The Step-by-Step Guide to Operational Case Study Answer Planning

operational case study answer plan

Looking at the suggested answers for Operational Case Study past papers can be really quite scary.  They look so long and detailed that you can lose all confidence in your ability to pass.

So how can you produce that amount of volume to secure enough marks?

And how can you achieve it under the time constraints of the exam?

I’ll answer both those questions – and more – in this post today.  But first, let me take you back to a situation I found myself in when I was sitting the final CIMA case study exam…

Why you need to learn from my mistake

I was in the exam room and all I could hear was the sound of other students furiously typing away, even though the exam had barely started.

I felt a sense of panic, like I was already falling behind everyone else and I needed to catch up fast before I ran out of time.  So I ignored what I had practiced in my preparation and just got on with typing my answer.

Trouble was, I ended up typing as much as I could on whatever came into my head.  And then I had to stop and think – staring blankly into space – before I decided what to write next.

Before I knew it, my exam was nearly over and my script was totally unbalanced. And unstructured.  I looked at the computer screen and I’d written way more on one part of my exam than the rest put together.

As I walked out of the exam room, I knew I hadn’t passed.

And sure enough when my results came out, I had failed.

The benfeits of answer planning

You see, without an effective answer plan, your operational case study script will…

  • Have no logical or coherent structure
  • Make unclear points that don’t address each and every requirement
  • Provide minimal relevant application to the scenario
  • Fail to score sufficient marks across the board to pass
  • Be incomplete due to poor time management

Note the word “effective” there.

Because you don’t want to create an answer plan that takes ages to put together.  This will leave you under real pressure to write the quality and quantity of answer needed to pass, before you are timed out.

And you don’t want to have spent valuable exam time on your plan if you just ignore it when it comes to typing up your answer.

So you need an approach to planning that you are comfortable with, have practiced many times in your mock exams, and one that leads you to producing an answer that passes each section of your exam.

And in the rest of this post, we’ll look at my recommended step-by-step answer planning approach that I learned when studying online with Astranti.  The approach they teach is quite unique and has helped me and many other students pass their CIMA case study exams. Because it really helps you structure a solid answer and stay on top of your exam time management.

Okay, so what’s involved in these steps?

Let’s find out…

Step #1: Initial skim reading of the scenario

This is where you want to identify what the requirements are.   And confirm whether there are any separate elements within those requirements that need to be addressed in your answer.

So at this stage you’re simply looking out for what you are being asked to do.  Not what information would be helpful to reference in your answer.  We’ll do that in a minute.

Let’s use section 1 of Variant 1 of the August 2017 Operational Case Study Exam, as an example:

 

operational case study requirements

So as you can see, the requirements are usually pretty clear.  But just be aware that they could appear anywhere in the information provided.

Okay, so we know what we are being asked to do.  Onto the next stage.

Step #2: Create a structure around those requirements

Firstly, we need to decide where we will create our plan.  I advise using the answer area like the one below.

 

This allows you to:

  • Underline and Bold the headings and sub headings you will use.
  • Copy and paste your headings and bullet points underneath your plan to quickly format your answer.
  • Avoid switching between windows on screen

We can then start off our plan by breaking down the requirements into the separate parts we need to address, which we will use as our sub-headings in our written answer.

For requirement 1, we need to comment on – and explain the possible casues of – the direct labour variances in the reference material.  It would make sense to use each line item as a sub-heading. And then comment on both the own staff and sub-contractor variances under each heading.

For requirement 2, we need to firstly come up with a number of ideas for advertising the job roles.  These can be our sub-headings.  Then underneath each idea we need to come up with a benefit and a drawback of using it.

Next,  we need to estimate the number of marks to allocate to each part of the two requirements.  Now, section 1 of the exam was 45 minutes long.  And given we know the exam overall is 3 hours long, it is fair to assume that a 45 minute section is worth a quarter of the marks in total – so that’s 25 marks.

And as we learn in the examiner reports, case study writers create the requirements within a section with an equal or very similar number of marks.

So without even knowing the marking guidance, we could of guessed that the two requirements were worth around 12 marks each.

