Supply Chain Management

What Is an Operations Manager? A Master of Optimization

What Is an Operations Manager? A Master of Optimization
The Romans couldn't have built vast networks of roads and thousands of miles of aqueducts without operations management. Image from Death to the Stock Photo
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry April 13, 2020

Operations managers are responsible for finding that sweet spot where meeting demand doesn't leave a company in the red and cutting costs doesn't leave customers feeling shortchanged.

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Operations management is a surprisingly old discipline. We know from cuneiform tablets that the Sumerians tracked business operations as early as 5,000 BC. The Romans couldn’t have built vast networks of roads and thousands of miles of aqueducts without operations management.

Since then, innovators across industries have done their part to optimize operations management. In the process, they’ve improved everything from production and personnel management to supply chain management and accounting.

Operations managers are the professionals who keep organizations running smoothly. That involves a lot more than just identifying inefficiencies and developing better processes. In a post on LinkedIn, Megan Knapp sums up the responsibilities of an operations manager this way: “Not only are you a manager, [but you’re also] a repairman, an IT guy, a delivery person, a taxi driver, and pretty much anything else you can imagine. To say the least, you wear a lot of hats. But with many hats come many rewards.”

She’s right. The starting salaries in operations management are good, and the highest-paid operations managers can earn an average salary that’s well over six figures. Before you decide to become an operations manager, however, keep reading. Operations managers do a lot more than most people realize. If you’re looking for a low-stress career, this isn’t it.

In this article, we answer the question What is an operations manager? by discussing the following:

  • Is operations management part of supply chain management?
  • What do operations managers do?
  • What is the workplace of an operations manager like?
  • What degrees do you need to become an operations manager?
  • Are there different kinds of operations managers?
  • What is the typical advancement path for operations managers?
  • What skills are needed for operations management?
  • Are operations managers paid well?
  • How do I know if I’ll like working in operations management?

Is operations management part of supply chain management?

There’s some debate about whether operations management is part of supply chain management or it’s the other way around. In one Quora thread exploring this question, commenters offer answers as diverse and divisive as:

No, and it should not be. In most organizations, operations and the supply chain operate with conflicting objectives. Operations typically wants large production runs that increase their efficiency, whereas supply chain management wants to run things effectively.”

Yes. Operations management falls within supply chain management. It plays an integral part in producing the goods or services within the supply chain. Supply chain management encompasses and is focused on all activities across all organizations.”

“A supply chain manager career would be considered a subset of an operations manager career because it is just one part of the entire production operation. But they do share a similar end goal: to enhance the bottom line by reducing costs and increasing efficiency.”

In some supply chain management bachelor’s degree and master’s degree programs, operations management is covered as a module or offered as a specialization. However, the reverse is also true. That’s because there’s a lot of overlap among the responsibilities commonly associated with each role, and these roles are inextricably linked.

Both operations managers and supply chain managers want to boost efficiency, maximize production, and lower costs. The big difference is that supply chain management is outwardly focused while operations management is focused on internal processes. That said, it’s worth noting that in smaller organizations, one person may be both operations manager and supply chain manager.

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What do operations managers do?

Operations managers are the professionals responsible for making sure that companies use resources as efficiently as possible. Many people assume that ‘resources’ has to refer to money and raw materials. However, to an operations manager, employees, processes, logistics, inventory, and marketing assets are all resources that can potentially increase or decrease productivity.

Operations managers spend their days looking at everything, from shipping costs and employee engagement to customer satisfaction and operational policies. What falls under the operations umbrella? Sometimes, just about everything!

The key responsibilities of operations managers can include:

  • Analyzing operational processes
  • Coming up with long-term goals related to efficiency and productivity
  • Developing strategies and strategy updates to improve productivity
  • Drafting a company’s operational policies
  • Drafting reports for leadership covering metrics like quality, costs, and sales
  • Finding opportunities for professional development
  • Handling conflicts between logistics and operations
  • Identifying ways to streamline or automate repetitive tasks
  • Monitoring departmental budgets and identifying areas of overspending
  • Monitoring inventory management
  • Overseeing field operations
  • Overseeing human resources
  • Performing cost-benefit analyses on an employer’s internal programs
  • Resolving conflicts between employees or teams

This list is by no means exhaustive, and may not actually represent the responsibilities you’ll shoulder if you become an operations manager. That’s because the day-to-day duties of an operations manager can vary widely by industry and by organization—so much so that operations management may actually be a multitude of career pathways instead of just one, as we’ll discuss below.

What is the workplace of an operations manager like?

Operations managers work in just about every industry, including:

  • Construction
  • Finance
  • Healthcare
  • Hospitality
  • Manufacturing
  • Retail
  • Transportation

In most cases, operations management is an office job with fairly regular hours, though overtime is common. Some operations managers (specifically those in construction and manufacturing) may spend some time at construction sites or on a factory floor.

This is a job that tends to involve a lot of personal interactions. Operations managers have to be as comfortable talking to the senior operations manager and higher-level executives as they are to project managers, general managers, and lower-level employees. They also usually work as part of a team that can include general and operations managers because operations management is a collaborative discipline. A company’s every process and procedure is part of operations, which means every employee has a role to play in the operation manager’s world.

