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Why Operational Planning is Better with CAKE.

Photo used with thanks to Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I’ve spent a good deal of the last couple of decades planning and organising both for myself and others, across a range of disciplines. With experience including living for a year in China as a student, to months overseas on operations with the British Army from Afghanistan and the Sahara, to work as the Operations Director for a Cambridge University college during the Covid-19 pandemic, I have a fair idea about planning and operational delivery. Here, I look at one specific set of principles from my time in the Army which I’ve found useful in providing a framework for planning, and which can be implemented in businesses of all sizes.

Not so sugary but still a delight in its own way, of the many acronyms and mnemonics employed by the military, CAKE cuts to the heart of structure and ethos, and will help you get the most from your planning and operations. Without further ado, let’s grab a slice:

Concurrent Activity.

A fancy-pants way of saying “doing more than one thing at once”, reducing unproductive time. A sole trader will naturally find this more challenging than someone with teammates or staff at their disposal. However, with some creative thought, concurrent activity is absolutely possible: it covers everything from automating processes to run in the background to generating leads while waiting for others to accept your invitations. Using Virtual Assistants, accountants, or one of the many payroll / tax calculation services now available frees up your working time and allows you to get more done at once. For bigger organisations, performing multiple functions in parallel should be standard; periodically undertake a process review to verify this is the case, or identify areas for improvement.

Anticipation at all levels.

Soldiers of all ranks learn to anticipate at several stages: before orders, during orders, during operations, and after operations. Before orders they consider what likely kit and equipment will be needed, and what preparations are standard – weapons, ammunition, fuel, food, and so on – so there is less to do when orders are formally received. Orders themselves follow a format so everyone knows what’s coming, what’s important to them specifically, and when their speaking parts might be. During the operation soldiers know what part of the plan they are in, what is supposed to be coming up, and can think about how they should prepare – what items will be needed at what stage, where are they located, how long will preparation take, how to get them to where they are needed, and so on. After completion of the objectives, soldiers anticipate regrouping, resupplying, replacing damaged or lost equipment, and the lessons the operation has provided.

In the same way, you and your business should be trained to anticipate likely and commonplace activity, communicate effectively with one another about upcoming work or changes to plans, and expect at some point to provide feedback on a particular job. Speed this up with templates for regular meetings or processes, featuring clear agendas and goals.

Knowledge (professional). In expecting staff to be proficient in their roles, organisations should actively support CPD, obtaining or maintaining formal qualifications, networking, and putting theory into practice through on-the-job experience. Where the military ethos went above-and-beyond was in also expecting managers and leaders to understand elements of each other’s roles. In my personal experience, officers at different career stages attended mandatory courses between one month and one year in duration, specifically designed to incorporate and test knowledge from across the Army. After all, it’s helpful to know what’s going on and how to work effectively more widely than one’s own bubble.

Ideas for businesses to introduce cross-training include:

  • Interest sessions: introduce a weekly 15-30 minute “lunchtime talk” or equivalent, to be hosted by a different member of staff on rotation, in which they introduce an element of their work or studies.
  • Formal training: if appropriate send staff members on courses to cover other areas or functions.
  • Handbooks: create and promote a company handbook with useful details from across the organisation.
  • Complementary training: look to skills which enhance and benefit more widely across your organisation, such as Mental Health First Aid training, or coaching in effective meetings and time management.

Efficiency (in your processes). None of the above matters if you aren’t operating efficiently or if your teams don’t understand or use your processes and systems properly. The most basic recipe for efficiency calls for the following ingredients:

  • Continuous Improvement: you and your teams need to constantly be seeking improvements, whether procedurally (is the actual process as good as it can be?) or professionally (are we as qualified and experienced as we can be to operate at the highest level?).
  • Humility: all team members need to accept constructive criticism, in the process itself or in the part they play. Striving for better doesn’t mean you aren’t already good! Improvement has no place for ego.
  • Practice: as the adage goes, “perfect practice makes perfect”. Efficiency isn’t gained through one-off exposure, it comes from repetition and refinement, individually and as teams. To come back to a military analogy, soldiers practice and are tested on individual weapons handling skills before working in pairs, then as four, eight, and so on, all the way up to groups of 30 or more, with machinery and in difficult conditions (night, fog, snow, rain, etc). It starts with basics and it works up.

The next time you’re considering your business’ operations and planning processes, remember it’s a piece of CAKE.

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