Operating Principles (with Example)

Foundational Materials for an organization most commonly refers to its vision, mission, strategy, values, and culture.

After years of working at organizations with Foundational Materials, I’ve realized that while those materials are vital to a healthy organization, my teams and I don’t often have the triggers to remind us to refer to them because they don’t naturally come up in our daily work.

To help overcome that, I build into various processes and checklists the step of referring to them. I show them in action at all hands meetings, in goal settings, and when making decisions and taking action.

I also realized that what I was most often reminding my team to do wasn’t to live up to the vision and values, it was actually to follow certain Operating Principles. So, I added those to my list of Foundational Materials.

Your Operating Principles are the most tactical and practical part of your Foundational Materials. Your goals are the WHAT to do. Your Operating Principles are the HOW to do. They guide you on how to respond to customer questions, how to sell the product, how to design the product, how to write code, and many other daily activities. You don’t need the company vision in mind on each of those tasks but you should have your Operating Principles in mind. Almost every task you do should trigger you to think about or refer to your Operating Principles.

When you’re doing your work, how do you do it? Do you rush through it as fast as you can to save time at the risk of making mistakes? Do you use technology? Do you use spreadsheets? Do you document each task? When is something complete and ready for release? Does everything have to be perfect or is a good job sufficient? How do you pitch a potential client? What’s the process for responding to a customer service question?

Your Operating Principles help answer those questions.

Here’s an example of Operating Principles for an organization:

1. Do it once. Do it completely.

When you do a task, don’t just get it done, do it in a way that means the next time you or someone else does it, it will be as quick, easy, and mistake-free as possible. When appropriate:

  • Document the task’s steps clearly, so that you or anyone else can easily follow them next time.
  • Put the documentation in the right place with the right search tags.
  • Save any related files in the right place.
  • Create a process.
  • Create a checklist.
  • Create a template.

2. If the problem has been solved before, use the knowledge we created. Don’t start the task as if we haven’t done it before.

3. Do it well, but not too well.

As you may have heard, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

  • When we do a task, we do a cost-benefit analysis. We shouldn’t spend a week getting something perfect that’s already good enough for the purpose and won’t return a week’s worth of value.
  • Do quality work, not perfect work. Not every word needs to be perfect. Not every photo needs to be perfect.
  • But do pay attention to detail. It’s not good enough if it has lots of typos or if it’s inaccurate. Read it one more time, edit one more time, slow down and think for a second, don’t make silly mistakes that will cost us more time and money later because you rushed through something.

4. Use technology and checklists to find efficiency and avoid mistakes.

Humans are prone to make mistakes. Don’t put yourself in a position to be inefficient or make mistakes. If you make a mistake, primary blame often belongs to a flaw in the system and not user error.

  • We use a lot of spreadsheets. When we do, use data validation, reduce manual data entry, use forms for entering data, avoid entering the same data more than once, use one data source with multiple views, include checks on the data.
  • During and after doing a task, think about how it could be done better next time if you used technology. Is there a tool you could have used to make it more efficient and reduce the likelihood of mistakes? Could you have used zapier to accomplish part of the task? Could you have removed manual work or data entry? Could you have pasted data into a spreadsheet log and had the work done automatically based on that log?

5. Try yourself, ask the internet, then ask for help.

Before you ask for help, try to solve the problem yourself and ask the internet. But don’t waste hours of your time when 5 minutes of someone else’s time could solve it.

6. Use our other systems.

We’ve built various systems to make your job easier and make us work better as a company, use those systems:

After you have your organization’s Operating Principles, create a more specific version for each team.

Hope that was helpful.

Please share this resource with anyone who might find it valuable.

If you found this valuable, here are some other OpsMBA resources you might like:

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