Author Archives: Tom Foster

About Tom Foster

Tom Foster spends most of his time talking with managers and business owners. The conversations are about business lives and personal lives, goals, objectives and measuring performance. In short, transforming groups of people into teams working together. Sometimes we make great strides understanding this management stuff, other times it’s measured in very short inches. But in all of this conversation, there are things that we learn. This blog is that part of the conversation I can share. Often, the names are changed to protect the guilty, but this is real life inside of real companies.

Documenting Work Flow Issues

“I don’t understand why we are going to meet with the team about the new floor layout,” Shannon pushed back. “I mean, it’s a bunch of good guys, but they don’t understand the big picture of work flow and why we need to rearrange things.”

“And, you do?” I asked.

“Well, yes. I watch the unnecessary steps. I watch us move material around four or five times in the storage area before it finally moves to staging a couple of months later. I watch people searching for raw materials in unnumbered bins. I watch people pull unmarked boxes down to see what is inside.”

“Do you think you missed anything? That checklist inside your head, is that all the workflow issues we have? Are you sure you noticed everything?” I pressed.

“Well, not everything. There will always be something,” Shannon shrugged.

“So, let’s turn your single set of eyes and ears into twenty sets of eyes and ears and ask some simple questions of your team.”

I Need Your Help

I have been asked to make a presentation at an international conference sponsored by the Global Organization Design Society at the IBM Palisades Center NY, July 31-Aug 5, 2014.

I need your help in my preparation for that presentation. My subject at the conference will be how companies have applied the Time Span principles contained in the research of Elliot Jaques. I am looking for both informal application in how a manager sees decision making and problem solving to formal application in hiring systems or organizational changes in structure.

If you have attended one of my Time Span workshops (I have delivered 400 workshops over the past ten years) and you have used some principle or understanding to help you in your managerial work, I would like to hear from you. Please use the form at Ask Tom to send me a short note.

Thank you for your interest in the Time Span research of Elliott Jaques.

What is the Level of Work in Disney?

From the Ask Tom mailbag – Related to yesterday’s post on Levels of Work. Thanks to Barry for posting.

Question:
I agree that the place to start is with the work, but I’m confused by your presentation of the structure of the work. This description seems to only apply to organizations that have five hierarchical levels. When Walt Disney was 20, he was president of a corporation called Laugh-O-Gram Films, Inc., that was established to make a series of silent cartoons. This was long before the creation of Mickey Mouse. All ten or so employees reported directly to Walt.

So, I agree with your last statement that the first step is to understand the work and the different levels of work, but I’m not sure the work necessarily matches up with the five levels you provided.

Response:
Barry, thank you for a great question. You are correct. Not every organization has five levels of work. The example you provide, Laugh-O-Gram films was likely a Stratum III organization. Each film was likely a Stratum II project, but to be successful, they had to develop Stratum III systems in their animation methods. Ten or so employees would be consistent at that level of organization.

As time went by, Disney’s successor corporations, either by organic growth or acquisition, grew in complexity. We can calibrate that complexity using Time Span, examining each successive level of work. Disney is now Disney-ABC Television Group after its acquisition of ABC-Cap Cities in 1996. Now, an international media company, its highest level of work is high Stratum VI or low Stratum VII.

Time Span – Where Do I Start, How to Implement?

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

Question - 
I attended one of your workshops on Time Span.  Since that day, the subject is like a song that I just can’t get out of my head.  At the same time, where do I start?  You described Time Span, or Requisite Organization as a comprehensive management system, but where do I start?

Response - 
A first introduction to Requisite Organization and its central kernel, Time Span, can be overwhelming.  But the first steps are not that complicated.  Over the past ten years, I have shared this concept with more than 5,000 CEOs and managers, and this is always the first question – Where do I start?

It’s all about the work.

There are many kinds of organizations in the world, groups of people organized around a purpose.  There are religious organizations, community service organizations, political organizations, and organizations to get work done.  Work is my focus.  It’s all about the work.

So, what is the work that has to be done.  Where do I start?  It starts by understanding the answers to these questions.  These questions are helpful, to understand the different levels of work required in any complex endeavor.  Where you start, is by understanding the work.  The first step is understanding, the first step is a design step.

