Operational Scalability: Katsiaryna Volkava of Dott On How To Set Up Systems, Procedures, And People To Prepare A Business To Scale
Set clear priorities — in any business and especially in a startup there are multiple things that need your attention. It’s important to distinguish between critical tasks that need immediate and focused attention of the company from the ones that could be set aside for a while. It’s extremely powerful when multiple teams get together to solve 1 burning issue.
In today’s fast-paced business environment, scalability is not just a buzzword; it’s a necessity. Entrepreneurs often get trapped in the daily grind of running their businesses, neglecting to put in place the systems, procedures, and people needed for sustainable growth. Without this foundation, companies hit bottlenecks, suffer inefficiencies, and face the risk of stalling or failing. This series aims to delve deep into the intricacies of operational scalability. How do you set up a framework that can adapt to growing customer demands? What are the crucial procedures that can streamline business operations? How do you build a team that can take on increasing responsibilities while maintaining a high standard of performance?
In this interview series, we are talking to CEOs, Founders, Operations Managers Consultants, Academics, Tech leaders & HR professionals, who share lessons from their experience about “How To Set Up Systems, Procedures, And People To Prepare A Business To Scale”. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Katsiaryna Volkava.
Katsiaryna started her career in Boston Consulting Group (BCG), then deepened her Operations experience in micro-mobility and taxi-hailing industries, working for such companies as Dott and DiDi. She is supporting smart tools integration into day-to-day operations, as well as developing processes and procedures to make changes last.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I joined BCG right after my graduation and that was a life-changing experience for me — there I learned all the key principles that help you build a successful business: structured approach to problem solving, ownership and focus on delivering the results, ability to assess the problem from a “helicopter view”.
I worked in many industries — Oil and Gas, Metals and Mining, Finance, you name it, but my last project in BCG helped me select the path I would like to pursue as my long-term career path. We were working on promo strategy optimization for a top-3 retailer and that was the moment I had a taste of what setting up operations means and how it impacts the business. I had a chance to work on both — developing the idea with BCG Gamma (Data Science unit) and implementing it together with the client’s teams. That was the moment of truth for me that this is what I’d like to work on — improving processes to have a direct impact on business results.
At that very time I was also approached by DiDi — a ride-hailing giant, 2nd world player in the industry after Uber. They were expanding to CIS region and needed people to strengthen their operations team. I started as Operations manager, responsible for performance of 3 cities and gradually grew to oversee entire Russia and Kazakhstan operations (30+cities) till the company decided to divest from the region. I witnessed both — rapid growth and gradual downscale of the business, learned how to manage the marketplace from drivers and riders side, how to manage and motivate the team and how to work together to innovate and implement new ways of working.
Now I’m Senior Business Strategy Manager at Dott, one of the top micro-mobility players in Europe. My focus is on maximizing return on assets through better planning and execution of fleet allocation. We manage e-scooters and e-bikes of different models in multiple countries and cities — it’s crucial to make sure the entire organization works towards making the most use of these vehicles throughout their journey — from the moment they are delivered to the warehouse to the day we retire the fleet. Given the strong physical aspect of the business, Operations tasks are everywhere and lay the foundation for successful scaling and long-term sustainability.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I can think of 1 such mistake — it happened during my first few months at BCG. During a year every constant is assigned to some project — it can be one very long project or multiple shorter ones, yet it’s very typical to have 6–8 weeks-long projects and every project has their own manager. So most of the time every 2 months you have a new line manager, who gives you a feedback during and after the project and you need to work on your performance to progress in the company,
After my 1st project at BCG I received the feedback that I need to work more independently — ask less questions and show more initiative. I took this very seriously, so during my next project I decided to work on the feedback and almost stopped asking questions and approaching my manager. Can you guess what the feedback was? Exactly, my new manager told me he lacked visibility on what I was doing and wanted to be more engaged in my day-to-day work.
What takeaways do I have from this situation?
- People are different and they require different attitudes. In this specific example it’s evident that these 2 managers had opposite expectations, and you as an employee need to learn how to work with your manager and also help your manager to work with you. Same is true for managing your team. The key is in listening to each other, being open to feedback and transparent. In the end you both are interested in having fruitful working relationships, so you just need to help each other to make it a success.
