Talks On Productivity: Evgeniya Malina - Head of Processes and Automation at Whizz

30 Apr 2024

In my pursuit of personal productivity, I decided to launch a series of interviews with top-notch experts in the field and started with a friend of mine who is known for her ability to make perfect order of any startuppish mess in a couple of months.

Let me introduce Evgeniya Malina, Strategy, Operations, and Product Management professional with 8+ years of experience leading large-scale programs, projects, and product launch efforts in FoodTech, Financial Institutions, and Professional Services. A highly analytical practitioner with extensive expertise and hands-on experience developing innovative business models, leveraging advanced analytics, and implementing complex technological solutions.

Evgeniya gave me perfectly structured tips (as been expected ofc). And not only on personal but moreover team productivity and collaboration effectiveness which is a crucial component for one’s success — no one can build a unicorn on his own. As a bonus, she shared some insights about productivity cultural differences both in the US and Europe as she has been building her career on both continents. Please dive in and get the most out of it for your processes!

In your experience, what are the key qualities or skills that are essential for an effective operations management leader?

  1. Comprehensive Understanding of Business Processes:
  • Ability to comprehend all underlying processes within the business.

  • Helps in problem-solving, identifying areas for improvement, and risk assessment.

This will serve as a great preparation for both internal and external challenges and will allow one to adapt quicker to changing or new circumstances.

This is particularly important for start-ups that face many challenges and need to adapt quickly. By knowing the processes, you have an idea right away of how to launch an MVP process or service/tweak the existing process in order to test the hypothesis.

  1. Market Awareness and Continuous Learning:
  • Stay updated on market trends, regulations, and competitor activities.
  • Engage in knowledge exchange with other companies.
  • Explore new approaches for enhanced operational efficiency.

I switched industries several times but my experience turned out to be applicable in every role and every company I worked at, as often you use similar approaches and similar solutions to solve different business problems. In fact, it is crucial to apply those skills and knowledge as they present a different perspective.

  1. Hands-On Involvement and Employee Engagement:
  • Regularly engage in fieldwork to understand operations firsthand.

  • Perform tasks alongside employees to identify inefficiencies.

  • Gather feedback from frontline workers for insights and improvement opportunities.

It is important not to be a top manager who is hard to reach - I have a history of being very much involved in daily operations by testing every role in the company to better understand their tasks and challenges. It is not uncommon to find me in the store next to customer support reps, and in the field with my repossession team.

I make sure that my employees know that they can reach out to me when something is not working and that they can become part of the solution - this engagement also brings up responsibility and motivation within them in the first place.

  1. Continuous Process Evaluation and Improvement:
  • Review existing processes to identify areas for enhancement.
  • Adapt processes to meet evolving business needs.
  • Test and refine processes to ensure scalability.

For startups, scalability often becomes a great challenge where many great companies may fail, even after having raised mlns of dollars. It is crucial to think ahead and test your processes for scalability. Key to success is to build flexible and scalable operations that will support the business, instead of becoming its obstacle, when growing to multiple stores, multiple cities, or globally.

  1. Willingness to Experiment and Test:
  • Embrace experimentation and innovation in processes.
  • Fearlessly test new approaches for scalability and efficiency.
  • Maintain a culture of continuous improvement and adaptation.
  1. Build a Strong and Engaged Team:
  • Important to have a team to rely on, that can support your ideas
  • Important to build a culture where one is not afraid to try and learn from his previous mistakes and is willing to move forward

Can you share any specific rituals that are integral to your work style, and how do they contribute to your success in integrating with a new team or organization?

  • Learning from Teams: I prioritize immersing myself in the day-to-day activities of the teams I work with. By engaging directly with team members, understanding their roles, challenges, and needs, I gain invaluable insights into existing processes and pain points. This hands-on approach not only builds my knowledge of the operations but also establishes rapport and credibility with team members, as they see me as a manager who is invested in understanding their perspectives.

  • Building Trust: From the outset, I make it clear to team members that my role is not to penalize but to support and facilitate positive change. This transparent communication fosters an environment where team members feel comfortable sharing their concerns, ideas, and feedback. Building trust is foundational to effective collaboration, as it empowers team members to engage openly and actively contribute to the improvement process.

