Category Archives: Time Span

Clues to Levels of Work

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I am working on our role descriptions around time span. Do you have a set of definitions that would communicate levels of work that would be user friendly?

Response:
Great question. Levels of work is only valuable if we can easily recognize it in work behavior. It’s not only what we can observe, as managers, but how we describe the work, our expectations and written role descriptions. Here are some clues.

S-I is typically a production role of some sort. Often, what our customer experiences is a direct result of this level of work.

  • The carpet that gets cleaned.
  • The car that gets washed.
  • The product assembled.
  • The package delivered.

This role typically uses real tools, machinery, equipment as part of that service delivery or production. If it is a clerical position, probably a computer.

S-II is typically an implementation role, coordinating role, scheduling role, using checklists, schedules and short huddle meetings. The purpose of this role is to make sure production gets done, according to standards and deadlines.

S-III is typically a system role, to design work flow, inputs and outputs for consistency. This role would use flow diagrams, schematics, sequence and planning tools.

S-IV is typically an integration role, observing and facilitating system integration, the way in which one system in the organization interacts with other systems. This level of work specifically focuses on two things –

  • Optimizing output from each system to balance total throughput from the whole organization. This balances the volume of marketing leads assigned to sales follow-up against operations capacity to fulfill. We can write too many contracts that outstrips our capacity to fulfill.
  • Manicuring the work output or handoff from one system to another. This is to ensure the work output from one system meets the input spec for the next system.

S-IV looks at total organization throughput for all the systems working in concert.

As you write the role description, using these descriptions will provide insight on how decisions are made and problems solved in the role. BTW, that’s work, making decisions, solving problems.

Can I Do This By Myself?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I attended your session last week on levels of work. I can see that my organization has a lot of work to do, but I am just a manager. I don’t have the authority to do some of the things you suggest. How can I, as a manager, implement some of these ideas with my own team. Where do I start?

Response:
Remember this phrase, “It’s all about the work.”

Work is solving problems and making decisions. That is where to start. As a manager, think about your team and its function inside your company. Is it marketing, sales, contracting, project management, operations, quality control, research and development, accounting, human resources, legal? What is the function of your team?

In that function, what are the problems that have to be solved? What are the decisions that have to be made? You don’t have to answer these questions by yourself, ask your team.

As you discuss this with your team, three distinct levels of work will likely emerge.

  • There is some direct activity, or production work that must be done.
  • There is some organizing work that schedules the production work, its people, materials and necessary equipment to make sure that the production gets done, on time.
  • There is system work that decides the most efficient sequence, time duration, quality standard and assesses the output to make improvements for a more consistent and predictable product or service.

You will notice that each level of work has its own problems to solve and decisions to make. You will also notice the time span of each level of work is different.

  • The direct activity, or production work may be observable in days or weeks.
  • The organizing work will anticipate the production schedules in weeks or months.
  • The system work will ensure that the product or service is consistent over a longer period of months and years.

You will notice, that to be effective, each level of work may carry its own skill set, engage in distinctly different activities and measure its outcomes in different ways.

Remember this phrase, “It’s all about the work.” As a manager, become an expert in the work. -Tom

Gain More Control

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You say, your challenge, as a manager, is to work less and gain more control. Easy to say. Hard to do.

Response:
Management is a mindset. Levels of work help us understand that management is not about working more, or working harder, it is about working differently. Delegation is all about working differently.

In every role, there is a level of problem solving and a level of decision making. When Marshall Goldsmith says “What got you here, won’t get you there,” he is talking about a different level of work.

When Albert Einstein says “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it,” he is talking about a different level of work.

Elliott Jaques‘ research on levels of work makes this management advice concrete. Intuitively, we understand levels of work, but only when Jaques defined levels of work related to time span, did we get some useful direct insight.

The time span of the goal defines the level of work. In a technician’s world, goals range from a day to three months. In your role as a supervisor, or first line manager, your longest time span objectives range from 3-12 months. Any task that is shorter is a candidate to be delegated.

In your role as a manager, your longest time span objectives range from 12-24 months. Any task that is shorter is a candidate to be delegated.

What is left? It is those longer time span tasks that make up your role as a manager. It is only when you have effectively delegated shorter time span task assignments that you will get more throughput and more control over the quality of the output. -Tom

Level of Work – Time Span Objectives
S-I – 1 day to 3 months
S-II – 3 months to 12 months
S-III – 12-24 months
S-IV – 2-5 years

Time Span of Express

Analogies can be useful teachers. Seth Godin published this about Express and Local trains, which creates a perfect analogy to understand time span.

Express trains run less often, make fewer stops, and if they’re going where you’re going, get you there faster.
The local train is, of course, the opposite.
Some people hop on the first train that comes. A local in the hand is worth the extra time, they say, because you’re never quite sure when the express is going to get there.
On the other hand, there’s a cost to investing in the thing that pays off in the long run.
Now that you see that, you’re probably going to notice it in 100 areas of your life.

