Execution Plans: First Operator

The first time you see a new execution plan that you’re examining to fix a performance problem, something broken, whatever, you should always start by looking at the first operator.

First Operator

The first operator is easily discerned (with an exception). It’s the very first thing you see in a graphical execution plan, at the top, on the left. It says SELECT in this case:

This is regardless of how you capture the execution plan (with an exception). Whether you’re looking at an execution plan from the plan cache, Query Store, or through SSMS, the execution plan, regardless of complexity, has this first operator. In this case, it says UPDATE:

If you get an execution plan plus runtime metrics (previously referred to as an “actual” execution plan), you’ll still see this first operator. Here, again, SELECT:

Why The First Operator

If you just look at the tool tip for the first operator, you’ll think I’m crazy for calling this out as your starting point:

However, if, like me, you live with the properties window open while you’re navigating execution plans, you’ll see a whole different set of data:

This massive list of information is why I suggest you start examining plans by looking at this operator. Here you find things like:

  • Statistics used to compile the plan
  • Reason for plan compilation termination, if any
  • Memory used to compile the plan
  • Compile time
  • Parameter values used to compile the plan
  • Parameter runtime values in the case of an execution plan plus runtime metrics
  • SET options used to compile the plan
  • Type of compilation; Full, Timeout, Trivial
  • Missing indexes, there could be more than one
  • For an execution plan plus runtime metrics, wait statistics

And more. There really are just tons of information about the plan within this first operator. Understanding of why a plan is problematic starts with understanding the choices made by the optimizer. The beginning of the list of those choices starts with the details of the first operator.


With everything there is an exception. SQL Server only has one kind of execution plan (more on that coming very soon). However, due to a bug in both Extended Events and Trace Events, the plans captured there, while identical in every other way to every other way of capturing an execution plan, the XML is malformed so the first operator doesn’t show in the graphical plan.

However, most of the data you’re interested in is still visible. However, you can only see it by looking at the XML of the execution plan.

I think Microsoft is working on this. They were actually only informed of it last year even though the problem is quite old. This doesn’t change the importance of the information where the first operator would be though.


After you’ve been working on a plan for a while, of course you don’t need to be going back to this operator over and over. However, that first time you’re looking at a plan, when you’re just starting to come to grips with it, start here. The first operator provides a long list of details, meta data, about that execution plan that helps you understand the plan.

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