Category Archives: Accountability

How Many People Can One Person Manage?

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

How many people can a person effectively manage?

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.

Finger Pointing Between Functional Departments

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

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.

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.

Expectations as Clear as Mud

“Most of the time, your team members will do exactly what is expected of them, if they could just figure out, what that is,” I explained.  ”When you observe underperformance, look for the cause.  It is usually in one of these five areas.”

  • Make the expectation (of output) clear.
  • Ensure the availability of required resources.
  • Validate the required skills and sufficient practice for the task.
  • Match the persons capability with the capability required for the task (measured in time span).
  • Ensure the person places a high value on the work (interest or passion for the work).
  • Ensure the person engages in reasonable behaviors required to complete the task.

“But I told my assistant that I needed the report ASAP,” Carolyn objected.  ”When I went to find out the status, I found out the report had not even been started.”

“Let’s work through the list.  The expectations were clear to you, but were they clear to the team member?  What does ASAP mean?  You needed the report for the meeting on Friday, so ASAP could mean – as soon as possible before Friday.

“When I look at expectations, clarity of expectations, I think QQTR.  Quantity-Quality-Time-Resources.  If I miss any of these elements, then the expectation is not clear.”

  • What is the quantity of the output?
  • What is the quality standard (so I know what to count and what not to count)?
  • What is the time deadline, specifically, date and time?
  • What resources are available, or not available?


How to Hold Someone Accountable

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

I very much enjoy your blog and always find improvement opportunities within your messages.  As you point out rather frequently, holding the right people accoutable is crucial.  In that regard, I would like to ask, what different ways have you found effective in “holding people accountable” beyond expressing your dissatisfaction with their performance, formal performance improvement requirments (PIP)  or replacing them?  I would like to know what tools/techniques you recommend and believe most effective.

Here is my short list -

  • Raising my voice.
  • Repeated criticism.
  • Frequent complaining.
  • Public flogging.

The person who believes these methods effective is someone who has no children.  None of these work.  I spent several hours with one of my executive groups on this very issue and at the end of the day, here was our conclusion.  The only person who can truly hold me accountable is me.  All other forms of harassment are largely ineffective.  Self-accountability is the only path.

Yet, we still say that we have to hold someone accountable.  My definition of a manager is that person held accountable for the output of their team.  So I say it, too.

So, here’s a better list of conditions required for self-accountability.

  • Make the expectation (of output) clear.
  • Ensure the availability of required resources.
  • Validate the required skills and sufficient practice for the task.
  • Match the persons capability with the capability required for the task (measured in time span).
  • Ensure the person places a high value on the work (interest or passion for the work).
  • Ensure the person engages in reasonable behaviors required to complete the task.

If we still observe underperformance or misbehavior, we have to make a judgment as to the cause.  Then we have to make a judgment if this cause can be corrected.

The Role of the Manager’s Manager

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

Question - 
I have appointed a new manager to my team, so I am his manager.  I thought he would pick things up quicker, but he seems to be floundering.  I think he will make over time, but I wanted to know if I should send him to training, get him a book on management?

Response -
If you think this new manager will make it, over time, just needs a sprinkling of managerial pixie dust, then you will hate this response.  The most potent step you can take is for you, as his manager, to get directly involved.

Certainly, you could offload him into a leadership program, there are many good ones around.  You could purchase a management book for him to read, but both will pale in comparison to the direct influence you can have, as his manager.

Every employee is entitled to have an effective manager with the capability to bring value to their problem solving and decision making.  Your job, as his manager, is to bring that value.  Easy to say, hard to do.

And just to make sure I have your attention.  It is you as his manager, that I hold accountable for his output in the role.  You selected him, you on-boarded him, you control the environment he works in.  You are in control of his training.  You are in the position of coach.  You are the manager accountable for his output.

How Does Hierarchy Promote Cooperation?

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

I recently attended one of your Time Span workshops and want to know how hierarchy promotes cooperation?

The short answer is accountability.  Inherent in the structure of hierarchy is accountability.  Unfortunately, most managers misunderstand the purpose for hierarchy and where accountability is appropriately placed.

Most managers believe that hierarchy is a reporting structure.  Even our language misguides us.  ”Who is the new guy going to report to?”  This is not the central question.

The definition of a manager is, that person held accountable for the output of other people.  The question is not “who should the new guy report to?”  The central question is, which manager can be held accountable for the new guy’s output?”

When managers begin to understand accountability, the whole game changes.  Hierarchy provides us with a visual representation, of which manager is accountable for the output of the team.

When managers begin to understand that they are accountable for the output of their team, attitudes change and behavior changes.  Behaviors change from controlling and directing to supporting and coaching.  Every employee is entitled to have a competent manager with the time span capability to bring value to their problem solving and decision making.

The purpose of hierarchy is to create that value stream, where managers, one stratum above (in capability) bring value to the problem solving and decision making of their team members.  For ultimately, it is the manager who is accountable for their output.

Can a Non-Engineer Manage an Engineer?

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

We are having a discussion about one of our engineers and who he should report to?  The engineering manager says that all engineers should report to him, that a non-engineer doesn’t know how to manage an engineer.  Our plant manager says he needs the engineer on his team full time without going through the engineering manager to get things done.

