What to Know About an MBA in Operations Management

When a business specializes in selling a product or service to consumers, that company typically must maximize quality and minimize price in order to thrive. The leaders who have expertise in quality control and cost-reduction strategies and oversee the process of making a product or performing a service are known as business operations managers.

An aspiring MBA candidate with an analytical mindset may want to consider an MBA program with a strong curriculum in production or operations management, which focuses on how companies can create compelling products or services in a cost-effective way. This field is related to a discipline known as logistics or supply chain management, which centers on how companies distribute their products or services to consumers and what they can do to increase the speed and lower the expense of the product or service delivery.

Both production and logistics MBA courses require students to use mathematical models to solve complex problems, and each of these types of classes is typically housed within a business school’s academic department of operations. Operations is an academic subject that focuses on how to establish effective processes, both on the production and distribution side of a business, and experts say this subject is essential for MBA students to master.

[Read: What an MBA Degree Is and What You Need to Know.]

“Operations are critical to ensure firms’ ability to deliver value, thus lying at the core of all firms’ strategies,” Soo-Haeng Cho, an associate professor of operations management at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, wrote in an email.

What Is Operations Management?

Operations management is about designing and implementing beneficial business practices, and the goal of this type of management is to maximize the efficiency and productivity of a company.

Sallie Phillips, an operations manager for English Blinds, a U.K. manufacturing company that makes and sells window blinds, wrote in an email that the goal of her profession is to “ensure that everything works as it should.”

Likewise, Kerry Wekelo — an MBA degree-holder who is both the chief operating officer at Actualize Consulting, a financial services consulting firm, and the founder of Zendoway, a company that offers wellness-related services and products — says that operations management is essential to the success of a business and the “backbone of how the firm operates.”

A person who is a good fit for the operations management profession, she adds, will be “detail-oriented, enjoy multitasking and thrive on the rewards of seeing a successfully run company on paper and in the culture.”

Business school faculty who teach operations management courses say it makes an impact on multiple components of any given business.

[Read: Consider an MBA Concentration in Technology.]

Darwin Davis, an associate professor of operations management and head of that academic area at the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics at the University of Delaware, says the focus of this academic discipline is to learn how to optimize all business processes that “create value” for either external or internal stakeholders.

He adds that the job of an operations manager is to create business processes that are “well-aligned” with the business strategy of a particular company, and assist with the creation of high-quality and low-cost products or services. Another goal for an operations manager, Davis says, is to ensure that a company is tailoring its products or services to meet the needs of its customers, and this type of manager may also strive to guarantee that whatever products or services a company delivers use cutting-edge technology.

Indiana University’s Mohan Tatikonda, an operations management professor in the Kelley School of Business who has a Ph.D. in operations management, says a skill set in this area of expertise comes in handy for a variety of critical business endeavors. For instance, knowledge of this discipline helps with managing accounts, assembling investment portfolios and making consumer goods, he says.

“I think of operations management as the art and science of getting work done,” Tatikonda wrote in an email. “Any organization that does work, should aim to do its work better — and be more competitive and serve its customers better. We’re all doing work to serve our customers … We’d like to know what work is the most important work to do, and for the work we are going to do — how do we do it better? That’s what operations management is all about: Managing one’s own work and managing the work of the enterprise.”

Career Options for Someone With an MBA Degree in Operations Management

Experts say that an MBA concentration or specialization in this area allows students to compete for a wide array of jobs, including positions at manufacturing companies, consulting firms and startup ventures. It also provides solid preparation for general management positions.

Because of the increasing importance of innovation in business, skills in production-oriented operations management are highly marketable, experts say. Students with these traits are capable of helping the world’s most creative companies like Apple and GE build new technology.

A key lesson taught in production or operations management courses is how to manage a company’s “innovation process,” says Elliott N. Weiss, a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Weiss says that the goal of an operations manager is to encourage continuous improvement of business processes and constant refinement of the company’s products.

“One of the things we say is ‘fail early and fail often,'” he says. “Rather than spend two years in your office designing something and then seeing it doesn’t work, keep going out and iterating back and forth.”

Weiss emphasizes that operations managers are experts at “systematizing new product development.” Production or operations management MBA programs tend to appeal to students who enjoy troubleshooting and who like the thrill of discovering new inventions, he says. “I think it appeals to people who like to solve problems, who like to make things and who like to … see tangible results of what they do,” he says. “It’s very much hands-on.”

How to Choose an Operations Management MBA Program

If you’re considering pursuing an MBA degree focused on production or operations management, experts suggest keeping five factors in mind.

An excellent program teaches how to manage people, not just how to crunch numbers. “Many people might think that you’re just dealing with things and machines, but really it’s all about the people,” Weiss says. That’s why MBA students with a focus in production or operations management should be sure to take courses in organizational behavior and leadership, he says.

Thomas Roemer, executive director of the Leaders for Global Operations program affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management and School of Engineering, says aspiring operations managers need to know how to effectively advocate for their product and process improvement ideas. In order to implement a vision for a company’s improvement, an operations manager will typically need to “create buy-in with both senior management and labor,” Roemer wrote via email.

A key indication of a high-quality production and operations management curriculum is if it includes project-based learning opportunities with real companies and executives who need assistance, Roemer says.

A solid curriculum will offer training in artificial intelligence, machine learning and business analytics. It will include lessons in mathematical modeling and data interpretation, because manufacturers collect a treasure trove of data when they create products, Roemer says.

[Read: 7 Nontraditional Jobs for MBA Graduates.]

“Everything is measured all the time, and there is a wealth of data there that we need to start exploring,” Roemer says.

A top-tier MBA program in this discipline will discuss intellectual property issues. Bill Elkington, a past board member and past president of the Licensing Executives Society, a professional society for business leaders at companies that are creating unique technology, says a production or operations management curriculum that doesn’t discuss intellectual property is incomplete.

Understanding how to protect trade secrets and shield original business ideas from competitors is a key component of being an effective operations manager, says Elkington, who also is director of intellectual capital management at Collins Aerospace, a tech firm in the aerospace sector.

“It’s important to realize that 80% of the equity value of a publicly traded company today is in intellectual capital,” he suggests, contending that the future of a typical company “depends on the safeguarding of … (its) intellectual capital.”

A degree in this field offers abundant career flexibility and can lead to a high salary. Elkington says a common misconception about production or operations management careers is a concern that pursuing these jobs will lead to lower salaries and more limited career options than specializing in money management disciplines like finance and accounting.

“I think MBA students think that finance and accounting is where they’re going to make the most money and… operation and production is where you’re going to make the least money, and that’s not so,” he says.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average operations manager in the U.S. earns more than $120,000 per year. Elkington says that prospective MBA students should understand that jobs in production or operations management are “just as potentially remunerative as other fields that they can concentrate on in their MBA program.”

Elkington emphasizes that training in operations management has applications in numerous industries and jobs, and stresses that the training is useful for aspiring C-suite executives.

Specializing in this discipline can allow you to have a positive influence on society. Roemer says that business operations managers are among the individuals within a company who are the best equipped to ensure that the company has ethical and sustainable business practices. “You are the ones who can actually improve the world and move us forward,” he says.

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More from U.S. News

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What to Know About an MBA in Operations Management originally appeared on usnews.com

Correction 10/09/18: A previous version of this article misspelled Elliott N. Weiss’ name.

Update 10/28/19: This article has been updated with new information.

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