We can then structure our plan as follows…

Requirement 1 – 12 marks

Labour rate variance –  3 marks

  • Possible causes of Own staff variance
  • Possible causes of Sub contractors variance

Idle time variance  – 3 marks

  • Possible causes of Own staff variance
  • Possible causes of Sub contractors variance

Mix variance  – 3 marks

  • Possible causes of Own staff variance
  • Possible causes of Sub contractors variance

Yield variance – 3 marks

  • Possible causes of overall variance

Requirement 2 – 13 marks

idea 1 – 2 marks

  • benefit
  • drawback

idea 2 – 2 marks

  • benefit
  • drawback

idea 3 – 2 marks

  • benefit
  • drawback

idea 4 – 2 marks

  • benefit
  • drawback

idea 5 – 2 marks

  • benefit
  • drawback

idea 6  – 2 marks

  • benefit
  • drawback

Remember this is just a quick estimate of the break down of marks.  It doesn’t have to be precise.  Just use it as a guide for how many points you need to make.

Step #3:  Brainstorm your initial thoughts

This step involves brainstorming any initial ideas that come to you BEFORE you read the scenario in detail.

We do this now as it’s easy to get lost in the detail of the scenario and miss some obvious points which can earn you marks.

Here, you want to ask yourself:  “is there any technical knowledge I can use which would make my answer more helpful?”  If so, jot down any models or theories that would be relevant.

After all, the Operational case study examiner recently said in their post exam report:

“Candidates are encouraged to use models and theories to underpin their responses whenever possible”

Also, are there any common sense ideas that come to mind which would be useful?

This should only be a very quick process  – one or two minutes max – but it will give you confidence that you have some relevant points you can expand on in your answer.

If we take requirement 2 from above, we should be able to quickly think of some ideas for ways to advertise the job roles, without having to read the scenario just yet.

For instance, using newspapers…recruitment agencies…social media etc

And we may even be able to come up with the pros and cons of each too …

Using a local newspaper would involve minimal cost compared to a national newspaper but might not have that wide a reach for the level of candidates we need.

Using recruitment agencies would potentially be more expensive but would allow us to take advantage from specialists in the field. They can do most of the donkey work in the application process and quickly provide us with a list of suitable candidates to interview

Social media would be relatively cheap and easier to reach potential candidates, but may well take a long time to filter through all the applications.

So we can add those ideas to our plan for requirement 2…

Requirement 2 – 13 marks

idea 1 – 2 marks – local newspaper

  • benefit – inexpensive, readers local to depot
  • drawback – low reach, more qualified people elsewhere?

idea 2 – 2 marks – recruitment agencies

  • benefit – specialists, do most of the work
  • drawback – expensive

idea 3 – 2 marks – social media

  • benefit – inexpensive and wider reach
  • drawback – lengthy filtering process

idea 4 – 2 marks

  • benefit
  • drawback

idea 5 – 2 marks

  • benefit
  • drawback

idea 6  – 2 marks

  • benefit
  • drawback

Step #4:  Read the scenario carefully and add notes to your plan

Okay, so now it’s time to read through the scenario in detail.

At the end of each paragraph, stop and ask yourself the question: “Where can I apply what I have just read?” And jot down any thoughts onto your plan.

For example, in paragraph 1 of our August 2017 exam, we are told: “…we have had to increase our employer pension contributions from 5 to 7% of wages earned for all our employees”

Clearly the increase in pension contributions will have had an effect on the labour rate by increasing it for our own staff.  So we can add that information to our plan.

But we are also told in paragraph 1: “You will need to speak to Igor Pavin, Maintenance Manager to help with these explanations.”  So it is fair to assume this is where we will find most of the real drivers behind the variances.

We then read on, where we are given the reference material of the variance report

 

As you can see the labour rate variances are 31 024 favourable for own staff and 11 525 adverse for sub contractors.

So the increase in pension contributions won’t have been a major cause of the labour rate variance for own staff.

But we do start to find out some of the detail behind the variances – our own staff were paid for fewer hours than budgeted, and our sub contractors more.  So it’s no surprsie the labour rate variance is favourable for own staff and adverse for sub-contractors.

And because we used a greater proportion of sub-contractor labour than we had originally budgeted, the labour mix variances are favourable for own staff and adverse for sub-contractors.  And adverse overall because the sub contractor hourly rate is more expensive than own staff.

