Reports findings from an empirical investigation into the process of operations strategy formation in six small manufacturing companies in the UK. A two‐stage methodology was used, with three companies being studied in‐depth and three as supplementary cases. The top‐down strategic planning mode, which dominates the manufacturing strategy literature, was found to be inadequate as a depiction of manufacturing strategy formation in SMEs in practice. Manufacturing strategy formation was shown to be a complex process involving a combination of deliberate and emergent actions and decisions, influenced by organisational culture, politics and powerful individuals. Emergent actions and decisions within manufacturing always played a part in manufacturing strategy formation. Manufacturing strategy formation could be more deliberate if greater use was made of business planning and by the identification of a set of explicit objectives for manufacturing. Manufacturing strategy formation could be less emergent if political behaviour could be reduced. Other factors that seemed to be influential included the interpretative processes of managers, the role of a corporate parent and the level of management education.