Tag Archives: levels of work

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.

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.

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

When to Promote

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I have a technician in an S-I role, but he shows promise to be a supervisor. Shows promise, he’s not there yet. If I promote him, he will fail. Yet, he is clamoring to be promoted. If I promote him and he fails, he will likely quit OR I will have to fire him. What to do?

Response:
Your instincts are solid. I divide each stratum level of work into three parts (Lo-Med-Hi). For example, Lo-S-II would be an emerging supervisor, may not have earned the title of supervisor yet, but is still in the learning and testing phase.

Med S-II is someone with the competence to be effective in the supervisor role, certainly has the role title.

Hi-S-II is someone, extremely competent and a candidate for consideration at Lo-S-III (emerging manager).

So, Hi-S-I would be your best technician, could be called at “team lead.” If the S-II supervisor is out for the day, this guy is in charge. He will struggle in most areas as a supervisor, but given time (couple of years) he may grow and become more effective at Lo-S-II accountabilities.

Let’s take safety as a key result area (KRA), for example.
S-III designs a safety system.
S-II selects elements of the safety system to focus on each day, coached by S-III manager who designed the safety system.
Hi-S-I may deliver a 3-min safety talk to the team, on a topic selected and coached by the S-II supervisor from the S-III safety system. Hi-S-I would be the role model for the rest of the team to make sure they all go home with fingers and toes.

As time goes by, Lo-S-II projects are assigned to the Hi-S-I team member. This will give the Hi-S-I team member low-risk experience making S-II decisions and solving S-II problems. At some point, everyone will realize the Hi-S-I team member is effectively completing task assignments at S-II. That’s when the promotion happens, not a minute sooner. -Tom Foster

What Does It Take to Be President

I usually don’t talk about levels of work above S-VI, but today is inauguration day. A new president takes the oath of office and for the next four years, plays a role, making decisions and solving problems.

Levels of work were first explained to me in 2001. My teacher was Jerry Harvey, a colleague of Elliott’s. On this day, I imagine, Jerry is on some heavenly golf course, trying to make a side bet with Elliott about how things will turn out.

Jerry described the role of President of the United States (POTUS) as a Stratum VII role. We are talking about the role, not the person. Decisions made at this level of work will have 20-50 year impact, both good decisions and bad decisions.

The goals and objectives at this level of work have target completion times 20-50 years into the future. As Jerry put it, this is not a short game. Can you imagine putting the wheels in motion, to set out on a journey, the fruits of which we will not see for 20-50 years. And, yet the public expects the problems to be solved in the first 100 days.

The state of thinking required to be effective at S-VII is Serial (Conceptual). See the iterative chart below.

States of Thinking

  • S-I (1 day – 3 months) Declarative (Concrete)
  • S-II (3 months to 12 months) Cumulative (Concrete)
  • S-III (1 year to 2 years) Serial (Concrete)
  • S-IV (2 years to 5 years) Parallel (Concrete)
  • S-V (5 years to 10 years) Declarative (Conceptual)
  • S-VI (10 years to 20 years) Cumulative (Conceptual)
  • S-VII (20 years to 50 years) Serial (Conceptual)

Jerry described Bill Clinton as effective at S-VI for his first six years in office, effective at S-VII only during the last two years of his term. He joked about the year 2000 election, both Gore and Bush at S-V. That’s why we couldn’t tell the difference and the election ended in a stalemate, had to be decided by the Supreme Court.

I do not judge a person’s capability. I only judge the role. What is the work? What are the decisions to be made? What are the problems to be solved? Then, my question is simple, was the person effective? or not?

What is the level of work in your role? What are the decisions to be made? What are the problems to be solved? Are you effective in your role? -Tom Foster

Levels of Work and Appropriate Decision Making

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
In your workshop today, you asked two questions –

  • What have been your growing pains (as an organization)?
  • What has to change going forward?

It occurred to me, the reason our company is stuck, is that decision making always gets pushed to the CEO. In our executive team meeting, whenever there is a decision to be made, even seemingly routine decisions, I see heads go down, deference to the CEO. We all wait, unable to make a move until she speaks.

Response:
Dependency is the collusion required to institutionalize parenting and patriarchy. It’s a two-way street. Given the opportunity for the CEO to play God, it is very difficult to resist. Allowing someone else (the CEO) to make the decision lets the executive management team off the hook of accountability. It is a perfect collusion.

Allowed to persist, the executive management team is crippled from making ANY decision, especially those they should be making. When all decision making streams through the desk of the CEO, speed slows down and accountability is concentrated.

When you understand levels of work, you are suddenly able to determine what decisions are appropriately delegated and who to delegate them to. There is appropriate decision making at every level of work.

When the decision emerges in the executive management team, ask these two questions –

  • What is the appropriate level of work to make this decision?
  • Who, at that level of work, will be accountable for the consequences of that decision?

-Tom

Missing Stratum III

“I am not sure what is happening,” Monika said. “We have three supervisors, all of them have been here for five to seven years. Up until about six months ago, they were all doing just fine. Now, they are struggling. Not just one supervisor, but all three of them.”

“How so?” I asked.

“We have a meeting to discuss a new problem area. Our work order volume through the shop has increased from twenty work orders a day to fifty work orders. We promise our customers a delivery time, then we find out there are problems with their order, delays in getting some of the special items. We put people on to fix those things, but then that delays other work orders. The white board we use for scheduling can’t handle all the things that change during the day. There is an industry scheduling software, within our budget. We decide on a course of action to find out more about the software, if it will work for us. Each supervisor has their assignment to examine the software. We break the huddle and nothing happens.”

“What do they say?” I pressed.

