The COO agenda: Vision, plan, and execution

The operational vision of an effective organization should clearly articulate a plan for success, serving as a North Star for employees working together towards shared goals. To successfully craft a vision and execution plan for operations, the COO must understand the overall business strategy, how operations can drive that strategy, and what role they will play in delivering results.

In a previous post, we outlined the importance of crafting a COO agenda and the core elements listed below (focuses of this post in italics):

  • Vision—clear articulation of the overall aspiration of the operation, consistent and supporting the overall business strategy, and the role of the COO in delivering it
  • Plan and execution—specific plan with clear actions and milestones to achieve the vision, anchored by a robust operating model to drive excellence in delivery
  • Stakeholder engagement—deliberate approach to effectively align and engage with a broader set of internal and external stakeholders
  • Organization and talent—proactively unlock the capacity of the organization by engaging and activating the skills and talents of the entire workforce and future-oriented succession planning
  • Personal operating model—manage personal effectiveness, including time, energy, and leadership style

COO vision begins with the overall business strategy

An enterprise-wide mandate, such as a transformation, business recovery, or shift to digital, can largely shape a COO’s vision. Clearly communicating this vision so that all operators—including those on the front line—can understand and repeat it is absolutely crucial. High levels of ownership and buy-in among this group of stakeholders increase the odds of success. If the vision is too complex or fails to resonate among employees, there is little chance of inspiring action.

An effective vision must be unambiguous, with no room for interpretation. At one financial services company, the vision was expressed as the share of clients engaging through a new channel by the end of the following year. The operational vision of a logistics company was expressed as achieving a consistent capacity above a forecast volume, without additional capital investment. There are also times when a qualitative vision and statement of a “leader’s intent”1 is required. At one transportation provider, the vision entailed achieving a service level that matched its top-performing competitor—but at a lower customer cost.

A robust plan is essential to make the vision a reality

A vision without a plan is simply a wish. Time flies, and a host of distractions will hinder progress. A solid plan, one intertwined with the vision to drive coordinated actions and track progress, is essential for moving forward.

There is nothing magic about the concept of “100 days,” and no need to adopt a 100-day plan; but stakeholders do expect the COO to act. The COO’s vision also needs a long-term horizon and a plan to match, albeit with appropriate granular detail.

To build a robust plan, COOs should assess and act across five areas:

  1. Operations: What is the current performance and capability? Is the operation aligned with the vision? If not, what will that take to achieve?
  2. Stakeholders: What are the expectations of the CEO, CxOs, boardroom, employees, customers, and other stakeholders?
  3. Culture: What is the organization’s culture, and are there changes needed? If so, how can I influence those changes?
  4. Team: Are the right team members in the right roles? Does the organizational structure support the operational requirements, particularly in regards to the vision?
  5. Yourself: What are my strengths? What are my weaknesses? Am I meeting all the requirements of my role?

By ensuring a thorough understanding across these five areas, the COO can quickly identify and prioritize gaps or challenges, enabling them to act quickly where clear change is necessary. As COOs create and act on a plan, they need a portfolio of initiatives that include the desired impact, challenges to overcome, and a timeframe for action. For longer-term initiatives, COOs can implement plans that yield benefits in 6 months, a year, or longer. As one COO stated in a recent interview, “time is your friend, invest in capabilities.”

Execution—Running the core

If running the core of the operation lies within the COO’s mandate, he or she also owns operational excellence and will be deeply involved in aligning the company’s operational technology, technical systems, management systems, and organizational principles and behaviors with its purpose and strategy.

“Technical systems” refers to the people, processes, tools, and materials needed to execute the operation. As the one overseeing the nuts and bolts of the operation, the COO must ensure all parts work together to enable the business to deliver on its strategy. This includes not only the “hard” elements of operations, such as equipment, inventory, logistics, but also elements like data management, digital enablement, and analytics.

Management systems represent the mechanism for COOs and their teams to monitor and orchestrate operations. COOs need a clear view of the drivers behind desired outcomes, enabling them to monitor and question top-level metrics, along with the ability to dig deeper into the root drivers.

Organizational principles and behaviors are equally important. The COO has to set the tone, while staying close to the pulse of the culture. The gemba walk—a classic lean management concept where leaders spend time with employees to see how the work is done—provides a powerful platform to engage with the frontline.

A vision and plan forms the foundation for all other elements of the COO’s agenda, particularly the organizational and personal operating model. And a COO with a clear vision and plan in place is well-positioned to execute effectively on the business strategy.

1 Chad Storlie, “Manage Uncertainty with Commander’s Intent,” Harvard Business Review, November 30, 2010.

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