In 2009, the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union) and Médecins sans Frontières Brussels-Luxembourg (MSF) began developing an outcome-oriented model for operational research training. In January 2013, The Union and MSF joined with the Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR) at the World Health Organization (WHO) to form an initiative called the Structured Operational Research and Training Initiative (SORT IT). This integrates the training of public health programme staff with the conduct of operational research prioritised by their programme. SORT IT programmes consist of three one-week workshops over 9 months, with clearly-defined milestones and expected output. This paper describes the vision, objectives and structure of SORT IT programmes, including selection criteria for applicants, the research projects that can be undertaken within the time frame, the programme structure and milestones, mentorship, the monitoring and evaluation of the programmes and what happens beyond the programme in terms of further research, publications and the setting up of additional training programmes. There is a growing national and international need for operational research and related capacity building in public health. SORT IT aims to meet this need by advocating for the output-based model of operational research training for public health programme staff described here. It also aims to secure sustainable funding to expand training at a global and national level. Finally, it could act as an observatory to monitor and evaluate operational research in public health. Criteria for prospective partners wishing to join SORT IT have been drawn up.