- Any extreme is harmful — don’t let your negative past experience negatively impact your current performance. Every situation is unique, so apply your judgment and common sense to filter what’s appropriate and what’s not in this situation. At first it requires some effort, but at some point, it becomes a habit.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I’d say it’s resilience. Dott has passed through multiple hard times — COVID, massive issues with newly purchased fleet, Paris vote that banned e-scooters, and many more to name, but every time the team was fighting back. It’s applicable not to some specific department, but to the company attitude in general. Of course it doesn’t mean that everyone is extremely happy to embrace the change, but no one shies away from the challenges. And at times these challenges turn up to be an extra opportunity.
For example, while fighting the frame issues for the newly purchased fleet, the company had to invent an entirely new vehicle rework process — we had to find a suitable warehouse, develop all the processes, arrange logistics, train employees and make it in a short deadline to be on time for the summer season. The project turned out to be a successful beginning of the new chapter aimed at prolonging the vehicles lifespan and reducing even further our carbon footprint. It was a challenge that the team managed to handle and build something great on top of it.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I’ll try to single out the ones that to my mind are more or less universal in laying the foundations for a successful career:
- An “intrapreneur” mentality — treat the company as if it’s your own. I usually ask myself — how my decisions contribute to the company’s success. In the end, what’s good for the company is also good for its employees.
- For example, if you’re a manager in a rapidly growing startup and need to hire a team it’s very easy to fall into the trap of over-hiring. It’s very lucrative to have a big team, but ask yourself — do you really need that many people? Is there a job available for everyone? Can you do it “smarter” — change approach or structure? Such an attitude is valued and recognised by your superiors who are responsible for your long-term career trajectory. It’s like in chess — sometimes you need to sacrifice a pawn to win the entire game.
- Holistic view on the problems — most of the issues the teams face usually need a 360 review to really find a solution and sometimes the problem lies in reasons that go far beyond your area of expertise.
One of the problems we had to solve was low smart tools adoption by local Operations, even though there were already proofs within the company that the models we had worked better than the “gut feeling” of drivers.
After some deep-dive and investigation, the reason for this low adoption turned out to be 2-fold: not all local teams were aware of or convinced by the results of the smart tools and at the same time there was lack of training for city managers on how to use the tool and read results to achieve best possible results. In the end we needed some product & engineering help, data science and data analysis engagement. If we only focused on the operational part this KPI would have been very hard to move.
Decomposing the problem into sub-issues helped us develop an action plan and in the end by the end of 2023 adoption and drivers compliance to the guidelines more than doubled bringing extra rides and higher user satisfaction.
- Can-do attitude. Don’t shy away from new challenges/ things outside of your scope.
- Based on both startups and consulting experience I’d say that people value initiative and ownership. Don’t expect that the issues will resolve themselves, actively engage in their resolution. Even if it falls outside of your scope or area of expertise — it’s a new opportunity for you to learn and gain credibility. But beware, once you promise to solve the problem — work hard to deliver!
- During my 3rd project in BCG, I needed to segment the user base by their purchasing behavior. I had a very vague idea about segmentation and clustering approaches, but I felt pressure to improve my analytical skills so I decided to volunteer for the stream. Even though I was a bit anxious at the beginning I turned out to like the topic and it seems that this project was the first step towards the role I’m in today. It helped me understand that I’m a huge fan of data-driven decision-making, which is a big part of my day-to-day job.
Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.
I haven’t encountered a situation when you can’t choose between 2 solutions in business, maybe only when I’m choosing a new dress. In business even if both solutions seem good, there are usually other factors that help you choose which path to follow — it could be implementation challenges, costs or time needed, risks after implementation, long-term strategy, etc.
However, for me, it’s always challenging to make decisions when it comes to people. Sometimes the decision that seems logical from an organizational perspective turns out to be not so good when it comes to individual performance and vice versa.
Such a situation happened to me once, we were passing through a restructuring of the team and had to define the scope for each team member. During this reorg we decided to change the scope of one junior employee, let’s call him John for this interview. John used to work as an intern under the supervision of a more senior manager, but as we were rapidly growing, his manager was moved to the expansion team and John had to manage the city on his own. Even though John showed strong performance, the consensus was that he was too junior to manage a large city, so we changed John’s scope to give him a more independent, but less critical stream, while the city would be managed by a more senior person. The set up looked well on paper, but in the end John lost motivation as he was really enjoying the tasks he used to do, and as there were no other similar alternatives I could offer at the moment, in 2 or 3 months after the change he decided to leave the company. Who knows, maybe that day the company lost a potential COO!
