Operational Layers: Operating System

Image: The mast and rigging from The Friendship of Salem, MA. While it looks chaotic, each element has a very specific role to play, all of which are critical to successfully sailing the 171-foot tall ship.

Image: The mast and rigging from The Friendship of Salem, MA. While it looks chaotic, each element has a very specific role to play, all of which are critical to successfully sailing the 171-foot tall ship.

Service organizations rely on people to follow processes that result in mission fulfillment. These processes are supported by technology and tools that help get the job done. The capacity of an organization is the ability of all people at the organization to execute consistently, and well. These elements — people, processes, technology and tools, and capacity management — make up the operating system.

As we have seen in other parts of this Operational Layers toolkit series, the operating system is monitored and adapted over time by the operating model, which provides the governance and leadership for all daily activities and ensures they are aligned with the strategy.


An operating system is the unique configuration of tools, processes, and capacity at your organization that exists to deliver your service in exactly the way you believe it should be delivered. Put simply, operations is the process of turning inputs into outputs that, when combined, make up your services.

While every organization’s exact operating system differs, all service organizations’ operating systems are made up of:

  • People - your employees, volunteers, board members and others who are committed to your mission. Traditionally, operations has meant the exact sequence of steps by which a raw material is transformed, usually by a machine, into a part for assembly into a finished product. For our clients, the raw materials are energy, passion, dedication, and knowledge, and the outputs are whatever services best support the organization’s strategy. People provide those services, so in a way you can think of your team as the crucial link between their own raw materials - energy, passion, knowledge, experience, and organizational culture - and serving the client. When designing or fixing an operating system, we prioritize these inputs and look for how we can best support them through tools, processes, and capacity management.

  • Tools and Technology - the software and computer-based tools (like Microsoft Word and Excel, Google Docs, email) that are used to help people deliver the organization’s services. Tools can also include phones, tablets, paper forms, flip charts, whiteboards, medical supplies, and essentially any human-made artifact that helps us get our work done. Computerized technology is just another type of tool. When designing or fixing an operating system, we make sure that the tools are a good fit for the organization’s capacity, needs, and processes and that all of the tools are able to work together as seamlessly as possible to minimize double work.

  • Processes - each program or department in your organization has a purpose, and achieves that purpose through a series of activities. The exact ways in which people use tools and technology to get their jobs done is a process. Processes are often ad-hoc and informal, but can be designed, written down, and managed so that they’re repeatable, efficient, and sustainable. Within a single program or department, having informal processes might be advantageous, but when programs or departments have to exchange information, process clarity is critical. When designing or fixing an operating system, we make sure we have clear definitions for how any key information is created, used, or reported on so that we can more easily share information across an organization. This leads to reduced friction and fewer misunderstandings or rework. Process clarity also allows us to ensure that the way people are using tools and technology isn’t unnecessarily frustrating or time wasting because each action has a clear purpose in the service delivery.

  • Capacity - there are many definitions for capacity. In operations, we mean roughly “how much work can the organization get done at the desired quality?” Capacity is defined by the organization’s constraints with limited resources: budget, time, and energy. The number of people you can hire to provide a service is clearly limited by budget. Capacity is the time those people have to work and the energy they can draw from. Unnecessary meetings, poorly configured software, and requirements that don’t directly serve the clients or a strategic or compliance need of the organization are all factors that serve to reduce the time available for people to execute on mission. A lack of training, shifting or unclear management priorities, and the often emotionally demanding work that some service organizations engage in are factors that reduce the energy available to people, which is needed for concentration, decision-making, and task execution. The three constraints - budget, time, and energy - each influence the ability to change the other. When designing or fixing an operating system, we have to understand the real constraints of budget, time, and energy, so that we can ensure all processes and tools are appropriate for an organization’s unique configuration of these elements.

Why Do You Need an Operating System?

All organizations have an operating system, even if they don’t know it. The real question is - why do you need to pay attention to your operating system?

We are all familiar with the operating systems that run our smartphones and computers. Computer operating systems provide a bridge between the hardware - your screen, keyboard, hard drive, and so on - and all of the apps and programs that you run. Imagine if each app had its own, separate, bridge to the hardware. You might have boot up your computer into one environment to send an email, then shut down, and reboot into a totally different environment to write a paper. Or your keyboard would work one way in one app, but a completely different way in another, forcing you to memorize many ways of typing instead of just one. It would be a terrible experience! Computer operating systems make sure that access to the hardware is managed in a predictable, uniform way so you don’t have to relearn how to use a computer every time you try to do something on the computer.

To execute on its mission, your organization provides the capacity for people to use tools and technology within certain processes designed to deliver your services. Each program or department in your organization can probably operate totally independently, but like our computer operating system example, that can create a jarring and disconnected experience for employees, volunteers, and clients. We don’t have to imagine what a world without good organizational operating systems is like - most of us have first-hand experience. If you’ve ever been sent to talk to person A at an organization, who sends you to person B, who tells you that you really need to talk to person A, you’ve experienced the disconnect of a poorly implemented operating system.

Indicators of a Healthy Operating System

Our case studies, projects and workshops illustrate new indicators of healthy operating systems all the time. Here are just a few to get you started:

Fundraising and Finance Can use program data without a translator

Cross-departmental data exchange relies on clear definitions and consistent execution. Organizations with great operating systems achieve this through deliberate design, attention to the key elements that have to be exchanged across departments, and organization-wide definitions and understanding of those elements. Instead of getting frustrated because three different reports on program participants show a different number of active participants, the development team understands what they’re seeing in the reports and how those data elements are defined so that they’re confident in their grant writing and public communications. Program staff don’t have to keep track of their activities one way for their own managers and then translate those activities in complex spreadsheets to put into the financial system for billing to funders, because the key data was aligned across departments so that it’s consistent. Program, finance and development staff are free to devote their time and energy to their respective work because they have a shared clarity around their most important pieces of information.

Staff turnover is relatively low

While management, fit, and culture certainly play a very large part in staff longevity, the day to day “grit in the gears” can also wear people down. When management, tools, and processes are aligned with strategy, staff don’t have to waste precious time and energy on work that has no apparent value. When processes are clear and well-understood, people can take time away from the office without worrying about all the stuff only they know or can weigh in on. With a good operating system that aligns with the operating model — that is, the metrics and management activities that are used to assess staff performance — people understand how their work contributes to the mission, and also how their colleague’s work contributes. So cross-departmental collaboration toward a shared mission becomes easier than in an organization where people believe they are competing for resources. All of these elements are small, sometimes intangible supports for staff who are dedicated to the organization’s mission and want to spend their time working toward it.

Painless staff transitions

Even with low turnover, people move on. Losing that rock star colleague is met with some sadness and maybe a going-away party, but in organizations with great operating systems, nobody worries about her departure’s impact on client service because her processes are both documented and managed. Nobody fears that her loss will mean a permanent increase in work for everybody else, because they know her role is defined and will be replaced. Nobody worries that they will have to hire an outside consultant to figure out the systems she’s constructed on her own, where valuable information is in shorthand known only to her, because the tools and technology she used are well understood and used consistently by everybody. So when she leaves, her colleagues are free to focus on the important interpersonal aspect of her departure rather than worrying about the impact on their daily activities.

Read about Healthy Lives Associates and their struggles with the operating system in our case study. Our case studies are short, relatable stories based on real organizations, with names and certain details changed, designed to help bring the theory to life.