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Operations = ‘How Things Are Done’

A Masterclass for Talented Candidates.


A recurring challenge of teaching operations management to MBA candidates arises from the lack of formal training students have had on this matter. Many have little training and little experience, others have little training and considerable experience, and only a few have both. This raises the question of where to start when teaching operations management. How to connect and create relevance for all of them?

Over time, I resolved this issue by simply asking the students for their definition of operations management. Typically, this generates good input about processes, activities, quality, and improvement. Then I summarize, quite unacademically, with a statement like ‘operations is what we do’ or ‘operations is how things are done’.

These definitions have two major advantages:

  1. Everybody understands them.
  2. They are inclusive because we all do things; thus, this topic is relevant to everyone.

The latter is important as the relevance of operations is not self-evident. Some people think that operations happen anyway − they happen downstairs, in the basement, the back office, or ‘behind the scene’. Such views are particularly prevalent among highly-educated and specialized professionals, such as lawyers, professors (I am one myself) and medical doctors. Operations may be what other people do, but what they do is more refined, is upstairs, is ‘on stage’. Hence, breaking the ice of operations often takes a bit longer with them.

Hence, I was prepared to have to put in some extra effort when giving a masterclass in operations management as part of a recruitment event for MBSC, at the National Guards Hospital in Jeddah. A select audience of medical doctors was waiting. What made it a bit more challenging was that we mismanaged our own operations and arrived late.

On cue, I came from behind the scene, on stage, and noticed that the room was filled with people in white coats − medical doctors indeed. It was with a slightly increased pulse that I tried my luck.

“Good afternoon everyone, welcome to this masterclass in operations management. At MBSC, we always build on students knowledge and seek their input. Can anyone tell me, what ‘operations’ is?”.

One of the more senior gentlemen in a white coat, sitting in the first row put up a friendly face and answered without delay: “It’s how things are done”. The other attendants nodded in agreement, and so did I. Clearly, they were not above it.

Without saying it explicitly, he communicated to appreciate operations, and the nodding in the room confirmed this to be a common opinion. They were ready for it, connected.

Needless to say that his contribution served to get things done very well.  Together with all participants, we co-created a great masterclass.