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A question of Structure: What to do with your planning team

Published on 11 September 2018

A question of Structure: What to do with your planning team

One of the questions I have been asked most often through my career in customer service is “how should our planning team be structured?” This is generally accompanied by some more detailed questions like “should real-time be part of planning or part of the operational team”, “should MI and Planning be together”, “should we have one planning team for everyone or many planning teams, one for each line of business”? If I could only come up with a standard model that fits any organisation, I could save a lot of time and make a lot of money!

Finally, after nearly 15 years in Planning, I’m ready to share my progress!

The utopian blue-print of a planning team has completely failed to emerge. At the same time, the perfect ratio of planners to calls has turned out to be… very elusive. I can also confirm that no magic flow chart has materialised that will help companies manage all communication between planning and operations. I like to stay positive though and I have to admit, I’ve been able to scale down and dramatically postpone my retirement plans. Surely that’s constructive.

Seeing a model succeed in one organisation to then fail in the next and vice versa, time and time again, has left me convinced that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. That said, I’ve now personally led the set up planning functions in 3 multinational organisations and have supported several other companies in doing the same. Even I managed to pick up a thing or two in that time!

While there may be no perfect structure, there are factors and considerations that are universally applicable; there are characteristics of your operational environment which will make one structure more likely to succeed than another. If you can design a team that plays to the way your organisation works, your chances of success will inevitably be much higher. What I can share, over a few articles, is the list of things I look out for in assessing my environment in the hope that looking out for them will help you set yourself up for success.

Question 1) One or many teams:

The decision of whether to split or unite various planning functions is one that plagues many large organisations. These tend to have several teams of highly specialised people, all performing similar roles and needing the same kind of development for different business functions and still, most of the time, they hardly know each other. Clearly there are huge benefits in creating centres of excellence where economies of scale alone should allow you to provide all customers with a much more consistent service. Recruitment, management and development of the teams should also become much easier and consistent. And we can’t forget how valuable it is to share best practice among colleagues. Even employee’s appetite to merge the teams should be high after all, these are the teams that always tell you to multi skill your staff and merge call lines.

The obvious reason why companies don’t capitalise on this multitude of benefits is control. Merging these team will always mean that someone has to hand control of the planning process over to someone else. This is not just a concern for power-hungry megalomaniacs, this is a genuine business risk and must be assessed carefully – we need confidence that decisions made centrally will have with the same level of accuracy as those that were made in separate teams. To achieve these central teams must have incredible rigour in communicating to local stakeholders and making them each feel as though the supplied solution is bespoke to them, at least in terms of how it takes into account their local challenges, limitations and ambitions.

 Having found myself responsible for centralised planning teams a few times, I would also like to discuss the other side of the coin. I’ve learned the hard way not to underestimate the impact that the top level organisational structure will have on my team’s impact to the business. In the end I can come up with the best laid plans ever, but if no one listens, and if it’s hard to hold people accountable for ignoring the plans, then what was the point of planning in the first place?

Below I’ve drawn 4 organisational charts that depict where a planning team might typically sit in an organisation. Have a look through them.

Big Boss 1 has it all. A single planning team led by someone who is of the same grade as the heads of service. A model that leverages the benefits of the centre of excellence while easing communication and keeping everyone accountable. Easy!

Big Boss 2 had a different idea. They thought planning should report to the largest service area but be responsible for all planning processes. This is my least favourite option because it puts the planning function in constant conflict with the Service A boss. In this structure there is a higher chance that your plans will be perceived as biased towards Service B, and when A doesn’t follow the plan, it can be difficult to get things resolved. To be clear, this model can be made to work, it just takes a lot more energy and, if possible, some really great leaders at the top of the service areas. To me a good framework should make it easier to make and follow good decisions, not harder!

Big Boss 3 has a separate service organisations, each with it’s own planning team. In effect, below each Service Boss, there is a structure like that owned by Big Boss 1. You can imagine these teams as several steps removed from each other and each Big Boss might also have it’s own marketing or finance teams. This is probably the most common scenario that I’ve encountered in large organisations and it makes communication and stakeholder management easier while sacrificing the centre of excellence. In my mind this is justifiable only where merging the teams creates a structure like that in the second scenario. It is more often justifiable where the areas of the business are serving completely different customers with no overlap of work.

Unfortunately this is also frequently split by work type and I’ve seen many cases where call centre, back office or field workers are planned for separately even though they all support different aspects of a given customer case and therefore, the advantages of planning for an end-to-end customer journey would have generated more valuable insight than the separate planning functions could possibly achieve in silos.

Big Boss 4 has come across a different kind of problem – if you can’t have a dedicated big boss of planning, and they can’t report into one of the service areas, where do I put them? In my career, I have reported to HR, to Finance, to Business Insight, Business Transformation, process re-engineering and even, for a small misguided period, to IT. There are advantages and disadvantages to all which I will explore in a future article. For the purpose of this assessment I can tell you that as long as the Support Boss (my boss) was impartial to the different operating areas that we supported, all was fine. It works nearly as cleanly as scenario 1, with only limited risk of impartiality. E.g. when planning was part of business transformation we were seen as cost cutters, when we were part of HR we were seen as big brother. I always say that planners have to be the keepers of truth and for that to happen we must at all costs remain completely impartial. This structure makes it a little harder to do but not impossible.

So, if you are wondering if your model is right or not, ask yourself these two questions:

1)     Would a split model allow better access to insight and faster decisions that improve the impact of the planning team to a greater extent than a centre of excellence would?

2)     Would merging the teams in this way generate a perception of bias in our work towards a department or a given agenda?

Hopefully answering these questions will help you action your plans in a way that helps overcome the obstacles while creating functions that are truly set up for success. We want high-performing teams? Let’s start by putting them in the right place.

Published Date: 11/09/2018

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Author: Leanne McNamee

Categories: Library, Planning & Resourcing

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