What degrees do you need to become an operations manager?

There’s no single best degree pathway for aspiring operations managers (possibly because this role can take so many forms). Some industries require operations managers to have field-specific degrees (like the Bachelor of Science in Manufacturing Management). Most operations managers launch their careers with one of the following degrees:

  • Bachelor of Arts in Operations Management
  • Bachelor of Arts in Operations Management Analysis
  • Bachelor of Business Administration in Logistics and Operations
  • Bachelor of Science in Business Administration in Operations Management
  • Bachelor of Business Administration in Operations and Information Management
  • Bachelor of Science in Operations and Supply Chain Management
  • Bachelor of Science in Operations Management
  • Bachelor of Science in Supply Chain Management

Salary.com data shows that about half of all operations managers are working with bachelor’s degrees. Only 19 percent of working operations managers have master’s degrees, and 31 percent have associate’s degrees and high school diplomas, which suggests that operations managers tend to advance via experience versus advancing via education.

However, there are a few compelling reasons to look into graduate school if you’re considering this career. A master’s degree may help you find work faster and negotiate for higher wages. You’ll also enjoy more opportunities for advancement if your highest level of education is a master’s degree, including becoming chief operating officer.

Again, there’s no perfect degree pathway. Operations managers have graduate degrees like the:

If you’re thinking about becoming an operations manager, it may be helpful to look at degree programs by school instead of by degree name. Some of the top colleges and universities for operations management are:

Are there different kinds of operations managers?

As alluded to above, there are many types of operations managers because every industry has unique processes and operational policies. There are:

  • Business operations managers
  • Construction operations managers
  • Energy operations managers
  • Field operations managers
  • Finance operations managers
  • Healthcare operations managers
  • Hotel operations managers
  • Hospital operations managers
  • IT operations managers
  • Laboratory operations manager
  • Logistics operations managers
  • Manufacturing operations managers
  • Marketing operations managers
  • Medical affairs operations managers
  • Nonprofit operations managers
  • Restaurant operations managers
  • Retail operations managers
  • Supply chain operations manager

Most of these roles and others in operations management can be grouped into three categories:

  • Financial management
  • Production management
  • Resource management

In some industries, operations managers handle all three. Some operations managers choose to specialize and work in a single industry for their entire careers. Others transition among fields, studying up on the unique planning, scheduling, procurement, and employee oversight needs of companies in those fields before making the switch.

What is the typical advancement path for operations managers?

The advancement path for operations managers varies by industry, as do the jobs that can prepare someone for this role. Some start out in this discipline as operations supervisors, operations specialists, or operations analysts. Others work as line supervisors, manufacturing managers, production planners, logistics analysts, or supply chain specialists. Still others spend time working as sales associates, assistant general managers, store directors, and team leaders, and in industry-specific roles. Operations manager is a senior role, and operations managers often have previous management experience.

What skills are needed for operations management?

Operations managers have to be quick on their feet, analytic thinkers, adaptable, and willing to learn because they are responsible for overseeing and optimizing every possible process and procedure. They need to be able to juggle a lot of different tasks focused on various departments and balance daily operational requirements against a business’ big picture goals. To do all these, operations managers must have well-developed:

  • Budgeting and auditing skills
  • Communications skills
  • Decision-making skills
  • Leadership skills
  • Organizational skills
  • Prioritization skills
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Relationship building skills
  • Strategic thinking skills
  • Time management skills

These aren’t the only skills successful operations managers possess, however. In some industries, operations managers need to have a deep understanding of federal and state rules and regulations. In others, operations managers need a high level of field-specific technical proficiency.

Are operations managers paid well?

The average operations manager salary is higher than the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ national salary average. How much more you’ll make than the average Jo or Joe, however, depends a lot on what type of operations manager you’re looking at.

Across all industries, operations managers earn about $70,000, but business operations managers earn about $96,000 while hotel operations managers earn just $54,000. Supply chain operations managers are some of the highest-paid operations managers and can earn well over $100,000.

How do I know if I’ll like working in operations management?

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have you ever looked at how a business was run and thought to yourself that you could do it better?
  • Are you always on the lookout for ways to optimize your own life?
  • Is your ability to prioritize one of your most well-developed qualities?

If so, you might just have what it takes to thrive as an operations manager.

Don’t worry if the idea of managing an entire company’s operations is a little overwhelming right now. By the time a professional lands in this role, they typically have the education, experience, skills, and knowledge necessary to help businesses run smoothly. It is a big job with a lot of moving parts, but that’s what some operations managers love about it.

“I have never had a job more stressful, crazy, ludicrous and exhilarating as operations management,” Megan Knapp writes in her LinkedIn piece. It may be that success in operations management is less about education and experience and more about personality. Successful operations managers are enterprising, energetic, and extroverted. They’re able to stay optimistic even when circumstances aren’t ideal. And they’re determined. Nothing’s ever perfect, but that doesn’t stop operations managers from trying to achieve perfection.

If all that sounds a lot like you, this is definitely a career you should explore in more depth.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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