Effective Operational Reviews

Effective Operational Reviews (Blog)

Every operation needs regular review. Without oversight and adjustment, performance will degrade. An effective review process supports sustained performance improvement.

This review is generally in the form of a meeting attended by leaders, stakeholders, and key players of the area(s) in question.1 Versions may be held weekly or on other cadences. It might be called an Operational Review or a Weekly Business Review. Regardless of title, reviews should be guided by three thematic questions:

  • Where should we focus?
  • Why did this happen?
  • Who will do what by when?

These questions are not intended to form an agenda, but rather to be on our minds as we lead or participate in a review.

Where should we focus? Overall performance should guide the tone of the meeting. Where are we at? Are we hitting key goals? Is our trajectory up or down?2 But don't be content with a high-level survey. The point of holding reviews is to improve. Improvement requires focus on a limited set of issues. Such focus is not likely to be achieved by committee. The most effective review meetings have a clear leader who directs focus out of the many issues that could be discussed in a given week. This is not always a simple decision. For example, reviewing the same long-term problem every week probably isn't the best use of time. One rule of thumb for where to focus: what area could most benefit from different actions?

Why did this happen? This should be on our minds every time we're talking about a metric result. It's a natural question when something goes wrong; it's just as important to understand an unexpected good result, so we can replicate it in the future (or realize that we're riding external factors outside our control). In reaching answers to these Why questions, make sure to push for real root cause(s). In Lean this is known as Five Whys; there is nothing magical about the number five, but there is something magical about continuing to press beyond superficial responses, however many layers it takes. How do you know you’ve gone deep enough with your whys? My rule of thumb is that once you get to a reason you can act on and expect a result, that’s deep enough.

Who will do what by when? The point of these reviews is to drive improvement. If we walk away doing exactly what we were doing previously then there's no point. There is always room to improve, whether or not we are hitting our goals. So: when we've identified areas of focus and understand what's happening, who will do what by when to make things better? All three elements are important. Often, we face a developing issue and don't know exactly what needs to be done. In those cases, don't make up a solution, but do maintain this specificity: for example, a named individual will report back on the root cause of the issue by a set date. Make sure we leave the meeting with complete clarity as to who will do what by when.3

With those questions in mind, I'll share a few priorities for review participants and a few more for review leaders.

Review participants: Lead with data, supported by theory and reasoning, and end with action. Be very specific about what is happening, explain why you think that's what caused the result in question, and share specific actions or countermeasures you are taking. Even better, share the actions you have already taken. This isn't always possible, and you shouldn't fake it, but when you can figure out a likely course of action and set it in motion before a review, that is likely to work in convincing the leader of the review that you have the situation under control.

Review leaders: Effective reviews require preparation from you as the review leader. I once was impressed at an Amazon executive's ability to zero in on areas where improvement was needed when he dropped in unexpected to one network business review meeting. When I had the chance to speak to him later, I asked him how he was able to identify the key areas so quickly live in the meeting. He chuckled and replied, "Live? I spent 45 minutes this morning looking through your data to figure out what questions I wanted to ask." That preparation will serve you well in directing focus as mentioned above.

One final thought: avoid nitpicking. It's both easy and tempting to pick on imperfections in explanation or presentation. This may seem to provide a way to demonstrate superiority and enforce hierarchy. But inconsequential nitpicks do little to grow your team or focus on what matters (by definition – if it matters, it's not a nitpick). Stick with substance. If a small matter bothers you, address it in private, outside of the review meeting.

Upcoming posts will address metric choices, tools for reviews and action tracking, and more. Subscribe to receive email notifications of new posts.

1 For the sake of simplicity this post refers to a singular review. Any large organization is likely to need cascading reviews, with a subset of metrics and issues discussed at higher levels. The same review principles apply across levels.
2 You need to have the right metrics to be able to answer these questions—a topic I'll cover in my next post.
3 You need a reliable system to track these actions. I will touch on this as part of an upcoming post about tools.