  • (S-V) What is the superior purpose for the work?  At the end of our foreseeable future, what do we want to accomplish?  This is often called vision, mission, purpose.  Without defining this purpose, the rest of the list doesn’t make sense.
  • (S-IV) To achieve the superior purpose (vision, mission), what are the big milestones that have to be achieved?  What are the big rocks that have to be moved?
  • (S-III) To move those big rocks, what are the consistent, repeatable behaviors (habits, systems) that have to be created?
  • (S-II) Inside each system, what are the deadlines and completed actions (projects) that have to be completed?  What are the materials, equipment and people required to complete those projects?
  • (S-I) What are the fundamental tasks that have to be organized?  What is the production work that has to be completed day in and day out?

The first step is to understand the work, to understand the different levels of work.

How Many People Can One Person Manage?

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

Question:
How many people can a person effectively manage?

Response:
This is a great question.  As I travel around North America, I talk to hundreds of managers each year, there is always this question, stated in different ways.

  • How many people can one person effectively manage?
  • What is the appropriate span of control?
  • When does a manager get spread too thin?

To answer this question, we need to reframe the assumption.  It is not a matter of management or control, it is a matter of accountability.  Here is my reframed question -

  • How many people can one manager be accountable for?

This shifts our understanding of the role and helps us answer the question.  The magic maximum number is “about” 70.  But it depends.  It depends on the variability of the work.  If the work is very repetitive and work instructions seldom change, one manager can be accountable for a fairly large group.  If however, if the work changes from day to day, hour to hour, where work instructions must be adapted constantly from a set of guidelines, that number may drop to four.

Let’s take a military example.  One drill sergeant, in basic training, where work instructions are repetitive, may be accountable for the work output of a high number of raw recruits.  On the other hand, in a Navy Seal team, with specialized missions requiring high levels of judgment which may change minute to minute, one team leader may only be effectively accountable for five or six team members.

What is the level of work on your team, what is its variability, how much judgment is required related to work instructions, what is the risk of underperformance?  Those are the questions you have to answer first.

The Shift from Supervisor to Manager

“Tell me, Joel, in making your transition from supervisor to manager, why do you think things slowed down for you?” I asked.

“The biggest difference,” he replied, “is that I am not dealing with things so much as I am dealing with people. When I was a supervisor, I just made sure material got received, stocked, staged and moved around, that machines worked, and that everybody was at their workstation. Sure, things shifted around and we changed the schedule all the time, but it was easy compared to this. As a manager, things have slowed down, but it’s a lot harder to get things done. It’s more complicated. I have to think further into the future.”

“How far into the future did you have to think as a supervisor?” I pondered.

Joel thought for a minute. He had never considered how far into the future he to think. “Well, as a supervisor, I guess it was only a few months out.  I mean, we had some long lead time items, and sometimes we had to reject materials that were out of specification, meaning the lead time doubled, but even with that, four to five months.  And with people, I just scheduled from the list of people of the team.  Now, I have to look out and see if we have enough people on the list.  I have to decide who is on the team.”

“Tell you what, Joel. The next time we meet, I want you to list out the longest tasks you had as a supervisor. I want to go over that list with you to see if we can make some sense moving forward as a manager.”

Being a Manager, Different From Being a Supervisor

Joel was not shaking, but he was certainly shaken.

“I just don’t know,” he said. “Since I was promoted from being a supervisor to a manager, things are different. It is certainly not as easy as I thought, a bit out of control.”

“Being new to management is tough. No one prepared you for this, they just promoted you and expected you to figure it out,” I replied.

“And what if I don’t figure it out?” Joel asked.

“Oh, you will figure it out. But that is no insurance that you will succeed. There are a number of reasons that managers don’t make the grade. The first reason is commitment. This is harder than you thought it would be. Being a manager requires a passion for being a manager. Being a manager is a lot different than being a supervisor.”

“You are right about that. Being a supervisor was fun, fast paced, things were always changing and I had to respond quickly. Being a manager, things move slower. I have to think about things. And the worst part, most everything I do is accomplished through other people. Other people are hard to control. They don’t always show up the way I want them to.”

“So, you are facing the first challenge of a being a manager. Do you really want to be a manager? Do you have a passion for it? Just saying yes doesn’t make it so. Why do you have a passion for it?”

Finger Pointing Between Functional Departments

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

Question:
Any advice as to how to align all members from multiple cross-functional departments into one purpose; create an efficient, streamlined process that assures that communication, documentation and actual product flow is executed efficiently?  We are specifically a design firm, but our revenue comes from the products manufactured from our exclusive designs.  So, we have mature internal systems in each department, but the transitions of work flow from one department to the other sometimes break down, so there are logjams, finger-pointing and sometimes, general chaos.

