look at it is quite simply that the operating rhythm bridges the gap between Strategy and Execution.

A definition

The Oxford Dictionary definition of rhythm is a "strong, regular, repeated pattern of movement or sound". 

If we apply this to the business world we could come up with the following:

The regular activities that exist across and within a business, that are performed to a high standard.

So, how do you go about creating an operating rhythm? And where does the "catch" we refer to fit in.

Step 1. Determine why you wish to create an operating rhythm in your business.

Any leader, irrespective of role, needs to be able to articulate not only what they want the team to achieve but critically why. Context is critical. The CEO of a listed company might focus on the links to productivity with his or her executive team. Their focus could be around performance improvements, and the CEO sees that a common way of doing things is fundamental to this objective.

The General Manager of a medium sized company may wish to improve customer service and understands that a common way of responding to client issues across his or her business is fundamental to such improvements.

The Manager of a team of say 10 staff, wishes to drive more sales, and therefore wants to encourage more consistency in staff being proactive with their clients.

Step 2. Determine the key activities needed to underpin the objective.

This is the easiest step. Simply decide with your team, or with input from others, what key activities you wish to see across your span of control. For example:

  • Start of week meetings
  • One-on-one discussions
  • How feedback should be provided
  • How coaching discussions should be held
  • How we expect staff to go about understanding client needs

Activities can even be categorised into logical groups, such as external customer interactions, team engagement, internal customer interactions and so forth.

Step 3. Determine a “common way” about how these activities should occur.

For each of the activities, communicate out to all staff how you wish these activities to occur. Simple messages, repeated often help here. Remember the obvious that people learn in different ways and at different paces. Don’t expect everyone to pick up your change of direction if you don’t cater to this simple fact. So, if you’re the CEO of a large business and you want to ensure that each week every customer facing team is looking to improve what they do for the end customer, you would expect to see a degree of commonality and alignment about how the start of week meeting is run.

Step 4. Determine how often you wish these activities to occur

This is as obvious as it sounds – what's the frequency of each activity you wish to see? Daily, weekly or monthly?

Step 5. Allow flexibility in the way these common activities are run

And this is where the “catch” lies. The one thing you don't want to do is mandate an approach. We have seen this mistake occur in a large corporate, and whilst they achieved their end objective, it took 7 years to get there. It may well have taken them significantly less time with more effective engagement and consultation. Debate will determine if the end justified the means.

Whilst you may want everyone to do things the same way, the reality is this simply does not work in practice.

Imagine a soccer club that has male and female teams, as well as teams of all ages. The club has a number of coaches. The club has an attacking philosophy, and encourages a strong passing game. They have identified a number of key drills that help underpin this philosophy. These drills are led from the club’s head coach.

Now imagine you are the coach of the under 12 girls team. Whilst you understand the philosophy and the drills, it might just be that some of the drills don't work at that age (eg they may be too complex). You amend the drill slightly so whilst the intent is there, you have tailored it to make it work for your team.

The club’s head coach walks past to observe training. He recognises that the drill has changed slightly but he can also see that the fundamentals are still being supported.

This is the biggest challenge facing any business. Ensuring a standard is applied and at the same time encouraging a degree of flexibility so there is greater acceptance, ownership and therefore application.

Step 6. Demonstrate the standard to all stakeholders.

Once you know which activities are critical, when you want them to occur and how you want them to occur, it’s vital to demonstrate them to every stakeholder.

Your only issue here is one of "span of control". The larger your span of control, you the more support you will need. Imagine that the CEO of our listed company may want to see regular one-on-ones between "team leader" and "team member".

This means coming up with a series of initiatives to demonstrate how he or she wishes the one-on-ones to occur. Examples could include use of video, checklists, reminders, and/or curated content on a private YouTube channel.

Here’s a key tip. You don't need to prepare meticulous content for each activity and you don’t need every learning piece to be business unit specific. This just won't work where you have multiple business units. You have to trust the capability of your managers to be able to understand the intent, and then use more generic content to apply the intent to suit their needs. There are considerable cost savings where generic content is applied and.

Step 7. Reinforce these activities through ongoing communication and activity.

Recognise that you need support. The larger the business the more support needed. If a large corporation, enlist the help of a very strong project manager and communications team. If a General Manager, appoint “champions” and encourage their development. If running your own business, curate content that suits the business to encourage the learning.

Why create your own when there is a wealth of information on the internet.

Ongoing communications, reinforcement, coaching of all the activities is a project in itself.

And finally ...

Remember that an operating rhythm occurs not just across a business but within each individual role. The CEO will have weekly meetings with his Executive Team, monthly meetings with the Board, and quarterly updates to the Stock market. This role is largely defined by these three activities.

The General Manager will have a weekly team meeting, weekly one-on-ones and daily meetings with clients.

The frontline staff member may have a daily team "huddle", hourly time blocks where they make outbound calls, and daily review of specific reports for actioning.

So each role in a business will have its own operating rhythm. Over and above this is the operating rhythm you set for the business.

In summary

An operating rhythm is about ensuring that certain vital activities are performed in a consistent manner to a high degree of excellence both across a business and within the business. The key aim being to drive efficiency, effectiveness and therefore productivity.

The degree of effort required to create such a rhythm will depend largely on the size of the challenge, and that's usually a factor of the size of the business.

Just find the in-house champions…

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