You can never be 100% sure of your decision, but now I try to pay more attention to internal potential and personal drive. We all learn new things and sometimes willingness to learn and to do is more important than experience you have. It’s important to adequately assess if the person is ready to take more responsibility regardless of the experience and age, to have trust in them. This is what I still try to master — to find the right balance between trust and intuition vs rational thinking.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about Operational Scalability. In order to make sure that we are all on the same page, let’s begin with a simple definition. What does Operational Scalability mean to you?
I’d define operational scalability as the ability of a system or organization to quickly and efficiently adjust to a changing environment. This could be applicable to periods of rapid growth, change of strategy or even industry disruption. It requires efficient resources management (time, people and material goods), which is based on planning and strategy, clear processes and guidelines, performance monitoring and of course constant search for improvement opportunities.
Which types of business can most benefit from investing in Operational Scalability?
By definition, Operational Scalability is important for businesses that have the ambition to scale — in short, most of the companies. However I believe that companies that have physical assets in their operational model benefit from Operational Scalability most as by nature such businesses are much harder to scale and they are much heavier impacted by human factor errors.
A great and simple example of this would be a well-known McDonalds chain. They actually started from defining very strict rules and standards for kitchen layout, food storage and preparation, timing all the processes and trying to improve them. Once all these guidelines were done it was easy for them to start working with franchisees and become what they are today. The number of processes and things to think of in this example is huge — the more complex your business is (in number of suppliers, products or retails spots you have), the stronger you need to rely on streamlining your operations to ensure sustainable growth.
Why is it so important for a business to invest time, energy, and resources into Operational Scalability?
Operational Scalability enables you to maximize gains while minimizing resources spent to achieve it. It doesn’t mean that your business cannot exist without it — if you found product market fit, your business probably will grow even if the service quality is not the best, especially if you’re entering a “blue ocean” when you can set any price. However the situation drastically changes when competition kicks in. The moment you cannot leverage the price to keep your margins — efficiency is key. So the short answer would be — for the “blue ocean” scenario it will help you push your margins even higher, while in “red ocean” or during industry disruption it will let you survive.
In contrast, what happens to a business that does not invest time, energy, and resources into Operational Scalability?
As I mentioned, it strongly depends on the market situation, however in the long run it will be a question of survival. Take Kodak as an example — the company used to dominate the US market in the early 1970’s, it also had a strong international presence — even in Belarus my parents used to buy Kodak products. Yet with change to digital filming and the growing competition they didn’t manage to adjust fast enough. Kodak did try though — in the 1990s they released the Kodak DC series of digital cameras, which was a huge milestone for the company. However, having the right product alone didn’t help them — they needed to scale a new operational model fast, yet they failed. Of course such stories are never purely reliant on Operational Scalability, success or failure depends on multiple factors, but this one you at least can fully control.
Can you please share a story from your experience about how a business grew dramatically when they worked on their Operational Scalability?
DiDi would be a great example of such a company — I worked for them in CIS markets, but by this time most of the critical scalability questions were resolved — application and data infrastructure, algorithms, tools and processes. You never end work on improving your Operations, however a big chunk of work done in the first years of DiDi existence helped them to start this expansion outside of China.
The company started in 2012 with fast expansion within China and invested heavily into technology to make sure their business is scalable and efficient — now everyone is used to dynamic pricing and drivers easily matched with riders at a click of a button, but back then it was a cornerstone for industry disruption that led to DiDi becoming #1 player in China, acquiring Uber China. Having passed this stress-test in an exhausting battle with Uber, DiDi was ready for international expansion, proving globally its scalability. Of course, there are more disruptions to the industry to come and we’ll see if DiDi will gloriously come through all of them — I’ll be definitely watching this story evolve in the future.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the “Five Most Important Things A Business Leader Should Do To Set Up Systems, Procedures, And People To Prepare A Business To Scale”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
1 . Set clear priorities — in any business and especially in a startup there are multiple things that need your attention. It’s important to distinguish between critical tasks that need immediate and focused attention of the company from the ones that could be set aside for a while. It’s extremely powerful when multiple teams get together to solve 1 burning issue.
