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Libby Marks

How to Improve Operational Efficiency: The Ultimate Guide for 2024

Operational efficiency reduces costs and increases profit margins. But it’s about more than just the money. Discover how to improve your operational efficiency for greater productivity, profitability, agility, sustainability, and satisfaction in your service-based business.

In the fast-paced world of professional services, success is measured not just by the quality of expertise but also by the ability to deliver exceptional results. 

Operational efficiency stands as a linchpin that separates thriving businesses from those left struggling in the wake of intense competition. For any professional services firm, whether it's a law practice, consultancy, accounting firm, or marketing agency, improving operational efficiency is paramount.

Many times COOs get it wrong though, mistaking operational efficiency for cost-cutting. However, operational efficiency does not equal one specific measure. It's a combination of efforts that can fine-tune your business. 

In this guide, we'll explain what operational efficiency means, outline its purpose, and provide recommendations on how to improve it without necessarily resorting to cutting costs. 

What is operational efficiency?

Operational efficiency is making the most out of available resources such as time, people, equipment, inventory, and money to deliver products or services in a profitable way.

Efficient operations aim to reduce waste and latency in your business so that every penny you spend delivers a return on investment.

When a company is efficient, it becomes more streamlined, flexible, and able to make better profits.

Now, you may think operational efficiency is very similar to productivity, but it's not the case. 

Productivity is how much work gets done. Efficiency is how well it gets done. Your business can be productive without being efficient. 

Two businesses can be equally productive. But if one works more efficiently, they are likely to be more profitable. They’re also more likely to meet quality and customer satisfaction goals, which can make them more successful and sustainable. 

But before we jump to the benefits, let's look at one operational efficiency example to clear the fog. 

Operational efficiency example

An IT firm develops apps for clients. The project manager predicts a project should take 4 weeks but - due to bottlenecks and double-booked developers - it takes 8 weeks and involves the use of higher-cost contractors.

This suggests the company isn’t predicting resource availability or capacity accurately - and that has consequences for project margins, schedule, and customer satisfaction. 

  • Delayed projects mean higher costs and delay to revenue realization
  • Discrepancies between projected and actual costs undermine financial planning
  • Discrepancies between planned and actual schedule have consequences for contingent projects
  • Some staff have been under-utilized, others are overworked
  • The use of contractors incurs additional resource courses at the company’s expense
  • The customer is unlikely to be happy with the delay 

The business is not operationally efficient in this example. Due to poor planning and management, they have incurred unnecessary resource costs, failed to maximize the ROI of the existing human resources, and undermined client satisfaction.  

Read more about project profitability and how to measure it.

The purpose of operational efficiency

The objective behind adopting an operational efficiency mindset is to minimize the time spent by workers on non-value-added activities or inefficient processes. By maximizing the focus on value-added work, this approach can significantly enhance a company's competitiveness and profitability, making it more agile and successful in the market.

You'll be surprised, but new research in the UK reveals that the average UK office worker is only productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes each working day. 

There's a lot to unpack here, but it's just one example showing that employees aren't as engaged as business owners would like them to be. More so, their focus is stolen by other tasks performed on a daily basis, but not adding any value to the business. 

While having some downtime is beneficial to employees, to become more operationally efficient, you'd like to eliminate as many non-value-adding tasks (also known as waste) that consume everyone's time. 

Waste typically falls into two categories:

  1. Necessary but non-value-adding Activities: These include essential yet non-value-adding tasks such as administrative duties.
  2. Completely useless activities: This category comprises activities that provide no value whatsoever and should be eliminated.

While you can automate some of the activities in the first category, you'll want to identify and get rid of the completely useless ones.

➡️ Related: Operations Strategy 101

Benefits of operational efficiency

The benefits of operational efficiency go beyond just saving money. Operational efficiency can also improve customer satisfaction, help engage and retain staff, and improve your business agility. 

Reducing costs 💸

Operational efficiency reduces costs by using resources better. For example, in a professional services business, people are your highest cost. If you can optimize their workload and processes - so that they’re delivering more work within the same working hours/wage cost - you're getting more output for the same input. 

Higher revenue and profitability 💰

By reducing wastage in your operations, you can deliver the same products at a lower cost, which means more profit. Or you can increase your outputs at the same cost, meaning the potential for revenue growth. For example, if you can save 100 hours on existing Project A, you can reinvest that time in delivering new Project B.

