A full draft operational plan by 8 February? Certainly, sir. Would you prefer the sums to be wrong, or the method unrealistic?

Just before Christmas, NHS England lobbed out its guidance for this year’s annual planning round. 

As usual, the immediate requirements are to balance the books and meet the targets, but the expectation of cooperation between organisations is much greater, and the deadlines are breathtakingly short.

In particular, the guidance requires the “first submission of full draft 16/17 operational plans” by 8 February, which is a mere 31 working days after the guidance was published.

This deadline is euphemistically described as “an early task”. So the immediate question is: how can you meet it?

Planning on the hoof

For most “local system leaders” there are two ways of doing demand and capacity planning in a hurry.

You could ask operational managers to come up with plans. On the plus side, every one of those plans will be based on a thorough operational understanding of each service, and the main clinical pathways – such as outpatient activity converting to inpatient demand – will be represented correctly.

“Neither answer is particularly satisfactory. Perhaps the question is wrong?”

On the downside, you will get back a great variety of spreadsheet models, each one using a different method, most of them prone to error (even in areas as fundamental as the calculation of demand), and the input numbers may be hard to reconcile with other sources of data, such as those held by commissioners.

Alternatively you could ask the information or planning department to come up with the plans, which means you will get a consistent and better methodology based on the same data sources that other people recognise.

However the numbers, the structure around clinical pathways, and the conclusions may (how can I put this?) not be recognised by operational managers or acted upon.

So neither answer is particularly satisfactory. Perhaps the question is wrong?

Keeping it real

After all, the main purpose of operational planning is not to satisfy NHS England or the finance department. It is to help operational managers to manage the delivery of healthcare. Real operational planning would plan each week, not each year.

It would model every important clinical pathway in every subspecialty; not be tied to national classifications.

It would paint a rich picture of operational life that managers instinctively recognised and were willing to act upon; not be a work of fiction that balanced the books but sat on the shelf.

“Real operational planning would plan each week, not each year”

Which is all very well, but how does that help with your 8 February deadline?

It might not. If you are fortunate enough to have good operational planning already, then you can adapt it quickly for NHS England. Otherwise you’ll have to cobble something together for submission in the usual way.

Does it matter? We all know this won’t be the last time you’ll be asked to submit plans. And your need for good operational planning will be just as great after the 8 February as it is today.

Best of both worlds

So you need an approach that uses the best of both worlds. Use the immediacy of this deadline to get real operational planning started, using the skills of your information and planning colleagues.

With that task out of the way, you can engage operational managers to continuously refine the planning, and get it in synch with your regular operational management cycle.

Then you’ll always have a plan, and you’ll be ready to meet every planning deadline.

And, when the regulators come looking for evidence that you have “the skills to plan effectively”, you will absolutely blow their socks off.

Rob Findlay is founder of Gooroo Ltd and a specialist in waiting time dynamics