One of those hundred areas is time span.

Local trains (short time span) require very little thought, not much of a plan. The train (bus) picks a route and stops every place (enough) people want to stop. It uses the same track day after day.

Express trains (longer time span) requires more thought and much more planning.

  • Which routes would benefit from express?
  • What is the threshold criteria for an express?
  • Which stops to skip? Which are served by a local?
  • Which tracks to use? Which tracks to skip?
  • How to evaluate the effectiveness of an express?
  • What if something changes and the express is no longer effective? How do we know?

Think about your projects, your customer service, your web portals, product delivery, warranty programs, quality programs, research and development. What is your express train? What is your local?

Anything That Can Go Wrong

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I am still struggling with the concept of time span. You say that time span indicates complexity. How?

Response:
Don’t overthink this fundamental concept. Life is about uncertainty. It is like the weather and the stock market. There is always uncertainty.

Combine this level of uncertainty with our intentions (goal directed behavior) and you observe the consternation of the ages. This is not a matter of going with the flow, but trying to get something done, achieve a goal, create an accomplishment. Elliott describes this as the “time span of intention.”

In spite of our best intentions, the longer it takes to achieve the goal, the more time life has to be unpredictable. The shorter time it takes to achieve the goal, the less time life has to happen, the less opportunity for some circumstance to come in sideways and blow everything up.

Time span is about contingencies. Time span becomes a calibration tool that allows us to precisely measure the impact of uncertainty in our best laid plans.

Step back and remember Murphy’s Law. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. How long do we give Murphy to play?

Too Hot? Too Cold? Just Right?

“So, how do we measure Hector?” Eduardo asked. “I’m all ears. I understand how to measure the time span of the tasks that Hector is responsible for. And, the longest task is three months. But, how do we measure Hector?”

“It is really very simple. You now know the time span of the longest task in the role that Hector plays. Here is the question.

“Does Hector, in your judgment as his manager, have the capability to perform the tasks in his role as freight supervisor? Or does he fall short in his capability to perform those tasks? Or does he have the capability to perform tasks with a longer time span?

“It’s like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Is the porridge too hot? Too cold? Or is it just right?”

Eduardo squinted, “That’s it? Too hot, too cold or just right?”

I nodded, “Which is it?”

“Well, Hector does most of the job okay, but when it comes to the more complicated stuff, he falls short.”

“So, to recap your judgment, as his manager, Hector falls short?” I repeated.

“But, I knew that already,” Eduardo complained.

“Yes, you did, but you did not have a way to measure what you already knew. Now, you know that Hector falls short in capability at three months. If you define the time span of the shorter tasks he completes, you will have a very precise measure of his capability.”

Eduardo was quiet, then spoke. “Hector handles the one month stuff well. But falls short on the three month stuff. Hector’s time span is on the up side of one month, but the short side of three months.”

“So, now, is the question. How is this helpful to you as his manager?”

What’s the Level of Work?

“Where do we start?” Eduardo asked.

“Where do you think we should start?” I replied.

“We are trying to measure Hector’s capability. Is he big enough for the role. That’s the goal of this session,” Eduardo established.

“So, what unit of measure have we talked about when it comes to defining the tasks involved in his job?”

“We talked about time span,” he said.

“And, what was the measure of the longest task in Hector’s job?”

“We said, one month. Hector is in charge of shipping, but it’s more than just getting freight out the door. He is responsible for proper crating, working with vendors to select the proper crating materials, collecting information about product damage in transit. It is really a big job. Some of the problems that have to be solved involve testing in-house, you know, crash testing and then field testing.

“So, I don’t think one month is accurate. I think, to be successful, the longest task is three months. It takes that long to solve some of the material damage issues in that department,” Eduardo concluded.

“Okay, three months is the longest task required. To be successful running the shipping area requires the ability to work three months into the future, without direction, using his own discretionary judgment?”

Eduardo nodded, “Yes, I need Hector to carry the ball the whole way. I may check up on him more frequently to see if he still has the ball, but I need him to supervise the resolution to some of these issues without me. If I really have to get involved, then Hector is not doing the necessary work.”

“So, success in the job requires a time span of three months?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“That is step one. Firmly establishing the time span of the longest task, establishing the required time span for the role.

“Are you ready for step two? The next part is to measure Hector.”

The Difference Between Coaching and Mentoring

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I was in your workshop last week and suddenly realized why I feel frustrated in my position. In the course of a project, I solve problems and make decisions, submit them to my manager for review, and then, he sits on them. People who depend on those decisions, one way or the other, ask me, “what gives?” The decision sits on my manager’s desk in a black hole while the project gets delayed. In the end, my decision survives, but the project is late, time and again.

