How Supervisors Get in the Weeds

“I am looking at your training chart. I see you have periodic S-II supervisor training and periodic S-III manager training. What about your S-I production teams?” I asked.

“Well, production around here is relatively simple. I want to spend most of my training budget where I think it will have the most impact?” Riley defended.

“But I noticed that Sam, one of your supervisors, was actually working the line yesterday. How did that happen?”

“Oh, happens all the time. It’s not unusual for my supervisors to spend half their time doing production work,” Riley explained.

“Is that why the work schedule posted in the lunch room is for last week? Isn’t Sam supposed to post a 2-week look ahead so the crew knows what is coming up?” I wanted to know.

“Yeah, he is supposed to, but sometimes we get behind on our production work, and Sam can get stuff done faster and defect free, no re-work.”

“You mean your team members each have higher re-work than Sam?”

Riley was proud. “Yep, Sam is a great guy.”

“If you spent some of your training budget with your S-I production people, would their re-work come down? Would Sam be able to spend more time in his supervisory role? Every time you have disruption at the S-I production level, you will drag your S-II supervisors into the weeds. And while your S-II supervisors are in the weeds, your S-III managers have to cover your supervisors. Everyone gets dragged down a level of work. Why do you think your teams are always behind?”

Riley stopped. “I guess I have to think about training, and competence, even at the production level of work.”

Making Progress, an Inch at a Time

“I don’t get it,” Kerry said. “This time, instead of solving the problem, I asked questions, to get the team to solve the problem. They still responded just like before. They wanted me to solve the problem for them.”

“Perhaps they didn’t believe you,” I replied. “You did something new, to solve the problem. Perhaps the team didn’t take you seriously. Progress is seldom made, in leaps and bounds, because you tried something new. Progress is more likely made an inch at a time, repeating things that work. Success seldom comes by doing the right thing once. Success comes through your habits, those grooved behaviors repeated time after time.”

“So, what should I do?” Kerry baited me.

“I don’t know, what do you think?”

“I guess, next time, I will ask questions again, put the problem back on the team. I have to make it a habit.”

The Disabling Manager

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You say that one of the primary roles of a manager is to bring value to the problem solving and decision making of their team. Just exactly how do you do that?

Response:
Most team members, once they have completed their orientation and training, can handle most of the routine stuff. It’s the difficult decisions, the difficult problems they need help with.

How does a manager bring that help? How does a manager bring that value?

Some managers make themselves indispensable by providing all the answers, solving all the problems and making all the decisions. Yet, every time a manager solves a problem for the team, the team is disabled from solving that problem for themselves. Over time, the team is reduced to a helpless group that is crippled by its own manager.

The most effective managers are not those who solve the tough problems for their team. The most effective managers are those that ask the most effective questions.

People can only learn what they are capable of learning. The most effective managers are sensitive to that gap and fill it with questions. Real learning requires real change. The most effective managers anticipate that change and meet their team in that crucible.

Don’t Play Amateur Psychologist

From the Ask Tom mailbag – gleaned from a colleague’s mail list.

Question:
Do you have anything on Meta Competencies, if you have never heard of them, they’re personal indicators of future potential for higher up jobs. All part of our talent management project, which is based on “being good enough at your current job doesn’t mean you have potential to do a higher up job.”

Response:
This is a noble question which leads us astray for the answer. It is a sucker punch which assumes there is a psychological indicator for human potential. The question invites us (managers) to climb inside the head of a candidate or team member. But, once inside this head, most managers will find themselves on shaky ground. That psychology course in high school or college will abandon them. Few managers have degrees in psychology, advanced degrees or are certified to practice psychotherapy, yet here they are, inside the head of a candidate, looking for a “personal indicator of future potential.”

An alternate course, to answer this question, to identify “potential to do a higher up job” starts with how to define “a higher up job.” Talking about the job, talking about the work, now, most managers are on solid ground. Most managers can easily identify a “higher up job.” And that is where the answer is. Don’t try to climb inside the head of the candidate, focus on the work.

While we have an intuitive sense of a “higher up job,” until we can accurately define levels of work, identifying potential in a candidate will remain elusive, and indeed, allow psychologists to try to sell us all sorts of magical assessments. The instant we can accurately identify levels of work, we can get great clarity on human potential.

Focus on the work. Managers are experts on work. Let me borrow an insight from Lee Thayer. “The best measure of performance is performance.” Hint, this is NOT a circular reference.

The best measure of potential is evidence of potential (the original question). A person with potential will leave clues. All we have to do is see the clues. “Being good enough at your current job doesn’t mean you have potential to do a higher up job.” The answer is simple. Give the person a higher level of work. The best method to test a person’s potential is project work. Given a higher level of (project) work, the candidate will either effectively handle it, or not. The best measure of performance is performance.

Stop playing amateur psychologist and focus on the work. It’s all about the work.

You Designed the System

“I have so many things going on, seven projects in the air, but the worst part is, people just seem to interrupt me, all the time,” Rosalee explained. “They don’t realize how hard it is to get anything done, when every ten minutes, I have to drop everything to answer a question.”

“Who is they?” I asked.

“Well, it’s my own team members, and it’s my manager, and my manager’s manager.”

“Sounds like you are pretty important around here,” I observed.

“I do have a lot of experience, and my projects are very complicated. Lots of moving parts and shifting deadlines,” she replied.

“So, what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. I tried shutting my door, so they text me. I tried hiding in another office, they found me. I tried coming in to work early and staying late, but that turned into 14 hour days,” Rosalee shook her head.

“Why do you think everyone depends on you, so much?” I prompted.

“They are smart people, but sometimes I think they are lazy. They don’t have to make a decision using their own judgement when they can just ask me.”

“And if you refuse to help?”

“I can’t do that. Decisions wouldn’t get made and production would slow down,” she protested.

“So, the system that interrupts you, is a system that you designed?”

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.