Category Archives: Time Span

Land of Tangible, Land of Conceptual

Time frame sets the context. Near term target completion time requires the elements of the project to be concrete, tangible and known. The project due tomorrow afternoon has a team and we can call each member by name. The materials are quantified, we know how much. We know the vendor, we know the price point. We know the delivery time, we know the schedule. Every element is concrete, tangible and known. Why?

Because the project is due tomorrow afternoon.

A long term target completion is more conceptual. If the project will not be complete for five years, we know we will have a project team, but over the term of the project, some may quit, retire, get picked off by a competitor. We have an idea about materials, but over the term of the project, a new material might become available (better, faster, stronger) and we might have to adapt. Our supplier may not be in business in five years’ time or may no longer be serving our needs. We might need an alternate vendor.

We need both tactical thinking and strategic thinking. Our five year conceptual plan, in four years, must transform into a one year tactical plan.

Some people think short term. Some think long term. Some think both.

Point A to Point B

An event is anything that gets our attention. An event, at work, is any decision or problem that gets our attention. Decisions and problems present themselves as isolated events, yet they exist inside a context. That context will have significant bearing on the outcome of the decision and the solution to the problem.

When we measure the context in terms of time, or timespan, we gain insight into the impact of the decision made or the problem solved.

We can certainly walk from point A to point B. And to carry a payload, we are limited to our backs. In the long term, if we are to carry many payloads, we may want to invest in a vehicle to carry each payload. The timespan of the decision indicates its impact.

If we are to carry many payloads in our vehicle faster over a longer period of time, we may want to invest in a road. If we want to go faster, we may top that road with smooth asphalt. If we want the smooth asphalt to remain smooth with minimum repair, over time, we may invest in a strong sub-structure for the road. The timespan of the decision indicates its impact.

Still, we can certainly walk from point A to point B.

It is the role of management to think about longer timespan impact at higher levels of work.

What Keeps Us From Thinking?

There is an NLP (Neuro-linguistic programming) process that encourages the act of visioning. This imaginary exercise requires the subject to place themselves into a future state (point in time) without the encumbrances of the present. Encumbrances of the present limit the vision of the future and prevent the creative imagination to guide real, substantive change. Difficult to see down the road while looking at the bug on the windshield.

  • ToysRUs
  • Radio Shack
  • Sports Authority

It is likely these companies saw the advance of technology and understood the implications to the survival of their business model. Yet, in spite of feeble efforts to adopt technology initiatives, worse yet, failing to understand the significance to their business model, these companies failed. Survival is optional.

An emerging characteristic of those companies who successfully adapt, is the abandonment of legacy thinking. I always thought it curious that Uber seldom considered how to comply with local taxi authorities and focused on a business model that in large part ignored those restrictions. I watched and chuckled as Uber was forbidden to serve a market because they refused to comply, only to watch municipal magistrates eventually remove those restrictions in the face of market demand.

One would think that a local taxi company would examine and copy Uber’s technology to compete head to head. It was certainly available to them. What stopped the effective adoption of technology had nothing to do with the technology.

What stopped the effective adoption of technology was the sacrosanct immovability of the legacy thinking. A legacy taxi company cannot imagine a world where they own no vehicles. A hotelier cannot imagine a world where they own no physical hotel properties.

Whose Problem Is It?

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“I cannot believe my technicians are running into the same problem, again,” Roger complained.

“Again?” I asked.

“Yes, and they keep coming back to me, thinking I will solve it for them.”

“Whose problem is it?” I pressed.

“It’s their problem,” Roger insisted.

“Their problem?” I repeated. “Sounds like it is your problem. Tell me, if it was your problem, would your problem be the same as their problem?”

Roger stopped. “I am not sure where you are going with this.”

“Look, if your technicians have a problem, it is likely to be a technical problem, and yes, they can handle the technical problems. What impact does that have on you? What are you accountable for?”

Roger took a deep breath. “You are right. I am accountable for the overall output for the day, the week, so if there is a technical problem, it is going to impact the overall output. I guess it is my problem.”

“Not so fast,” I smiled. “You are not the only one affected. What about your manager?”

“What about him? I just hope I can get this solved before he finds out,” Roger replied.

“Oh, really. What if the problem is really your manager’s problem?”

Roger did not respond, so I continued.

“The problem your technicians have, if it is a technical problem, they can fix it. If it takes a while to fix it, you have an output problem. You are going to fall short by the end of the week. You might have to call a customer about a late order. But, you said this is the same problem over and over. This might be a system problem. Something in the system might need some attention. If we fix the problem now, for this one customer, and we don’t fix the system, do you think the problem might happen again?”

Now Roger was engaged. “So, my technicians have a problem today. I have a problem for the end of the week. But my manager might have a problem forever, until he fixes the system?”

“Yes, this is not one problem, this is three problems, each at its own level of work. Requires a cooperative effort to identify the problem, gather the data and execute the solution at each level of work.”

The Glory of Chaos

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From the Ask Tom mailbag-

Question:
You said a growing company has to slow down and describe the work. You nailed our company – we miss deadlines, too much rework, a warranty claim, turnover, morale is tense, managers are nervous. Yet, we have more incoming work than we can handle. And all you can say is – we need to slow down and describe the work?

Response:
Or you can stay in the chaos. Somehow, you will manage to get through the day. You will settle your warranty claim, but the tension will remain.

You cannot work faster, harder or longer to solve this problem. You have to re-trench. This is fundamental blocking and tackling. It starts with describing the work in the role, documented in a role description (fundamental blocking and tackling).

A project manager with three projects is level (II) work. The work is coordinating and scheduling all the elements of the project. There is level (II) decision making and problem solving.

A project manager with 50 projects is level (III) work. It requires a system and a team. The decision making is not about project management. There are too many projects. The decision making is about the system of project management. The problem-solving is not about project management. The problem-solving is about the system of project management.

Or, you can stay in the chaos.

How Old Will You Be in Five Years?

Timespan is a frame to understand.

Timespan is the language of context to understand what is happening now in relationship to the past and future. Anecdotal references to the “big picture” or “50,000 foot level” can specifically be measured in timespan.

We can look at business processes, over time, and examine the cause-effect relationships of process elements. We can also look inward, look at ourselves, over time, and examine the cause-effect relationships of our own internal decisions. What happened in the past shapes the present. What is happening now gives us insight into the future, but only if we can see the context.

Who are you now? Who will you be in one year? Who will you be in five years?

Compared to What?

We have numerous metaphors that allude to higher level thinking. Seeing the big picture. Not a sprint, but a marathon. In it for the long haul. Humans have the unique ability to observe things directly and also to observe themselves, observing things directly. Higher level thinking.

This is context. Humans can not only see the “event,” but the context of the “event.” It’s only an event. An event is anything that gets our attention. Context provides meaning for the event.

Ray Dalio, Principles, alludes to this higher level thinking. “Higher level thinking gives you the ability to study and influence the cause-effect relationships at play in your life and use them to get the outcomes you want.”

Elliott Jaques codified higher level thinking with his discovery of timespan. Timespan is the context, the timeframe in which an event exists. Higher level thinking is simply a longer timespan context. Jaques created a numeric reference for these timeframes which helps as a shorthand to describe each context.

  • Level I – 1 day – 3 months.
  • Level II – 3 months – 1 year.
  • Level III – 1 year – 2 years.
  • Level IV – 2 years – 5 years.
  • Level V – 5 years – 10 years.

An event has meaning in the context of a season. A season has meaning in the context of a year. A year has meaning in the context of a decade. Timespan perspective helps us understand single events in the midst of multiple events. Context answers the question, “Compared to what?”

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