Operations management: the most interesting boring concept you'll encounter all week

Varwwwclientsclient1web2tmpphp9j8dxqIt's a fair bet that no nine-year-old, asked what job they want to do as a grown-up, ever mentions "operations management". The term seems so wilfully dull that you half-suspect it might be a stratagem, on the part of operations managers, to hide a life full of debauched parties and cocaine-fuelled games of laser tag. But it isn't. It refers to designing the unglamorous but essential systems that keep industry moving: scheduling the lorries to pick up the parts to deliver to the factories that assemble the widgets that… You get the picture. "The term 'operations'," reads a suitably uninspiring definition from an Open University course, "embraces all the activities required to create and deliver an organisation's goods or services to its customers or clients." Operations management means managing them. All of which prompts one overriding question: have you fallen asleep yet?

If not, let me tell you how surprised I was – thanks to a tip-off from an equally surprisingly absorbing recent series on operations management in Slate – to find myself mesmerised by a three decade-old book called The Goal, by the Israeli management guru Eliyahu Goldratt. Like its execrable successor, Who Moved My Cheese?, The Goal is a "business parable" – a fiction told in prose that needn't give Ian McEwan any sleepless nights. Unlike Who Moved My Cheese?, though, it's insightful. Its hero is Alex, manager of a plant making unspecified items for a company nonspecifically called UniCo. Alex's factory is under-producing and his home life chaotic, until he bumps into his former university tutor, who tells him the answer is to identify the worst bottleneck in the system and focus on that, before turning to the next-worst, and so on. (Alex grasps the point on a hike, where one overweight boy is slowing the group. Once the contents of his backpack are shared among others, everything speeds up.) A process can work only as fast as its slowest element. Until you address that, efforts to improve efficiency elsewhere won't help, and could make things worse, as things back up behind the bottleneck.

Naturally, we resist thinking of our lives like production lines: how bloodless! But performing operations management on yourself is precisely what Sam Carpenter recommends, in his recent book Work The System. No matter how much we'd like to think otherwise, our lives are collections of "mechanical" processes; even the most passionate love affair, in the end, will benefit from good systems for ensuring that someone gets the groceries or takes the car for repair. Carpenter recommends creating documents, called Working Procedures, listing steps for certain recurring tasks. On his advice, I spent hours making a 34-item (!) list for handling personal finances; the upfront effort to create it was exhausting, but – as a consequence – brewing a coffee and going through it once a fortnight is painless, and keeps things running smoothly. Yes, I actually do this.

Carpenter's own story isn't the greatest advertisement for his method: once mired in chaos, he now runs a successful call-centre company where, he boasts, he drug-tests staff and fires them if they fail. Perhaps too much ruthless efficiency makes you rather ruthless. Most of us aren't in danger of that, though. Operations management might sound boring, but a bit more of it could give us a lot more time for the interesting stuff.

[First published in Guardian Weekend magazine. Photo by jurvetson on Flickr.]

Oliver Burkeman I'm a writer for The Guardian based in Brooklyn, New York. My new book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking explores the upsides of negativity, uncertainty, failure and imperfection. Each week in This Column Will Change Your Life I write about social psychology, self-help culture, productivity and the science of happiness, and make unprovoked attacks on The Secret.

I also blog about things for Guardian US and write a monthly column for Psychologies magazine. Hello.

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