Smooth Operator

Simplify Your Operations and Play to Your Strengths

Di Lewis

April 8, 2013

Micro-startups and industry giants alike can benefit from running a tight ship. But the realm of operations can be intimidating for small business owners and entrepreneurs. We spoke with Niel Nickolaisen, CIO at Western Governors University, for a professional’s perspective on operations.

What are some foundational elements of operations?

In an operations role, one of my goals should be to simplify everything we do. Because the more complex our process, the more complex our product lines, the more complex our everything, the slower we will be, the more resources we will consume … At the rate things move today, complexity kills you over time. It may not kill you immediately, but it willd efinitely kill you over time.

Another piece of advice would be learn enough, just enough, about Lean principles to apply them to everything you do. You don’t have to be deep in Lean to make it work for you. One thing you have to know is the forms of waste. You need to know how to map a value stream and you need to know about standardized work. If you know those three things, you can improve 90 percent of everything you touch.

Just learn the basics and apply the basics. Maybe the basics won’t help you with that really obscure problem you’ve got. That’s fine. Solve the other 90 percent of the problems. Leave the obscure ones for later.

Can you give an example of this type of simplification?

I’ve got this really busy, active service desk. It supports both students and staff. Anybody with a problem calls the service desk. We categorize and record every request. We then get the entire team together and look at the most frequent issues. As a team we identify what we’re going to do to get to the root cause of the issues.

Just think about if you do that every day for six months—you’d be dealing in month seven with issues that weren’t even on your radar six months ago. Think about how much better your processes would be, how much happier your customers would be. These things that they used to have problems with, you don’t have problems with anymore. Think about doing that across your entire enterprise. Do that for an entire year and you’ve transformed your entire operation.

What would you tell a younger company or entrepreneur who is trying to improve?

The leader of an organization must define and ingrain it into the culture what you’re better at than anybody else. That’s where you’re going focus your innovation. A lot of times businesses have never defined what they’re better at than anybody else. They fell into the business and they’ve never really formulated what they do that makes them better than anybody else.

So here are the four questions to ask yourself: Who do we serve? What do they need more than anything else? What do we do better than anybody else to meet those needs? And what’s the best way for us to deliver our products and services?

There’s a difference between having a passion for something and building an operating company. A lot of entrepreneurs fail when they have to shift from being an entrepreneur to an operations person. The skill sets are different, the passions are different and you always have to worry about your own obsolescence because it’s highly competitive out there.

If you’re an entrepreneur, hire a decent ops guy and let the operations person run the tight ship. I have filled the operations role for brilliant technologists, and I’ve had to compensate for their brilliance because they’ve been chasing the next great thing when we haven’t even delivered the first great thing. So my job has been to deliver the first great thing while they’re out thinking about the next great thing.

How would a smaller or medium-sized company balance those day-to-day details while still keeping the overall picture?

You’ve got choices today because even if you’re not big enough to have hired an operations guy, you can tap into resources today that will be your part-time operations guy. You can find a great CFO and hire him for two hours a week. ...You can outsource everything in the world today if you want. So do you need to build that capability yourself or can you leverage someone who’s already doing it?

How do you make that decision?

If I can only hire my cousin’s brother-in-law to be my manager of logistics and he has no skills, but I can afford him, what gap did I just create for myself? Would I be better off not hiring that person and instead doing business with somebody who does it every day?

It is good to bring someone in just to tell you what your choices are. …So get networked and find out what others are doing. Just talk to them and ask them. You might get three different answers. It’s not easy. But hey, you didn’t sign up for easy. You started a business.

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