Finally, we come across the paragraph which contains our conversation with the Maintenance Manager.  This is where we will (hopefully) get to the causes behind why we used more sub contractors and fewer own staff than budgeted.  And why there was idle time.

Okay, great!  This has given us a lot of information that we can use to explain the variances in our answer.

Cause of own staff labour rate being favourable:

“We lost some of our most experienced and senior staff in July to a new aircraft maintenance facility that has just opened up”

This would of then caused fewer own staff paid hours to have been worked compared to budget.  And because they were senior staff, their rate of pay would have been higher than average, which would also have meant the actual labour rate paid would have been lower than planned.

Cause of  sub-contractors labour rate being adverse:

“we were able to bring in more sub-contractors at short notice to ensure that we completed all of our budgeted work for the month of July. “

So this why sub-contractors worked more hours than budgeted. And it’s possible that we had to pay a premium rate compared to budget because of the short notice

Cause of idle time variances:

“we did have some instances where repairs had to be re-done because of problems we discovered with the quality of the work.  This resulted in both our own staff and sub-contractors having to wait around whilst jobs were re-allocated and machinery re-set. “

So both own staff and sub-contractors were idle whilst jobs were re-allocated and machinery re-set.

Cause of labour mix variances:

Losing staff to the aircraft maintenance facility (and not being able to replace them straight away with our own staff) meant we used a greater proportion of sub-contractors to own staff.

Cause of yield variance:

“we completed all of our budgeted work for the month of July” but “repairs had to be re-done” and “own staff and sub-contractors having to wait around whilst jobs were re-allocated and machinery re-set. “

So basically it took longer to complete the budgeted work than expected.

The decrease in quality of work, and increase in repairs, was probably due to a lack of experience and oversight using our own staff (with the loss of senior staff).  And with new sub-contractors being brought in at short notice,  it’s likely they would not have had adequate training in using the machinery.

We can include the key points from all this onto our plan.

Requirement 1: 12 marks

Labour rate variance -3 marks

Own staff – 31 024 F –  increase in pension contributions.  Paid fewer hours than budgeted (12 820 vs 13 230) because we lost senior and experienced staff to local aircraft facility

Sub contractors –  11 525 A  – paid more hours than budgeted (2 305 vs 1 470) to replace those lost staff at short staff.  Likely had to pay a premium rate.

Overall – 19 499 F

Idle time variance  -3 marks

Own staff –   2 400 A

Sub contractors –  800 A

Overall – 3 200 A – our own staff and sub-contractors having to wait around whilst jobs were re-allocated and machinery re-set.

Mix variance  -3 marks

Own staff – 25 024 – fewer own staff used than budgeted

Sub contractors –  31,280 A  –  more sub contractors used than budgeted

Overall – 6 256 A – Sub contractors  are more expensive than our own staff, even before any premium, and we used a greater proportion of them compared to own staff.  (to replace own staff that were lost).

Yield variance – 3 marks

Overall  – 10 824 A  –  15,125 hours worked  (12, 820 + 2,305). Budgeted hours 14,700 (13 230 +  1 470).  More hours were needed to repair poor quality work.

Step #5: Apply to Pre Seen

Next up, you want to consider if there are any elements from the pre seen that would be relevant to reference.  And jot them down on your plan.  After all, the examiner says:

“Ensure that you are very familiar with the business, especially the financial information, before the exam as this will help you with applying your knowledge and will save you time.”

Now, you don’t want to re-read the pre seen (even though it is available in your exam) as this is not a good use of your time.  But it is helpful if you can remember some key points that would add value to your answer.

For instance,  for requirement 1, we know from the pre seen that “ No idle time is budgeted for” so we can mention this in our commentary of the idle time variances.

And for requirement 2, we know from the pre seen that premium trains has a website  (because they sell train tickets on there).   So we can add this as “idea  4” of where to advertise for the maintenance job roles.

Also, we know from the pre seen that the company offer a trainee scheme for maintenance staff.  And as we are looking for a long term solution to replacing the senior and experienced staff we lost, it’s perhaps not so crucical that our advertising has to reach experienced candiadates.

