Today’s businesses have more means of communication available to them than ever before. Yet, when it comes to delivering service excellence, a lack of visibility and interaction within the enterprise can end up limiting performance and leave front-line managers struggling to cope, culminating in a negative impact on customer service overall.
Invariably, most large organisations will operate a ‘top-down’ approach to strategic workforce planning. Central planners forecast customer demand, account for holidays and other absences in order to determine required staffing levels. Invariably however, frontline managers and operations planning teams must work to known commitments, availability and customer requirements on a more short-term basis, which effectively means working from the ‘bottom-up.’
All of which can create a gap that frustrates the central planners and leaves operational teams feeling unfairly blamed for poor execution. In the worst cases, the two ways of working embed different planning assumptions, leading to loss of feedback and control.
On the other hand, if organisations plan and manage on different assumptions, it becomes impossible to challenge existing conventions and utilise technology to manage performance and capacity more effectively. This is why, when it comes to workforce planning, a cohesive approach is key.
Long-term planning, short-term flexibility
In most cases, it is the remit of the centralised planning department to take care of long-term resource planning, evaluating available budget and personnel requirements in conjunction with other priorities and change projects. However, when it comes to planning work and resources on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis the approach can vary considerably, even between teams working in the same or related functions.
As well as being responsible for planning and resource allocation, many firms also use central teams to carry out short term planning with little or no involvement from front line operations staff. However, experience shows that this lack of involvement can be problematic, not least because it creates a lack of engagement at the front line. Moreover, unlike managers, centralised planners don’t always benefit from detailed knowledge of individual customer requirements or individual employee circumstances.
Other businesses opt for a more localised approach, whereby each business division or team has responsibility for managing their own work within a pre-defined, best-practice management framework. With greater visibility of current client needs and employee availability, this tends to be a more productive strategy. Indeed, experience shows that if front line managers ‘own’ the process of forecasting, planning and work allocation, they have far more control over the process and are better able to deliver consistent work and performance improvements.
The best results are seen when a centralised planning team provide top-down guidance and long-range planning of headcount, strategic goals and so on, and local managers use this guidance while retaining ownership of short-term planning and control activities.
Throughout, continuous collaboration is important for keeping both sides informed. Front-line managers know what is expected and why they have been given a particular target or allocation, while central planners can understand the individual circumstances of each business area and how things have actually turned out compared with their original assumptions. Taking real-life metrics and information on staff availability at a more granular level, managers have the flexibility to adapt a long-term plan in accordance with short-term needs and priorities.
In conjunction with good collaboration and shared visibility between departments, when it comes to making business decisions around capacity management and workforce optimisation, focusing on the behaviours and skills of front line managers and staff within service operations is key. Too often, the assumption is that, having introduced performance metrics, people will automatically change their behaviour to deliver high performance levels.
This is why it is essential to equip front-line managers with the right skills to support their teams and manage their employees and workloads efficiently. Operations management in particular is a relatively unrecognised profession, which results in many people coming up through the business and carrying out the role with no formal training. As with any other professional competence, training and accreditation in operations management can help raise existing standards and, in some cases, transition managers from a daily culture of ‘keeping the lights on’ to a forwarding-thinking, best-practice approach.
Alongside management skills, accurate and timely management information is vital in helping managers to make confident, informed decisions. Using technology to measure performance, workflow, forecast accuracy and other key metrics, for example, firms can generate important insights that highlight where improvements are being made, as well as identify areas that require greater focus.
Used in combination, this approach can lead to happier and more productive staff, as well as boosting productivity. Moreover, increasing transparency and confidence internally also inspires faith from clients. Managers have a clear picture of work volumes, productivity, work in progress, and are in a stronger position to report against SLAs or pre-determined KPIs, giving customers confidence that their work is in safe hands.