Shorter lead times/time to market 📄

Operational efficiency means working smarter and that often results in working faster. As a result, you can get new products to market quicker or deliver projects in a shorter timeframe. This has lots of benefits, from delighting customers with your speedy service, to stealing ahead of your competitors with a new product. 

Quality and customer satisfaction ⭐

Operational efficiency can drive up product or service quality. Consider automation for example. Manual, repetitive tasks can sap your team’s time and creativity. If you automate those processes, the tasks still get completed (often to a higher standard with less human error). And your team gains back time for more value-adding activity. Like strategy or product development, instead of spreadsheets and data entry. This can drive up product quality, at no extra cost to your business.

Increased business agility 🤸

When you operate efficiently, you’re more agile and able to exploit new opportunities. Building on the example above, imagine your business has the chance to quote on a new project. But your PMs are so tied up with manual tasks managing your existing projects, that you don’t have the time to work out capacity and resource availability for future projects. So the opportunity passes you by.

Staff engagement and retention 📈

Inefficient processes are time-consuming and boring - which can leave your staff feeling frustrated, overworked and undervalued. Improving operational efficiency gives your team more time for stuff that engages, excites, challenges and develops them - which means they’re more likely to be working to optimal capacity and less likely to be looking for a new job! Think they’re not looking? Think again. Microsoft reports more than 40% of workers are considering leaving their employer in the next 12 months. 

Proactivity instead of reactivity 🤓

Truly efficient operations reduce wasted time and effort, increase transparency between teams, and improve data flow. This means your managers have more time and accessible information for better decision-making. Instead of feeling overstretched and constantly on the back foot, they have time to be proactive and strategic. This, in turn, can improve every element of your business.

How do you measure operational efficiency?

You can measure operational efficiency through a range of quantitative and qualitative measures. Strictly speaking, operational efficiency is measured as a ratio known - unsurprisingly - as the operational efficiency ratio.

The operational efficiency ratio adds operational expenses to the cost of delivering your services or goods, then divides that number by your net sales. This results in a number, which can be expressed as a percentage, that shows how much of your net sales are absorbed by costs.

However, this ratio isn’t the only way to measure operational efficiency. Different businesses will use other measures to create a more holistic picture of business performance. For example, in a service-based business, you would want to also look at metrics relating to:

  • Resource utilization
  • Billable vs non-billable hours
  • Profitability

Of course, stats and figures only tell part of the story. You also need to consider qualitative measures of operational efficiency. 

Do processes feel efficient? Are staff slowed down and feeling frustrated? Are they working long hours to meet deadlines and risking burnout? Are customers happy with your product or service? Or do they complain about lead times, processes, and deliverables? 

How to improve operational efficiency 

In a service-based business, your people are your biggest asset - they do the work that delivers the results - but they’re also your biggest cost. So improving how you manage your human resources will make a significant difference to the operational efficiency of your organization. 

Here are ten ways to improve and align your people, processes, technology, and data to improve operational efficiency - for lower costs, higher productivity, and happier clients and colleagues.

1. Optimize your resources

Resource optimization is the process of allocating and managing resources in the most efficient way possible. The purpose of resource optimization is to maximize productivity by reducing the direct costs of labor. Resource optimization techniques can also help you improve performance and meet customer requirements better. 

Resource optimization includes a lot of different techniques.

Assigning the right people to the right projects at the right time

This ensures you have the skills you need to deliver a project on time and to customer satisfaction. But you avoid overspending on staff because you only use the exact people (at the exact level of skill and seniority) you need. And you make sure you’re using them to capacity rather than them sitting on the bench waiting for meaningful work.

Avoiding underutilization

Underutilization is when your resources aren’t being used in a way that maximizes your ROI. For example, using a senior software engineer when a more junior staff member would have sufficed. In this scenario, you may be paying $100 per hour instead of the $50 that the task required. Or having staff working on low-value admin instead of billable work that adds value to your business.

Avoiding overutilization

The flip side of underutilization is overutilization. This is when you are using staff too much. This can cause several problems for your project, processes and profit. 

Firstly, overutilization leads to burnout, which leads to issues around health, performance, and attendance. The World Health Organization added burnout to its International Classification of Diseases in 2019, stating it is an ‘occupational phenomenon’. Burnout is also the leading cause of staff resignation, which leads to costly employee churn. 