Step #6: Consider Ethics

You will have already seen from my recommended weekly study schedule for the operational case study exam that revision of ethics is vitally important in your preparation because ethical issues can come up in any exam sitting.

Now, it might be that one of the requirements asks you to specifically advise on an ethical issue in the scenario.  So you’d have to come up with ethical related ideas in your plan anyway.

But also, you should consider whether there are any ethical or CSR related points that you could include which would add depth to your answer and impress the examiner.

For instance, when answering requirement 2 from above, you could make the point that as part of the company’s corporate social responsibility, they have an obligation to the local community in which the maintenance depot is located.  And therefore advertising locally, say in a regional newspaper, would be a benefit.

Step #7: Final brainstorm considering all 3 OT paper theory

Even after the steps above, you’ll still probably find that some sections of your plan have few, if any, points on them.

So this is your chance to add any final ideas to your plan – in particular, is there any theory, pre seen knowledge or element of the scenario that you can reference?

For example, in our plan for requirement 2, we only have four ideas so far for advertising the maintenance staff roles:

  1. local newspaper
  2. recruitment agencies
  3. social media
  4. company website

 So from your E1 studies (and general knowledge), can you think of one or two more ways to advertise the roles?

 And their pros and cons?

Perhaps we could use national newspapers…local radio…attend a local jobs fair…hold an open day at the Depot…use word of mouth from current staff…

The suggested answer from CIMA includes local jobs fair and open day, so let’s add them to our plan, too.  As well as a pro and con of each.

Requirement 2 – 13 marks

idea 1 – 2 marks – local newspaper

  • benefit – inexpensive, readers local to depot.  Shows we are taking an interest in the local community/local employment (CSR).
  • drawback – low reach, more qualified people elsewhere?

idea 2 – 2 marks – recruitment agencies

  • benefit – specialists, do most of the work
  • drawback – expensive, they usually take a percentage of annual salary

idea 3 – 2 marks – social media

  • benefit – inexpensive and wider reach
  • drawback – lengthy filtering process

idea 4 – 2 marks – company website

  • benefit – quick and inexpensive.  Can just post the job spec on our corporate page
  • drawback – limited reach as suitable candidates unlikely to visit our site if looking for a role

idea 5 – 2 marks – local jobs fair

  • benefit – meet potential recruits face to face and take their details
  • drawback – may not be many suitable candidates there

idea 6  – 2 marks – hold open day

  • benefit – meet people face to face and likely to attract people interested in the depot
  • drawback –  lots to organise and could be expensive to promote

Step #8:  Plan your writing time

This final step in the planning process will make a huge difference to your exam success.

You must monitor your time regularly throughout your exam.  And be strict on yourself when it comes to moving on to the next part of your answer.  Otherwise you will simply end up writing too much for one element and not enough for another.   And you run the risk that your answer is incomplete when you are timed out for that section of the exam.

This will clearly harm your chances of passing.

So you should plan how long you have to write for each individual part of your answer, based on the number marks you have allocated them.

I recommend you spend around 25% of your section time on planning (including reading). That means for a 45 minute section you want to be spending 11 minutes on your plan and 34 minutes on writing.  So that’s around 17 minutes of writing time for each of the two requirements.

We then want to break down those minutes as precisely as we can for both requirements.  And add those timings on our plan.

That way we know how long each part of answer should take to write.  And if we also include how much time we should have remaining after completing each element of our answer, it will allow us to monitor our time against the clock on the screen in the exam.

Let’s do this for each requirement from above…

Requirement 1:  12 marks – 16 minutes

Labour rate variance -3 marks – 4 minutes  (start with 34 minutes to go)

( 2 minutes on own staff and 2 minutes on sub contractors)

Own staff – 31 024 F –  increase in pension contributions.  Paid fewer hours than budgeted (12 820 vs 13 230) because we lost senior and experienced staff to local aircraft facility

Sub contractors –  11 525 A  – paid more hours than budgeted (2 305 vs 1 470) to replace those lost staff at short staff.  Likely had to pay a premium rate.

