Actionable summary of this article if you have only a few seconds to spare:
- Companies can create a positive flywheel if they invest time into improving their business as usual (BAU) operations.
- As a basis, teams should have up-to-date overview of their day-to-day tasks, with capacity estimation, as well as process maps & playbooks.
- BAU operations are often reactive, thus teams should set up proactive monitors for their operational KPIs and events that are triggered based on data.
- There should be a structured incident management process in place so that BAU issues are resolved on a best practice basis and with clear ownership.
- BAU work shall be automated as much as possible. That can be started with simple steps, such as setting up automated emails or triggering tickets in internal systems.
- To leave time for projects next to BAU work, managers should estimate their capacity need with a buffer, or set up dedicated projects squads.
BAU vs. projects
Business as usual ("BAU") tasks are the most basic actions that are required to operate a business on a daily basis, such as delivering a product, issuing an invoice or responding to customer inquiries. These tasks are deemed crucial to run the day-to-day operations and to fulfil customer agreements.
On the other hand, projects deliver specific output only once, usually within a finite time period. Projects include the introduction of new product lines, the rollout of new technologies or the onboarding of new clients.
Top management often neglects BAU work and focuses on steering the company only via projects. This is probably because BAU is less exciting and can rarely generate quick impact. (For instance, launching a new marketing campaign can boost sales right away, while implementing minor step-by-step improvements in delivery time or customer care response time increases reorder rate, and thus revenues only in the long term.)
This is, however, a mistake that I also learned the hard way.
Why should you care
The most important reason why you shouldn't neglect BAU is because it will eat up as much of your team's time as required.
By definition BAU is required to operate the business. As such BAU tasks will always come first in the day-to-day work of employees, unless you want angry customers, bad reviews or legal litigations. Experienced operators know that, and as such they'll deprioritise projects upon the first urgent BAU issue that they experience during the day.
I have seen so many teams that committed to exciting projects, to deliver zero results then, as they spent 120% of their time staying afloat just by doing BAU work.
Sometimes teams deliberately decide to neglect BAU to have time for strategic projects. While this may make sense temporarily and in certain situations (e.g., accepting lower service levels to introduce a new product in the market earlier than the competitors, and with that achieve a lasting advantage), this shouldn't be a standard practice.
Neglecting BAU drives companies into a vicious circle. The worst your BAU performance is, the more complaints are received and thus the more BAU effort is needed to resolve them. Furthermore, slowly you'll lose customers and thus market share. This will trigger new projects, pushing BAU even more into the background, resulting in even worse customer experience.
The good news is that instead of this vicious circle, companies can also create a positive flywheel if management invests sufficient time into BAU improvements. With higher BAU efficiency comes fewer customer inquiries, fewer unexpected & urgent issues and more predictability. That generates more time for strategic projects that, if invested well, can further improve BAU operations.
Practical tips to take away
1) Put BAU on your management agenda
The first and most important point is that management shouldn't only focus on projects, but keep BAU on their agenda. Improving day-to-day operations will not only improve business results in the long term, but also free up time for new projects.
2) Understand your BAU operations
Sounds simple, but you should have an up-to-date overview of all the day-to-day tasks that you manage as part of BAU, ideally with a capacity estimation next to them. The required capacity should be defined by understanding the time-based effort of the respective task, multiplied by the estimated occurrences. Having that overview, you can have a better hiring plan, and with that avoid suboptimal performance.
You should also map your BAU processes & create playbooks in order to better understand dependencies, as well as to accelerate the onboarding of new employees. Playbooks also ensure that whenever an incident or opportunity happens, they are resolved on a best practice basis.
Without completing these basic steps, it's difficult to progress with the other ones below.
3) Monitor your BAU operations
BAU operations are often reactive, meaning that teams learn about issues too late, when they are more difficult to resolve. For instance it's too late when there is already 30-min waiting time in the call center or when more than half of the deliveries are already delayed.
The good news is that probably you already have data about most of your day-to-day operations, thus you can monitor any aspects of it. As discussed in a previous article, you shouldn't set up dozens of dashboards for operational KPIs or events, but proactive monitors that alert the respective teams if there is an issue or opportunity to tackle.
Ask your teams to list their main operational KPIs as well as events (i.e., that may trigger tasks that they need to resolve), and then work together with the BI / data team to set up the relevant monitors.
4) Set up a structured incident management process
There are plenty of operational incidents in the day-to-day work that teams need to tackle. If you established proactive monitors, at least you learn about them faster and you have a higher chance to keep them contained. It is, however, not sufficient to identify these incidents, but it's also essential to resolve them in a transparent, accountable & best practice way.
Teams often don't have a structured incident management process. When issues arise, they initiate new email threads or Slack groups to collaborate and problem solve. There are several problems with this approach. First of all, incidents are resolved on a best effort basis, not a best practice one. There are often misalignments in terms of ownership, thus incidents often fall under the table, leaving them unresolved. And very importantly, teams cannot analyse what went wrong or how often similar incidents happened, thus can't learn & improve.
Instead of that, establish a structured incident management process. Create playbooks for the most common issue types that may arise during BAU. Dedicate owners to the incidents, either by name or by team (with on-call duty system). Document the steps that are taken to resolve the incidents. And lastly, take time to analyse these documentations from time to time, to understand where to improve your BAU operations.
5) Automate your BAU work
If you have a good understanding of the capacity need of your different operational tasks, as well as the frequency of the most common incident types, you should also understand how much effort it would be to automate them. Having an impact & effort matrix, you can then create a plan for automation.
Automation has several advantages. It doesn't only free up time for your team (that leaves more time for projects), but also increases customer satisfaction and thus has a positive impact on both revenues and costs.
You can start automating your BAU work with simple steps. For instance, you can set up automated emails to your customers or partners to avoid incoming calls proactively, or you can trigger ticket creations in internal systems to avoid dependencies and communication gaps between teams.
6) Do not estimate capacity need based on only BAU or projects, but both
I have frequently seen managers underestimating the capacity need in their teams, because they only calculated with BAU tasks. The truth is, however, that there will be always running projects in the organisation that will somehow impact the day-to-day operations of the business. This is probably most common driver why the above-mentioned vicious circle initiates in companies.
You should always estimate your teams' capacity needs based on BAU work plus expected projects. You shall consider which teams your initiatives will affect and whether they still have capacity to take on additional tasks next to their day-to-day work. If you're not sure yet what kind of projects will run in the future, add a buffer.
7) Create dedicated project squads
If you have a critical project and you want to ensure that your teams will dedicate sufficient time and attention to them, the best solution is to create a project squad.
These squads should be cross-functional and include the relevant expertise from all teams. I myself have rarely seen part-time squads working out well, thus I would recommend dedicating squad members temporarily, but full-time to the respective projects.
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