Response:
Much of the answer is in your question.  Let me pick out your key words.

  • Purpose
  • Efficiency
  • Flow

Let me add three more.

  • Balance and optimization
  • Authority
  • Accountability

What you have described is the classic transition from Stratum III systems to Stratum IV system integration.  It sounds like you have done an adequate job of creating multiple internal systems, that are efficient in each of your workflow disciplines.  It is the integration of these systems that is giving you fits.  Let me take a stab at listing some typical systems in this flow.

  • Market research system
  • Design system
  • Prototyping system
  • Approval system
  • Production system
  • Finished goods inventory system
  • Marketing system
  • Distribution and logistics system

Each of your internal systems likely works well within itself, but now you are experiencing balance problems between your internal systems.  It is not sufficient to have a great design system and a great production system.  If you have a weak prototyping system, your designs will get stuck on paper and never make it to production.  You may have a great marketing system that creates consumer demand, but if you have a weak finished goods inventory system, your products will never find their way to distribution.  Your weak systems will be doing their best and your strong systems will be finger-pointing.

So, that’s the problem.  What is the solution?  This is a Stratum IV issue, where someone needs to have end-to-end accountability.  Some companies attempt to solve this problem by creating a role called product manager.  The product manager would be accountable for tracking each step, likely creating a Gant chart of product progress from one function to another.  While this role gathers necessary data about the status of a single product in the chain, it still might only document that the product is stuck.

That is why this is a Stratum IV issue, one of balance and integration.  The S-IV manager (likely a VP) would be accountable for examining each system for capacity and handoff.  This is not looking internally at the mechanics of a single system, but the interaction of each reinforcing system to each balancing system.  It is not a matter of having one or two high performing functions, but having all functions able to keep up with each other, optimized for capacity.  No single system manager will have the authority, nor likely the capability, to do this work.

And somewhere in this integrated whole system, there will be a constraint.  There will be some limitation in a single system which will drive the cadence of all the systems working together.  The hat trick is identifying and placing that constraint strategically.  Typically, this strategic constraint will be an expensive resource, too expensive to duplicate (which would double the capacity of that system).  The identification, selection and placement of the strategic constraint, and then subordination of all other systems to the strategic constraint is the work of the S-IV manager.

With this integrated system design, then the work of documentation, handoffs, communication and feedback loops begins.  Most companies get this backward and have a communication seminar without balancing the systems for total throughput.  You can imagine that this communication seminar makes everyone feel good, but nothing changes in throughput, the finger-pointing continues.

For more reading, start with Eli Goldratt’s The Goal and Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline.

Power of Peers

Phillip’s team looked at each other, across the table, and for the first time saw something different. No more were they simply co-workers, but now interdependent members of a group whose success depended on those connections.

“No one succeeds by themselves,” I said. “At least for anything of significance. Sure you can think you are the Lone Ranger and prance around like you are someone important, but to achieve anything of real significance, you need a team. Each of you will, at some point, stumble, make a mistake, misjudge a situation. Each of you will, at some point, become discouraged, or become a Prima Dona, full of yourself.

“And when that happens, you will not recognize it in yourself, soon enough. You need each other to tell you those things, to make each of you better. Without each other, you will end up in ditch somewhere and no one will notice.”

Yes, Managerial Execution Like a Dictator

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

Question:
Can you talk about the difference between a dictatorial management approach and a collaborative management approach?

Response:
Execute like a dictator!

No kidding.  Execution often requires precision sequences of skilled behavior.  Execute like a dictator.

But to be effective at execution (like a dictator) requires two things.

  • Collaborative planning
  • Practice (perfect practice)

So, there is a time for collaboration and a time for explicit direction.  And effective explicit direction does not (cannot) occur without collaboration in planning.

In football, collaborative planning is called skull practice.  Off the field, in a room, no pads and no football.  The group assembles around a chalkboard (whiteboard) and there are fierce discussions about problems and solutions, roles and assignments.  At the end, even if there is disagreement among the players, they still pull together.  People will support a world they help to create.

Skull practice is followed by perfect practice on the field, hours of it.

But, during the game, work instructions are short, often shouted,  There is no time in the moment of execution to discuss who is going to carry the ball.  But, effective execution only works when it is preceded by collaborative planning and perfect practice.