Starting the house from the roof

This summer I have been working on a fascinating organizational architecture case where a company, assessed by a group of “traditional” consultants, was trying to solve an operational problem by redesigning its organizational chart. Oddly, instead of going to the operational side to see what exactly was going on as a first step to find the most appropriate solution, they were trying to fix the issue without having set foot on the operations and reorganizing the strategy departments. Of course, this “solution” was causing a major bottleneck. Fortunately, the situation was solved by applying one of my favourite principles of the Toyota Production System: genchi genbutsu, or in other words, “see for yourself the source of the problem to know the real situation and find the right solution”.

Yes, I am aware that the business narrative of the 1990s has magnified the concept of “strategy”, but if we leave the theoretical universe behind, we will see that trying to fix operational situations with a purely strategic view and omitting the operational environment is like starting a house from the roof up. One of the terrible effects of this modus operandi is that headquarters teams start to create patches (in the form of new positions and management roles, basically) that result in impossible organizational charts, duplicated roles, loss of efficiency and disconnection between operations, tactics and strategy teams that end up speaking different languages. Not to mention that you end up having more people doing “strategy” than people making things happen.

Considering strategy as more important than operations corresponds to the end-of-the-last-century mentality in which many organizations are still immersed. Everyone wants to be “strategic” without ever knowing the operational side of the business or knowing the day-to-day reality of front-line teams. Of course, every organization needs strategy (the team that determines the “what”) but also tactics (those who determine the “how”) and a focus on operations (those who make things happen and get results). In fact, if we think about which of these teams is directly in contact with the end-customer community (the users who will decide whether to buy the products or services sold by the company in question), we will see that it is precisely the operations team. And if we think about where the largest percentage of an organization’s internal customers are (i.e., the people who work in it), we will see that it is also in operations. Operations, then, are the alpha and omega of any initiative that wants to implement the strategy. Any project that is intended to be carried out without the operational team (whether it is a cultural change, customer experience or innovation project) is highly likely to fail, regardless of the prestige of the experts or entities involved in it. In fact, how many projects that were perfect in a powerpoint or in a deliverable are a big fail when the time comes to put them into action in the heart of the business?

Let’s be real: from the roof we cannot see (and therefore, fix) the foundations. So, stop to build roofs as a way to solve foundation issues.

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