Business leaders in general (and members of the tech community, in particular), have a tendency to prioritize and celebrate — above all else — the sanctity of product. From focusing myopically on product design to investing lavishly on product release parties, it would appear that many believe a company’s job is done once they have a prototype to demo on a stage floor.
This is, in a word, misguided.
Recently, Elon Musk, Chief Engineer, Founder, and CEO of SpaceX, sat down with General John Raymond, Chief of Space Operations for the U.S. Airforce, to discuss the challenge and importance in business of creating “The machine that builds the machine” — or, the connected systems of people and processes that internally power companies. “Designing the production system of a new product is at least an order of magnitude harder than designing the initial prototype,” Musk told Raymond. “Designing a rocket is trivial… If you understand equations, you can design a rocket… But making a production line that builds and launches many rockets… that’s extremely hard.”
He’s right. Designing, constructing, and maintaining internal processes and production systems that are conducive to efficiency and innovation at scale — whether you’re building rockets, cars, or software — is as much of an engineering challenge as designing and building the product itself (even though most don’t conceive of it as such). In fact, it might be more challenging, requiring unparalleled levels of intellect, design skill, and focus, not to mention empathy and psychological awareness.
So, too, is it more consequential. The “machine that builds the machine,” to borrow Musk’s words, is what allows companies to produce great and important things regularly.
In business, the machines that build the machines are operations teams.
Good business operations today function much like manufacturing production systems. Well-designed business operations teams build strategic and scalable processes that optimize for efficiency and performance. The best of these processes accommodate and adapt to the needs and preferences of people, empowering them to spend their time valuably, focusing on work befitting their intelligence and skill. When ops personnel are so prioritized, appreciated, and enabled, they do indeed comprise well-oiled machines.
So, too, do they lower production costs, improve efficiency, and increase output. They’re what ultimately transform good ideas into great companies.
We believe this to be a crucial point to draw attention to. For too long companies, influencers, and the media writ large have disregarded the importance of business ops — of creating with purpose and empathy internal processes and systems that empower teams and businesses behind the scenes — and lent outsized credence to the intrinsic importance of outcome itself, as if operational challenges can be solved by simply purchasing and implementing a new piece of technology, like a CRM. Often, inside companies, this “tech-first” thinking manifests in the form of complex systems that no one uses; multiple tools for a single process; and people performing manual work just to fill in technology gaps.
This is a grave mistake. The truth is that tech — whether in the form of the apps we purchase or the products we build — means nothing without talented ops teams emboldened and guided by strategic thinking about the holistic operations “machine.”
The “machine” without a production process is of almost no value; the machine that builds the machine, however — that’s what creates greatness and shifts paradigms.
(This is true of all manner of machines, by the way, from rockets and satellites to day-to-day work tools.)
At the end of the day, to focus myopically on the thing you’re building — as opposed to the way you’re building it — is to hamstring your company’s innovative capacity and shortchange the value consumers ultimately derive from your business.
It’s imperative companies begin doing the opposite. Investing in and focusing on business ops is paramount. In the future, it’s what will allow for companies to optimize their productive capacity and maximize their societal impact.
But we’re not there yet. To do things like send reusable rockets into space regularly, or create software that liberates and empowers employees systematically, we all need to ditch our outdated product-first thinking in favor of recognizing — tangibly and logistically — the importance of the people, systems, and processes that power products behind the scenes.