Secondly, when one individual is in high demand they can become a bottleneck to projects. This means whole project schedules can be delayed by their availability. Or force the use of the wrong resource for the task at hand, which impacts deliverables and/or costs. 

As you can see, resource optimization is a key lever in operational efficiency - improving margins, project performance, budget and quality control, staff satisfaction and more. To optimize your resources, you need mechanisms to understand:

  • The people and skills you have at your disposal
  • How much they cost the business when used
  • Their current level of utilization 
  • Their future availability
  • Suitable alternatives to preferred individuals  

Alternatively, you can bring people's passions and interests into the mix. Our COO Nicole Tiefensee believes resource management is not just about maximizing capacity anymore.

There's been a significant evolution in how resource management operates, both over time and during our journey with Runn. In recent years, a noticeable shift has occurred within the organizations we collaborate with and engage in conversations with. The focus has transformed considerably from the previous paradigm of merely matching a project's requirements with an available engineer possessing the required skills. Instead, organizations are adopting a more strategic perspective, considering factors beyond sheer skills. Nowadays, it's not just about who has the necessary skills but also about who has the relevant experience and the most relevant skill set.

This transition encompasses several aspects. Over the past two years, we've witnessed an even greater departure from the status quo. While an individual might possess the appropriate skills, there's growing recognition of the value in learning opportunities. We're working towards a resourcing approach that not only accommodates existing skills but also fosters growth and readiness for future endeavors, including upcoming projects.

➡️ Continue reading: What Successful Directors of Operations Do Differently

2. Review processes

Business transformation is achieved through the golden triangle of people, processes, and technology - the PPT framework. People do the work, processes make that work repeatable, and technology makes those processes more efficient. So it’s essential that your processes are fit-for-purpose and operationally efficient.

Understand current processes

The first step is to audit your existing processes and understand every step. How does each action contribute to the overall goal? Is it the best action to achieve that goal? Is it optimized to achieve that goal efficiently? To do this, you need to ‘get into the mud’, as Ella Steinmetz-Simon, COO at 14Mind, explains:

Managers plan for near-perfect scenarios but they rarely happen. It’s important to get into the mud with your team and see what’s really going on. It gives managers a better insight into the technicalities of business processes - and the challenges your team face day-to-day. Any roadmap for operational efficiency that isn’t based on a granular understanding of current processes is based on rocky foundations. 

Realign and redesign processes

Your process audit may discover systematic inefficiencies in how you’re doing things. Or it may reveal that once fit-for-purpose processes no longer meet the evolving needs of your business. 

For example, consider your processes for scenario planning - comparing different combinations of projects and working out which is best for your business. When your business was bijou, you could manage this process by assessing data from a simple spreadsheet. But now you’ve grown to an SME - congratulations 🥳 - that process no longer works. Extracting meaningful insights from Excel takes hours of a data analyst’s time, just to model a single scenario. It’s excessively time-consuming and the data is rarely fully up-to-date. 

This process - that used to work - is now a risk to operational efficiency. Both by taking up unnecessary time to execute, and by denying managers the easy access to data they need for effective decision-making. This is a process that would benefit from automation (see next section).

You also need to make sure your processes are aligned to your current strategic objectives. If processes were initially established - say - during a period where you were focused on cost savings, they may no longer be suitable now you’re pursuing growth. 

Once you’ve updated and optimized your processes, create Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for your team to refer to. SOPs are written instructions that describe routine processes step-by-step, so they can be completed in the same consistent, efficient way every time - regardless of who is performing them.  

➡️ Continue reading: 30+ Tips to Streamline Your Business Processes

3. Automate processes

One of the major barriers to operational efficiency is unnecessary manual processes. In the new age of automation technology, there is no excuse for these time-consuming, labour-intensive activities.

Ajay Agrawal, professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Toronto, says digitization and automation will top the agenda for ambitious businesses this year. Speaking to McKinsey for their 2022 technology trend panel, he says ‘Traditional companies will continue their investments in digitization. Technologically advanced companies will invest in automation.’

Manual processes sap staff time and morale, sucking them into tedious tasks that don’t actually need human input to execute. As a result, you waste the time and talents of your team members, performing tasks over hours or days that a software program could complete in seconds. 

Consider resource allocation as an example. You have all of your resources allocated to their relevant projects. The right people are in the right place at the right time. Life is in balance. But then a project schedule or scope changes, and you need to reallocate resources accordingly. 