First, let’s shift the question to get to the answer.  Every employee reports to lots of people.  Team members work on a project, contribute to a report, complete a routine task and then, work on another project.  In all of these activities, they report to many different people.  That’s normal.

But each employee can only have one manager.

The first question for every new hire into the company is, “who should this person report to?”  Wrong question.  This new employee will report to lots of people.  But each employee can only have one manager.

The central question is, “which manager will be accountable for this team member’s output?”  By definition, a manager is that person in the organization accountable for the output of other people.  Which manager will be accountable for this team member’s output?

Back to the engineer.  Which manager should be accountable for this engineer’s output?  Let’s ask some questions about the plant manager.

  • In the plant,does the plant manager know what tasks need to be completed, which will require engineering technical knowledge and skill?
  • For those tasks, does the plant manager know the reasonable amount of time it should take to complete those tasks?
  • In the plant, is the plant manager accountable for those delegated tasks being complete within the time frame?
  • Does the plant manager have enough engineering work to require a full time engineering role on his team?

If the answer is yes, then the plant manager should be held accountable for the output of this engineering resource.  And yes, non-engineers can be held accountable for the output of engineers.

Why Do People Bring Their Personal Lives to Work?

“Why do people bring their personal lives to work?” Denise complained.  ”I’m losing productivity.  Eight people on my team, one is out with a sick child, and one was late because his car broke down.  As the manager, I am held accountable for today’s lack of productivity, but it’s not my fault.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes, and you are partly to blame.  You say the manager is accountable for the output of the team.  You assume that each person on my team is doing their best and, as the manager, I am accountable.  Well, I feel like my feet are being held to the fire for the lack of productivity, but it’s not my fault that somebody’s kid got sick.”

“I agree.  It’s not your fault that somebody’s kid got sick.  You are not held accountable because someone was late.  You are, however, held accountable for today’s production.  You are the manager, THINK.”

“I think I am being blamed for something that is not my fault,” Denise pushed back.

“Looking at the production schedule, there are ten orders that have to be completed and pushed out the door.  You are the manager.  What are you going to do about that?” I insisted.

Denise took a big breath.  She wanted sympathy, but was getting no warm and fuzzies.  Finally she spoke.  ”There are two people on another crew that I could probably borrow for two hours.  They are cross-trained.  That will catch us up most of the way.  But there is one order that won’t make it today.  I know the customer and I know the project.  I can call and see if we can delay delivery for one day.”

“You are the manager.  Do you have the authority to make those decisions?”

“Yes.  I do,” Denise clarified.

“So stop feeling sorry for yourself.  You are not accountable for someone getting sick, but you are accountable for today’s production.”

The Problem with Matrix Management

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

Our company has a Matrix management structure within a functional structure.  Each department is struggling with execution and achieving target results partially due to resource alignment challenges associated with the functional and matrix organization structure. 

Matrix structures were created, with the best of intention, to resolve priority conflicts.  A team member who is temporarily assigned or part time assigned to a project team has a new built-in conflict.  “Who is my manager?”

Do I take direction from my manager or my project leader?  And when there is conflict between those directions, who wins?

And that is how matrix management was born.  Unfortunately, the end result simply codifies the existence of the team member’s (now) two managers without identifying who the real manager is.  Further, it does little to bring clarity to the project leader’s authority when there are conflicts.  The team member is simply stuck.

Again, the intention to invent Matrix was pure, to identify managerial authority and project leader authority related to the same team member.  Mixed results emerged.  Luckily, projects have limited duration and so the undecided conflicts eventually go away.  Some declared that Matrix was effective and then made the fatal mistake.  The fatal mistake was thinking that Matrix should then be applied to the entire enterprise.

Matrix operates under the false assumption that a team member can have two (or more) managers.  Matrix does little to identify the managerial authorities or the limited cross functional authorities required by a project leader.

This perspective was clearly identified by Elliott Jaques in his research on time-span. The prescription is to dismantle Matrix, establish clear accountability in your managerial relationships and structure cross-functional working relationships for the following roles -

  • Project leader
  • Auditor
  • Monitor
  • Coordinating relationship
  • Service getting relationship
  • Collateral relationship
  • Advisory relationship

These cross functional working relationships accurately identify the limited accountability and limited authority required to successfully move work horizontally through the organization.

If you would like a pdf about cross-functional working relationships, titled “Get Rid of Your Dotted Lines,” just Ask Tom.


Changing Others, Changing Ourselves

Emily nodded. “I think I am ready.” We were talking about her dissatisfaction with the way things were going for her as a manager. Not that they were going badly.

“Sometimes, I think I have to force things,” she said. “And forcing things doesn’t last long. I want to know how I can get people to perform, to perform at a higher level.”

“You want to know how you can cause people to change?”

“Yes, that’s it. Exactly. How can I get people to perform better, to stay focused, to pay attention, heck, just to show up on time would be nice.”

“So, Emily, when you look at yourself, how easy is it for you to make changes about your own life, your own work?”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” she replied. “Things are pretty well with me. For the most part, things are under control.”

“Interesting,” I said. “We think we have the ability to cause change in other people when we have great difficulty seeing the need for change within ourselves.”