  • Implementing Changes Step by Step: I believe in taking a gradual and strategic approach to implementing changes. Rather than overwhelming teams with sweeping transformations, I break down initiatives into manageable steps or pilot projects. This allows team members to see immediate results and experience the benefits of change firsthand, which increases their buy-in and willingness to participate in future initiatives.

At Whizz, for example, our decision to locate the HQ office next to the main store underscores our commitment to accessibility and collaboration, enabling seamless interaction and collaboration between headquarters staff and frontline employees.

How do you collaborate with cross-functional teams when planning and implementing process automation? How do you achieve efficiency?

In collaborating with cross-functional teams for process automation, I follow a systematic approach aimed at ensuring clarity, efficiency, and alignment with organizational goals:

  1. Alignment and Stakeholder Engagement: I initiate the process by clearly articulating the purpose and benefits of automation, seeking feedback from key stakeholders, and ensuring their buy-in. This fosters alignment and enhances the likelihood of successful implementation.

  1. Strategic Planning: Planning is paramount in my approach. I break down complex tasks into manageable components, establish timelines, and allocate responsibilities systematically. By incorporating a buffer into our timelines, we allow for flexibility and mitigate risks effectively.

  1. Team Building and Accountability: I assemble a cross-functional team comprising individuals integral to the process, ensuring representation from each department involved. Regular meetings facilitate communication, issue resolution, and progress tracking, fostering a sense of ownership and accountability among team members.

  1. Continuous Monitoring and Adjustment: Regular monitoring of progress enables early detection of deviations and potential issues, allowing for timely adjustments - e.g., via weekly meetings. Operational dashboards and data analytics tools aid in tracking metrics, ensuring adherence to timelines and quality standards.

  1. Feedback and Continuous Improvement: I prioritize soliciting feedback from team members throughout the process, encouraging an environment of collaboration and continuous improvement. By actively listening to suggestions for enhancement, we optimize processes and drive efficiency effectively.

How do you balance the need to automate processes while maintaining human control and decision-making in the face of evolving technology? Do you have any tips and tricks for other teams?

Balancing the need for automation with maintaining human control and decision-making in the face of evolving technology requires a strategic approach that leverages the strengths of both automation and human intervention. Here are some tips and tricks for teams to achieve this balance effectively:

First of all, I think it is important to recognize that automation is not always the immediate solution, especially in situations where time is of the essence or the cost of automation is prohibitive.

  • One needs to be willing to adapt processes manually when needed, particularly in situations where testing hypotheses or validating the need for automation is essential.

  • Launching a process manually allows for quick decision-making and provides valuable insights that can inform the development of automated solutions in the future.

Another option is to Utilize Existing Automation Solutions:

  • Explore and leverage existing automation solutions before investing in the development of custom solutions.

  • Many off-the-shelf automation tools and platforms offer robust capabilities that can address a wide range of business needs, saving time and resources compared to building custom solutions from scratch. Especially when I need to test a hypothesis quickly.

I think that a healthy growing start-up needs to be able to do both, as things evolve quickly and decisions need to be made quickly, which is the superpower of startups and what makes it interesting to work in them. This is what we do at Whizz; we combine different strategies until we know that:

  • What automation we need and where;
  • What will be its direct impact on the business, its revenue, customer experience;
  • What it needs to look like.

Furthermore, once the automation is decided on, human control goes hand in hand with its implementation; no technology succeeds by itself. Operational managers need to:

  • Regularly monitor and supervise automated processes, especially during the initial implementation phase.

  • Conduct thorough testing and validation to ensure the accuracy and effectiveness of automated workflows.

  • Continuously fine-tune automated processes based on performance metrics and feedback from users to optimize efficiency and reliability.

Once automated processes are established and proven to be reliable, minimize human involvement in oversight and supervision of key metrics. Empower team members to focus on higher-level tasks such as analyzing data, making strategic decisions, and optimizing processes based on insights derived from automated workflows.

I know you have gained your professional experience in several countries, take a look at the US and the UK. Have you noticed any differences in the countries' technology culture?

This is a tricky question, as I have worked in completely different roles and companies when in the UK and when in the US, but I will try to answer this question to the best of my knowledge and experience.

