77 – Operational excellence in local government. Does it matter?

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                        600 words

operational capability

In a recent discussion with a colleague she mentioned that in her previous employment outside local government they had set organisational performance goals for leadership, finances, relationships, safety and operational excellence.   Each area of performance was rated equally. It started me thinking about how little you hear about operational excellence in local government. Is that because it doesn’t matter?

I am sure that operational performance matters. Whether councils want to be excellent or not, I am less sure. I think that the reason it is seldom discussed is that few people have a real understanding of operations management or what excellence would look like or how to achieve it. Sometimes you meet people who have studied operations management as part of their MBA and they can talk about their work in terms of things like performance objectives, operational typology, and capacity planning. This is rare. Most local government managers run operations but have not been trained in their design or management.

The diagram shown above has been modified from the MBA text ‘Operations Management’. It shows the roles that operational capability can play and the approaches management would be taking at each step in the progression from stage 1 to stage 4. Despite the relative ease involved in achieving stage 4, especially compared to private sector organisations in highly competitive environments, I have not seen a council at that stage. I don’t think any are really trying to get there. Operations are not well understood and they don’t figure in organisational strategy, therefore there is no drive for excellence.

In some ways this is surprising as operational capability or capacity feature in Mark H. Moore’s ‘strategic triangle’, which has had currency since the mid 1990’s. You regularly hear people talking about the ‘authorising environment’ at the apex of the triangle.

Moore strategic triangle 2

It is worth a briefly describing what I mean by operational capability. In the context of Mark H. Moore’s strategic triangle it is how well or reliably policies and programs work to create value. In a more general sense it involves focussing on what delivers value for the customer and designing processes to deliver it and meet their expectations. Key concepts include understanding the various types of demands and how that characterises your operations (i.e. volume, variation, variety and customer contact); the primary and secondary performance objectives that must be achieved to create value (i.e. cost, quality, speed, flexibility or dependability), designing your supply chain (i.e. balancing efficiency and responsiveness), and more. The latest focus is ‘customer-centred’ service design to ensure that the sequence of activities in a process to deliver a service are mapped and arranged to optimise the experience of the customer within the resources available to the organisation.   More in future posts.

I have been asked the question, ‘why strive for excellence in operations?’ In some ways it is a good question. Why would a council want to be creative and proactive in redefining expectations of the sector? They are not in a competitive environment. What could the reward be for taking the risks and making the effort to achieve this goal? For me, it is the only reason I get out of bed to go to work. I don’t go to work to meet expectations. The reward for me is the satisfaction when people realise a service outcome is possible that they had previously not even thought about. I am not talking about ‘delighting’ customers in Kano’s terms by exceeding their value expectations. I am talking about simply providing the expected value on time, every time.

If a council was 100% reliable and consistent in doing anything, this alone would redefine expectations. I think that many ‘customers’ of local government expect us to get things wrong. How often do you hear people say things like  ‘They are nice people, but they couldn’t run a chook raffle’? Councils are expected to prove their incompetence, and unfortunately, too often they do.

Slack, Nigel, Chambers, Stuart, Harland, Christine, Harrison, Alan and Johnstone, Robert 1998. Operations Management.

Moore, Mark H. 1995. Creating Public Value.