Overall – 19 499 F

Idle time variance  – 3 marks  – 4 minutes (start with 30 minutes to go)

( 2 minutes on own staff and 2 minutes on sub contractors)

Own staff –  2 400 A

Sub contractors –  800 A

Overall – 3 200 A – our own staff and sub-contractors having to wait around whilst jobs were re-allocated and machinery re-set.  No idle time is budgeted for.

Mix variance  – 3 marks – 4 minutes (start with 26 minutes to go)

( 2 minutes on own staff and 2 minutes on sub contractors)

Own staff – 25 024 – fewer own staff used than budgeted

Sub contractors –  31,280 A  –  more sub contractors used than budgeted

Overall – 6 256 A – Sub contractors  are more expensive than our own staff, even before any premium, and we used a greater proportion of them compared to own staff.  (to replace own staff that were lost).

Yield variance – 3 marks – 4 minutes  (start with 22 minutes to go)

( 2 minutes on own staff and 2 minutes on sub contractors)

Overall  – 10 824 A  –  15,125 hours worked  (12, 820 + 2,305). Budgeted hours 14,700 (13 230 +  1 470).  More hours were needed to repair poor quality work.

Requirement 2 – 13 marks – 18 minutes

idea 1 – 2 marks – local newspaper – 3 minutes (start with 18 minutes to go)

  • benefit – inexpensive, readers local to depot.  Shows we are taking an interest in the local community/local employment (CSR).
  • drawback – low reach, more qualified people elsewhere?

idea 2 – 2 marks – recruitment agencies – 3 minutes (start with 15 minutes to go)

  • benefit – specialists, do most of the work
  • drawback – expensive, they usually take a percentage of annual salary

idea 3 – 2 marks – social media – 3 minutes (start with 12 minutes to go)

  • benefit – inexpensive and wider reach
  • drawback – lengthy filtering process

idea 4 – 2 marks – company website – 3 minutes (start with 9 minutes to go)

  • benefit – quick and inexpensive.  Can just post the job spec on our corporate page
  • drawback – limited reach as suitable candidates unlikely to visit our site if looking for a role

idea 5 – 2 marks – local jobs fair – 3 minutes (start with 6 minutes to go)

  • benefit – meet potential recruits face to face and take their details
  • drawback – may not be many suitable candidates there

idea 6  – 2 marks – hold open day – 3 minutes (start with 3 minutes to go)

  • benefit – meet people face to face and likely to attract people interested in the depot
  • drawback –  lots to organise and could be expensive to promote

Remember to keep your eye on the clock throughout each section of your exam and move on according to your planned timings.

Why You Don’t Need a Completed Plan

The above final plan goes into greater detail than you’ll need in your mocks and real exam.  But I’ve made it this way to help you get a better understanding of the planning process.

And you don’t even need a fully completed plan.

If your plan is 80% complete then you should easily have enough to work with when it comes to writing a strong answer.   (And even a half complete plan will give you a good structure to use).

Remember, your answer plan won’t be getting marked so don’t get bogged down with it.   Your writing time must always take priority.

Try using as few words as possible when jotting down your plan.  You just want enough information to remind you of the headings you will use, and the key points you will expand on in your answer.  This will enable you to plan more quickly.

Sometimes fewer points will come into your head than you’d like, compared to your assumed marking allocation.

Don’t worry.

When it comes to writing up your answer, you can just go into greater depth on the points you do have.  And new ideas may well come to you as you’re typing away.

Conclusion

Your answer plan has three main jobs:

  1. To ensure you structure your answer around the specific requirements
  2. To come up with enough points to earn you pass marks
  3. To allocate your writing time precisely for a balanced and completed answer

So why would you ignore using one in your exam?

All you have to do is complete as many of the recommended steps as you can before you have to start writing.

But you can’t just try this answer planning approach once and expect to be an expert at it.

Like all elements of case study exam technique, you need to put in the practice.

So give this 8-step approach a go in your practice exams

If you put in the work now, you’ll soon be able to perform the steps quickly and accurately, when under the time pressure of exam conditions.

And not only will your plans improve, but your exam score, too.

Now, I realise that we’ve covered a load of detail here, so if you have any questions, just email me below.

Thanks for your time,

Matt

P.S. For a great tuition video walking you through the answer planning process,  click here

 

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