2 . Invest in your people — hire strong individuals, but also invest into their development. A team is crucial to a company’s success, as you simply cannot do everything on your own. At some point you’ll have to delegate and you want to have reliable and skilled people next to you. Invest in searching and growing talents — in Dott we have a “Ride your future” program that helps entry-level warehouse and ground team employees to develop their hard and soft skills. After the programme, many of them managed to move to higher positions and were outperforming many more experienced peers.
3 . Establish clear processes and systems — especially in startups work can get very chaotic if you don’t invest into building clear structure around them. It seems not necessary, but with the growth of organization the amount of operations every person has to manage grows so much that your span of attention is not enough to focus on everything at the same time. Clear guidelines and tools reduce the number of human errors and help organization scale. I see it almost every day — unless there are clear step-by-step guidelines with screenshots and exact to dos most of the time the ground team won’t do it.
4 . Build a continuous improvement mindset — KPIs and performance management cycles could be a good starting point, as they help to quantify your results and highlight improvement areas. Recognise a great job, invest time into showing the teams how much they managed to grow and achieve in the last year and how much more they can do and how great your service or tool could be. In our team we’ve introduced the “win of the month” meeting, where 1 of the team members presents his solution — for me it’s very inspiring to see other people grow as you want to grow with them as well.
5 . Focus on scalable solutions — you duplicate the job if you don’t. Even if you’re short of time and lack resources, try to build the version that could already be used at scale. It could be a g-sheet linked to a database instead of a tableau, but it can’t be a manual input file that requires 10x time from the entire team to maintain.
What are some common misconceptions businesses have about scaling? Can you please explain?
I can name a few of them:
- Scaling is only about revenue growth — increasing revenue is important, but introducing scaling practices can also lead to improved margins. It also supports long-term sustainability of the business.
- It’s only applicable to large companies — in reality, any business would benefit from introducing some scaling practices. Even a small family owned business will improve dramatically if focused on streamlining financial processes, contracts with suppliers, etc.
- You can purely rely on technology to solve scaling challenges — no doubt, technology is one of the cornerstones of successful operational scaling. Maybe in 2050 we can skip people and algorithms will make robots perfectly execute their jobs, but today the final result is still dependant on human execution, that’s why you have to address 3 aspects at once — technology, people and processes
How do you keep your team motivated during periods of rapid growth or change?
From my experience, positive change is easier to manage — if you grow, it feels like a game so simply setting ambitious, but achievable targets is often enough per se as people know — bigger organization means bigger opportunities. Things get much more complicated when you experience a negative change — e.g. rounds of layoffs, shift of focus from one project to another, ect.
During the periods of negative change the approach shall be more tailor made — some people value long-term career prospects, so you need to discuss how the situation affect this and what they need to do to keep growing in changed environment, while others might be concerned that they won’t have time to focus on interesting projects and will be focused on routine ones instead.
But no matter what happens it’s very important to:
- Spend time with the team to know what drives them & monitor sentiment and avoid frustration accumulation
- Create personal development plans & make check ins to monitor progress
- Set out your function/ team or even personal goals that would guide them to give a feeling of progress even when the situation overall is quite negative
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Done is better than perfect” — one of my favorite ones. Especially after management consulting tt’s sometimes hard to share something unfinished or not polished, but speed in most cases is more important than a perfect solution. This resonates with the concept of MVP — you need to build a minimum viable product to prove it works and then iterate on improvements. Sometimes timing is much more important than the solution itself. For me it’s relevant in both — work and personal life. How often do you tell yourself — oh it’s only 20 min left for the training, I’ll skip today and do a proper one tomorrow. However if you would have done even these 20 min every time you skipped, you would have been much healthier and in a better physical shape. Same for the work — you can be working on the tool 1 day or a week, but it’s not bringing any value unless it’s released, so while choosing between a simple working solution and a much more sophisticated perfect one I’d always choose the 1st one.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I believe in the power of education, so I’d suggest people unite into providing better tuition to all people across the globe, in 2 aspects — providing access to the Internet and supporting local educational organizations with better training and equipment. I believe the World Bank Education Global Practice and UNICEF are already supporting the local organizations, while 30–40% of the world’s population still don’t have access to the internet — making this available everywhere at low price/ for free would be a huge step forward.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can connect with me on LinkedIn — just search for Katya Volkava or follow the link
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Operational Scalability: Katsiaryna Volkava of Dott On How To Set Up Systems, Procedures, And… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.