Is it possible my manager is in over his head? He gets credit for my decisions, even though the project is late. I am worried that I will be stuck here under my manager for the rest of my career.

Response:
There is always more to the story and I cannot speculate on the capability of your manager. I do know that your manager’s goals and objectives set the context for your work. Keep your head down. Keep making decisions and solving problems on your assigned projects. Continue to give your manager “best advice.” That’s your role.

Your biggest fear is that your career may be in a dead-end under your current manager. It likely appears that your manager is, indeed, not focused on your professional development. Not his job.

Look to your manager’s manager, your manager-once-removed. Your manager is specifically focused on a shorter term set of goals and objectives. Your manager-once-removed is focused on a longer term set of goals and objectives. Some of that longer term focus is the professional development of team members two levels of work below.

Manager-once-removed
———————————-
Manager
———————————-
Team member

The working relationship with your manager is different than the working relationship with your manager-once-removed. The relationship with your manager is an accountability relationship filled with task assignments, checkpoints and coaching. The relationship with your manager-once-removed is a mentoring relationship filled with discussions about professional development, career path, working environment, challenge in your role.

It is likely that your company does not recognize the importance of the manager-once-removed relationship. It is possible your manager-once-removed has no awareness of this necessary managerial relationship. You do. You are now aware.

What to do
Pick two or three professional development programs that you find interesting and that could help you bring more value to the company in your role. Don’t pick something that pulls you away from your current role or something with an unreasonable budget. It could be something as simple as three different books you would like to read that will bump up your skill level.

Ask your manager-once-removed to schedule a short fifteen minute conference to ask advice. Don’t ask for advice, ask for a short fifteen minute conference. This is not a casual conversation in the hallway. You want undivided attention across a desk or a table.

This fifteen minute conversation is your first of several meetings with your manager-once-removed to talk about longer time span issues related to your professional development. This is not a time to talk about the accountabilities in your current role, those discussions should be with your manager. This is the time to talk about your long term development and contribution to the company over time.

Take baby steps and build from there. A reasonable routine to meet with your manager-once-removed would be for 30-45-60 minutes every three months. Keep in touch. -Tom

Survival Behavior

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:

What happens when you realize you were given a promotion and not able to live up to the capabilities? Do you admit it to your superiors? Do you keep it to yourself and risk failure?

Response:

There are many ways to survive in a position that’s over your head, but in the end, it’s only survival. Not a way to live.

I often ask managers, “How do you know, what behavior do you observe when a person is in over their head? Where the Time Span required for the role is longer than the Time Span capability of the person?”

The descriptions come back.

  • They feel overwhelmed.
  • They cover things up.
  • They cut off communication.
  • Their projects are always late.
  • I can’t ever find them.
  • They always blame someone else.
  • They have all the excuses.
  • They never accept responsibility.

So, the short answer is yes. When you realize you are in over your head, go back to your boss. Explain the difficulties you are having. Ask for help. If it is a matter of capability (Time Span), no amount of training, no amount of hand holding will help. It is possible that you may grow into the position, but it’s more likely a matter of years, not weeks that allows for the required maturity (increase in Time Span).

This doesn’t make you a bad person, it just means you were placed in a position where you cannot be effective. Yet!

Level of Work of a Team Lead?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I run a private industrial disaster recovery business. We respond to natural disasters and clean up the mess. We are very hierarchical, but I am having difficulty understanding the level of work in the teams that we dispatch.

Is it possible to have a supervisor in stratum level one? For example, we deploy teams of three people consisting of two technicians and a team captain. The two technicians are obviously working at S-I, one or two day time span, while the team captain works on a day to week at the most. The team captain directs the activities of the two technicians, but is he their manager?

We have several three person teams supervised by a single Project Manager. The Project Manager role, for us, includes team member selection, coordination of support resources, equipment, machinery, consumables as well as training for technicians and team captains. Our Project Manager clearly works at S-II, 3-12 month time span.

My question is, what is the level of work for the Team Leader?

Response:

You describe a classic case of a First Line Manager Assistant (FLMA). Elliott was very specific about this role. You are correct that the role is an S-I role and illustrates that within a single stratum level of work, we have different levels of work, illustrated below –

S-II – Project Manager, supervision and coordination, manager of the entire S-I team.
————————————————
S-I-Hi – Team Captain, directs on-site, assigns tasks, but is not the manager of the team.
S-I-Med – Technician, works under the on-site direction of the Team Leader
S-I-Lo – Technician trainee
————————————————

This works for project teams, deployed field units, multi-shift operations where the S-II Project Manager or Supervisor is not physically present at all times. The First Line Manager Assistant (FLMA) has limited authority to direct activity and assign tasks within the larger authority of the S-II Supervisor. The FLMA has recommending authority for advancement and compensation, but those decisions remain with the S-II Supervisor.