The US is renowned for its entrepreneurial spirit; when one thinks about technology and startups - they think about the US first. This might be why:

  1. Regulations: The US tends to have a more lenient regulatory environment, which can foster rapid experimentation and innovation - that can also vary from state to state which also gives certain freedom to choose where to launch (no wonder why many businesses register in Delaware, but operate somewhere else). Conversely, the UK often prioritizes stricter regulations, which can influence technology development and adoption (there is less room to wiggle). A good example of this is GDPR. I have recently worked with a European company that had to follow GDPR, and it was a huge part of the negotiation process as we could not support them in the US market due to those instructions imposed, since the US does not require the same.

  1. Access to capital and support network: The US attracts substantial investment from venture capitalists and angel investors, supporting the growth of innovative startups. There is also a more mature ecosystem of accelerators, incubators, and mentors in the country. While the UK also has a thriving investment landscape, access to funding may be comparatively more limited.

  1. Talent pool: Through its various education and immigration programs (O-1 Talent Visas, STEM program) the US benefits from a robust pipeline of talented and educated workforce, while for the UK it has always been more difficult to address this skill gap. E.g., as a UK graduate, I remember all we dreamt of was to find a stable big company that would have the sponsorship rights to grant us work visas, there was no time to dream big or think about innovation - last year of university was all about finding the graduate program, or you were out. I think right now the UK is slightly changing this.

  1. Industry focus: in the UK you are just wired differently, as a financial hub, you think about going to Goldman Sachs or Citi, while in the US companies such as Google, Apple, and Amazon are at the forefront of the economic sector and thus inspire many to go into the technology sector.

How do you navigate the challenges of resistance to change when implementing process automation initiatives within an organization? And what strategies have you found to be effective in overcoming this resistance?

Navigating resistance to change when implementing process automation initiatives within an organization requires a strategic approach focused on communication, involvement, and support. Here are some effective strategies to overcome resistance:

  1. Communicate the Purpose and Benefits:
  • Clearly explain why the organization needs to implement process automation and how it aligns with overall business objectives.

  • Share success stories and case studies to illustrate the potential benefits of automation for the organization, teams, and individual employees.

  1. Encourage Participation and Feedback:
  • Involve employees in the implementation process by allowing them to try out new automation tools and processes.

  • Create opportunities for employees to provide feedback on their experiences with automation, actively listening to their concerns and suggestions. Not just before the implementation, but throughout and most importantly later on before you can safely declare the implementation a success.

  • Incorporate employee feedback into the design and refinement of automation solutions to ensure they meet the needs of the organization and its workforce.

  1. Empower Employees to Contribute:
  • Encourage employees to suggest ideas and improvements for automation initiatives, fostering a culture of innovation and continuous improvement.

  • Provide ongoing training and support to help employees develop the skills and knowledge needed to effectively utilize automation tools and processes.

  1. Establish Clear Accountability and Support Structures:
  • Define clear roles and responsibilities for employees involved in the automation initiative, ensuring they understand their contributions and expectations.

  • Implement controls and monitoring mechanisms to track progress, identify areas for improvement, and address any issues or challenges that arise during the implementation process and after.

Can you share a prediction or trend you foresee in the field of process automation that will impact businesses in the next few years?

One trend in process automation that will likely impact businesses in the next few years is the increasing integration of AI and robotics into operational workflows.

  • Enhanced AI Applications: As AI continues to advance in our lives (especially evident after ChatGPT launch with many new ChatGPT-based solutions and services entering the market), businesses will find increasingly sophisticated applications for it across various operational processes. This could include predictive analytics for inventory management, natural language processing for customer service interactions, and machine learning algorithms for optimizing staff schedules, taking into consideration call-outs, weather, etc.

E.g., at Food Rocket, we used machine learning for scheduling drivers on shifts and then dispatching orders to ensure operation efficiency. The algorithm was taking into account factors such as: weather, road congestion, proximity of delivery addresses, time to get there, and back when assigning routes to drivers.

  • Robotics Process Automation (RPA): Robots, both physical and virtual, will play a larger role in automating repetitive tasks across industries. Physical robots in manufacturing and logistics will improve operational efficiency by handling tasks such as assembly, packaging, and transportation. Virtual robots, or software bots, will automate routine tasks in back-office functions like data entry, invoice processing, HR administration, and even Legal.

  • Integration of AI and Robotics: Businesses will increasingly integrate AI technologies with robotics to create more intelligent and adaptive automation systems. AI-powered robots will be capable of learning from their environment, making decisions in real-time, and adapting to changes in demand or operating conditions. This integration will lead to more efficient and flexible manufacturing and operational processes.