This is a process that - if performed manually by your program manager - could take hours to complete. But - using resource allocation software - would be the work of a few minutes. This means you can make changes confidently and quickly, and your PM can get back to tasks where their human ingenuity and input add value to the business - like strategic planning, innovation, and stakeholder management.

Automating processes improves operational efficiency by:

  • Reducing the time your staff spends on unnecessary processes - creating more capacity without additional cost 
  • Reducing the time it takes to complete certain tasks - speeding up workflows, decision-making and time-to-market
  • Freeing up resources for activities that really need their attention - improving quality and customer outcomes 
Every single company should be investing in automation and software that works for the company. Put the money into it - every single penny is worth it. Remember that just because certain software was popular six months ago, doesn’t mean it’s right today. Always be on the lookout for new technology and new opportunities to automate. - Ella Steinmetz-Simon, COO at 14Minds

4. Improve cross-team collaboration 

As your organization grows, it gets harder to collaborate and share information. Perhaps you started as a small team sharing information about operations, finance, or recruitment by shouting across the office or starting a huddle in Slack. But now you’ve grown and there are actual teams for each of those business functions, and they each have their own systems and processes.

Your business depends on those teams working well together - sharing information in a timely way, working together for the greater good - but that doesn’t always happen. This can undermine operational efficiency in lots of ways.

  • Relying on information or input from other teams can cause bottlenecks and delays 
  • Misalignment between team priorities can cause frustration and friction
  • Isolated projects and initiatives risk duplication and inconsistencies 
  • Siloed data makes it hard to get cross-functional insights for strong decision-making 
A common problem with business planning is that operational systems are vertical and siloed. There’s no visibility into connected and contingent factors that affect your ability to deliver,’ says Tim Copeland, CEO at Runn. ‘Sales colleagues might commit to a project without fully understanding the impact on the delivery team. Or a project manager might plan around an individual’s capacity without knowing they’re coming to the end of their contract. This can lead to operational inefficiency - and risk the cardinal sin of overpromising and under-delivering to clients.

To improve cross-team collaboration - and therefore operational efficiency - you should think about ways to:

  • Create a culture of collaboration and working towards organizational - rather than individual - goals
  • Review team structures to check whether they’re still fit-for-purpose or causing friction
  • Get everyone working in a single system instead of separate silos 
  • Standardize and consolidate data into a single source of truth for the whole organization

➡️ Continue reading: How to Break Down Silos within an Organization

5. Make data more accessible

Access to accurate data is essential for informed and timely decision-making, so siloed data is a big barrier to operational efficiency. Standardizing and centralizing data in a single source of truth ensures all departments are working with the same information - and managers have 360-degree insight into overall organizational performance. 

Take resource utilization as an example. In project-based businesses, managers need to be able to track and monitor resource utilization if they want to avoid over- or under-utilization. This needs information about every project and resource to be stored centrally - and updated and displayed in real-time - so they can make the right decisions for both people and projects. 

Another example is monitoring projected-vs-actual budget. If managers can see data about discrepancies in project projections across all teams, they can identify best practices and share that with poorer performers. The data can also help refine planning processes, so future projections are more accurate.

When looking to improve your data availability, consider the following: 

  • The essential information you need to measure and monitor, to improve operational efficiency 
  • Breaking down data silos by standardizing and centralizing data systems
  • Using software that automates data processing and visualization - to gain insights more quickly and easily 

It isn’t just decision-making the benefits from better data availability. McKinsey research found that improving data management, architecture, and governance can reduce waste and manual effort, cutting annual data spend by 5 to 15%. That’s time and money worth saving. 

6. Invest in time management

In a service-based business, time is literally money, so it is important to track how time is being spent. Research shows that workers spend 2.8 hours a day on productive tasks and only 27% of their time working on tasks directly related to their skills. 

Time tracking is one way to monitor and improve time management - and make sure your resources are being used efficiently. This doesn’t mean forcing your staff into 100% productivity or billable hours. That isn’t realistic. It simply means focusing your staff on work where they and their skills add the most value to your business.

For example, imagine you run a graphic design agency. You discover your lead designer is actually spending 3 hours a day dealing with emails about the approval process - emailing PDF proofs back and forth between different clients. This points to a solution to improve your operational efficiency - either by delegating that task to an administrator or introducing approval automation software. That way, your designer gets back to using the skills you actually hired them - and pay them - for. 

