Introduction to Operational Improvement

Image: A detail of the ornate metalwork surrounding the stylized depiction of an animal’s head gripping a door knocker in its mouth, from Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.

Image: A detail of the ornate metalwork surrounding the stylized depiction of an animal’s head gripping a door knocker in its mouth, from Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.

You’ve heard of “strategy” – and you’ve certainly heard of “execution.” But have you ever wondered how an organization figures out exactly what it’s going to do every day to execute on its strategy? Or why so much of that day-to-day seems like it comes straight out of an episode of The Office or a Dilbert cartoon? Or if there’s anything we can do about it?

If you work somewhere that has more than a couple of employees, or regularly come into contact with places that have more than a couple of employees, you’ve experienced operations. And if you’re like most people, you’re never aware of that experience unless some part of it goes wrong.

At Deep Why, we design and repair operations, so we think about this stuff all the time. We believe that the more you know about how groups of people come together to get things done, the better equipped you are to execute on new stuff, fix time-wasting problems, and stop feeling like your daily work is plagued by gremlins.

The key elements in our work are a deep understanding of how organizations are put together, how they mature, and how they manage change. In this series of blog posts, we introduce you to the same core concepts we use so that you can be better equipped to undertake a major project.

Key Concepts

Organization Structure

Every organization uses several different, interlocking layers of effort to provide its services. Like any good project plan, it starts with “why” and outlines how we’ll know we’ve succeeded. The execution is supported by tools and processes which, when designed properly, make it easy for people to succeed at the strategy.

  1. An ecosystem – the world, people, and domain the organization operates within

  2. A strategy – that identifies a problem in the ecosystem and specifies how this organization will solve the problem, who it’s solving the problem for, and why it’s solving that problem

  3. An operating model – that indicates the organization’s beliefs about the resources, constraints, costs, and behaviors it wants to see as it pursues solving the problem

  4. An operating system – the exact tools, processes, policies, reports, management, and all the day-to-day stuff that fills out the details of the operating model. The computing world has monopolized the term “operating system” since the 1990s, but we use it to mean much more than just technology.

  5. People – who use the operating system to do the work that is (ideally) monitored by the operating model which (ideally) provides key ways to keep track of whether the strategy is successful.

Understanding these layers helps you understand what kind of project you’re taking on, and helps shed light on problems that arise from the layers being out of alignment. We explore these layers in detail throughout this series.

Capability Maturity Model

Every organization also moves through a maturation process that informs our work. Known as the Capability Maturity Model, it also has 5 parts:

  1. Initial - Characterized by undocumented processes, heavily reliant on individual knowledge and energy and destabilized when key people leave. Activities are ad hoc and reactive.

  2. Repeatable - Some processes are written down. Some activities are planned. There’s an awareness that individuals need to share their knowledge so the organization can survive their loss, but there may not be any management or oversight to ensure quality.

  3. Defined - Standard processes are in place, defined, written down, and largely repeatable for the majority of day-to-day activities. Processes are still maturing and improving, and may not be as robust as desired.

  4. Managed - Documented processes are monitored and managed for outcomes (quality, consistency, alignment with organizational goals and metrics). The organization’s execution of its day-to-day work is well understood, routinely executed, and monitored.

  5. Optimizing / Efficiency Seeking - The organization uses its management and monitoring not only to ensure steady execution, but to seek opportunities for improvement. As new tools or new opportunities to gain efficiency become available, or old processes become outdated, improvement or change initiatives are undertaken.

At Deep Why, we put a slightly different spin on this maturation model, breaking the stages into:

  1. Early Stage/Start-Up - the same as the CMM’s Initial phase. Production is heavily reliant on individuals and activities are reactive.

  2. Maturation or Scale Up - combines the CMM’s Repeatable and Defined. The organization is operationalizing what it learned during start-up so that it can begin to repeat and manage across individuals.

  3. Mature - combines the CMM’s Managed and Optimizing phases. The organization can produce consistently, and has to incorporate new projects into existing infrastructure.

  4. Institutional - local, state and federal government agencies, established private schools, and hospitals are examples of the Institutional phase. These organizations are similar to Mature organizations but require different types of decisions and operations change management.

We make these distinctions because they reflect changes in the number and type of decisions you’re making on a daily basis. We call this “decision volatility over time” and explore it later in this series, with some short examples illustrating the kinds of operations choices you might make at each stage.


We talk a lot about capacity in the social sector. But what, exactly, is it? Operations “transform resource or data inputs into desired goods, services, or results, and create and deliver value to the customers.” Your organizational capacity is simply the number of people you can serve at the desired quality of outcomes with the available resources.

The Capability Maturity Model is a rough way of saying that most organizations seek to maximize the number of people and quality of service, and over time they tend to get better and better at their core activities. Capacity is typically low during startup and, generally speaking, increases during the maturation process until it reaches a relatively steady state.

Your operating system can increase your capacity by making better use of your finite resources. All organizations rely on three fundamental - and fundamentally limited - resources to get their work done: money, time, and energy.

There are two aspects to capacity that we address at Deep Why. First, how do we help you make sure that your day-to-day capacity is at its peak? Second is helping you honestly assess your capacity to make a major change. All changes and transitions put stress on your limited resources, so it is wise to go into a big project with a clear understanding of the amount of money, time, and energy it will take to get from where you are now to where you want to be.

In This Series

Our projects are designed to help social sector organizations operate with excellence. We’ve found that advice on tools and processes are often given without regard to whether the organization can absorb and maintain the advice. For example, if you don’t yet have clarity on the key indicators you need to manage, you can’t really use a technology tool that is geared toward providing those indicators.

This series presents accessible explanations and examples to help you understand your organizational layers, operational maturity, and capacity, so you are better equipped to embark on an improvement project with confidence. We share examples from our work and welcome your comments.