Read more about time tracking - and how to automate it - so it doesn’t become a time sink in itself. 

7. Introduce project controls

No project ever goes to plan - even with expert PMs at the helm. It’s important to track and evaluate how a project is progressing, so you can make changes if necessary. Project controls let you manage risks that emerge from the unexpected - like a team member needing to take sick leave or being moved to another project - to manage costs and customer outcomes.

Project controls include - but aren’t limited to:

  • Project scope statement
  • Work breakdown structure
  • Risk management plans 
  • Change management processes

By providing a framework for measuring, monitoring, and correcting project performance, project controls can significantly improve operational efficiency - by preventing projects from going off course and costing you additional time and money. 

8. Think ahead

To improve operational efficiency long-term, you obviously need to think ahead. ‘You should be thinking about 3-, 5- and 10-year goals and how to get there. That means aligning your investments and innovation to your longer-term strategic objectives,’ advises Ella Steinmetz-Simon, COO at 14Minds. ‘If it isn’t going to work a year from now, it isn’t right for your business.’

There are a number of activities you can undertake now, to improve efficiency in the future. 

Capacity planning

Capacity planning is about looking to the future to ensure you have the right resources in place to deliver your goals efficiently. For example, do you have the right number and type of staff - for example, senior developers - to deliver the sort of projects you plan to take on? If you plan to grow your business, do you have enough equipment and space to scale up? If you don’t have capacity in place when you need it, you’re likely to hit roadblocks and bottlenecks that lead to inefficiencies - at least in the short term.

Capability building 

Capability building is concerned with increasing your organization’s ability to achieve its future goals. It involves looking at where you want your business to be, auditing your current capabilities to get there, and filling any gaps that will hold you back. Capabilities are competencies - anything from leadership skills to how to manage meetings effectively. Building capabilities can significantly improve operational efficiency over time.

Automation and innovation

Automation frees up resources from time-consuming manual processes, which improves operational efficiency. This is a given. But implementing technology isn’t a one-and-done activity. Technology evolves to solve new problems and can render existing solutions - and whole processes - obsolete overnight. To ensure your business is using technology to its full potential, you should always be horizon scanning for new solutions. 

9. Set goals to empower employees

We’ve already established that - in a service-based business - your people are your biggest asset and cost. So helping them work efficiently will drive up operational efficiency overall. 

According to Ella, setting goals and empowering employees to achieve them is key. Employees need goals and Key Performance Indicators to:

  • Help them translate strategic initiatives into realistic work plans
  • Understand how their work ladders up to the company’s overall direction of travel
  • Recognise and celebrate their achievements and contribution

Ella recommends managers:

  • Break down ‘big picture’ objectives into smaller, achievable goals
  • Have regular 1:1 catch-ups to check progress and resolve roadblocks
  • Ask employees what they need to achieve their KPIs and resource them appropriately
  • Foster a culture of openness and experimentation

10. Experiment with new ways of working 

If there was ever a time to try new things, it’s now. More and more organizations are experimenting with new working models, and ways to engage remote and hybrid teams. For example, Runn has moved to async work.

Async working starts from the assumption that happier people are more productive, and organizations that prioritize their peoples’ needs will benefit as a business. At Runn we have teammates in different time zones all over the world. They all work their preferred hours to suit their personal needs. And - thanks to our async approach - they’re all empowered to contribute equally and collaborate effectively, says Felipe Skroski, cofounder at Runn. 

➡️ Continue reading:

Ella is a fellow advocate for evolving how you work too. For example, something as simple as meeting management can have an impact on operational efficiency.

We’re cutting down on meetings. If I need to share information with people I can record a Loom video or send a voice note. If we do have meetings, we make sure there are specific goals we want to achieve and this is the only way to achieve them. We put a time limit on the meeting and we schedule other times for socializing, so we can stay focused on the tasks at hand.

Resource management software is one way that service- and project-based businesses can improve operational efficiency. It allows organizations to plan, resource, and manage projects in the most operationally efficient way possible.

  • Resource optimization tools maximize the ROI you achieve from your team
  • Capacity planning tools help you seize and execute opportunities efficiently 
  • Improved access to data informs better decision-making 
  • And automation improves how staff use their time

Do the demo or start your free trial today.

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