“We get together a week later. We still have the same problem. One supervisor says they talked to their team, but got push-back. Their team likes the white board. Then they got busy, and here we are, a week later. Another supervisor just stares and says there is too much work to get done, to spend time looking at the software. All three supervisors admit that it is very important to solve this problem. They suggest we hire some assistant supervisors.”

“What happens if you don’t solve this problem?”

“Nothing immediately, but we have some signature projects coming up and if those get delayed, we could lose the projects. And if those projects push other work orders, we could lose other customers.”

I let Monika slow down and stop.

“Have you ever considered that the level of work in your operations department has increased,” I asked. “The way you handle one project, or two projects or twenty projects is different than how you handle fifty projects or sixty projects. If I told your supervisors, tomorrow, would have to handle 100 simultaneous projects, how would they respond?”

“The whole department would implode,” Monika replied.

“But you have the floor space, you have capacity, it is just a matter of handling the complexity created by the additional volume. It’s a higher level of work. And, hiring assistants will not solve your problem. You have to change your system. Do you have the time to work on this?”

“Nope,” Monika was quick to respond. “I have seven departments to keep moving. I can’t get bogged down in this one. It’s almost like we are missing a manager to direct my three supervisors.”

S-IV level of work – Monika
S-III level of work – Missing level – system work
S-II level of work – three supervisors
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Clarification on levels of work in Australia, from Adam Thompson at the Working Journey
In Australia, Supervisor usually denotes the S-I role Assistant to Frontline Manager (FLMA, S-II) role, your Leading Hand.

Team Leader is the role that may denote either the FLMA role or the S-II Manager role.

Str-III sits uncomfortably between Manager / Senior Manager / General Manager and sometimes even Director.

Str-IV is reasonably consistent – General Manager. I think that’s a VP in your world. -Adam

The Danger of Missing Stratum II

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From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
We are small organization, but growing. We have a great CEO, with a smart executive team. Our engineering managers are really good at developing inventive systems. And we have a dedicated and loyal work force. We have a good reputation in the market with loyal customers (every one thinks they are special). Then why does our company struggle to make a profit? The CEO is open and honest about our situation. When we want to spend on new equipment or hire additional personnel, we can’t afford it. The profit we do make barely covers the debt service the CEO borrowed to start the company.

Response:
As I translate each element of your description into levels of work, I notice something very interesting.

  • We have a great CEO – S-V
  • Smart executive team – S-IV
  • Engineering managers, inventive systems – S-III
  • — – S-II
  • Dedicated work force – S-I

What’s missing?

When I describe levels of work based on the research of Elliott Jaques, often organizations make the mistake of thinking they have to beef up their hiring in the scarce talent pool at S-III and S-IV. They overlook the necessity at S-II. So what do they miss at S-II?

The work at S-II is typically an implementation role. This is where execution happens. While you may have a dedicated workforce at S-I, with highly skilled and effective technicians, the organization misses coordination of those efforts to these three outcomes –

  • Accurate (meets spec)
  • Complete
  • On-time

It is the role at S-II to make sure the entire project is complete, not just 90 percent. Major profit fade occurs in the last ten percent of the project. It is their accountability to make sure there are no gaps along the way. Hidden profit erosion occurs in these gaps. And, that, at the end of the day, our product or service meets the spec we promised to the customer. There is never enough time to do it right, but always enough time to do it twice.

I was told a story of a company running heavy equipment in a rural area on a distant continent. When I say, heavy equipment, I mean the driver had to climb a ladder to get in the cab of the truck. This was a large company, profitable everywhere else, but this remote location had not seen profit in the past ten years. They had a smart general manager with a brilliant team of engineers. They knew how to do what they were doing, they just could not execute. Their dedicated workforce was frustrated. Try as they might, they always missed their productivity targets, through no fault of their own.

What was missing was Stratum II. S-II is the land of checklists. What was NOT getting done? Think heavy equipment, checklists and preventive maintenance. What happens when you don’t change the oil on a preventive maintenance schedule (checklist)? How productive is a machine with a thrown rod? How long does it take to fly in a technician to troubleshoot the thrown rod? How long does it take to fly in the part to fix the machine?

Sometimes it is not a brilliant system (S-III). Sometimes, it is the implementation of that system (S-II), using a simple checklist. It’s all about the work. -Tom

Levels of Work in Project Management

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Last week, we attended your workshop on Time Span. Your explanation of the capability difference between a technician, a supervisor and a manager, I think, provides a profound clarification for a huge hole in our hiring process. I now understand the difference between the roles. How do I tell the difference between candidates? How do I test for time span capability?

Response:
Don’t overthink this, and don’t play amateur psychologist. Telling the difference between candidates is not a matter of climbing inside the head of the person across the interview table.

We spend a great deal of time in the workshop defining levels of work and that’s the foundation for the diagnosis. You are not trained in psychology, but you are an expert in the work. Play to your strengths as a manager.

The cornerstone document that defines the level of work is the role description. To determine the level of work in the role, I ask –

  • What are the problems that must be solved and how must they be solved?
  • What are the decisions that must be made and what must be considered in making those decisions?
  • What is the longest time span task related to those problems and decisions?

Let’s look at project management.

Can you manage a project with sticky notes stuck around your computer screen? The answer is yes, as long as the project has few problems or decisions, and is of very short duration. For a long duration project, the glue on the sticky notes dries out and notes fall to the floor (or behind the desk). Stratum I level of work.

Longer time span projects will typically require list making and checking deadlines. Sticky notes graduate to an Excel spreadsheet. The problems to be solved will reference documented solutions (like a best practice) that are well-defined (as long as we pick the right best practice to the problem to be solved). Stratum II level of work, project three months to one year.

But spreadsheets break down when the project becomes more complex. Difficult problems appear with no defined solution. The problem requires analysis. Priorities change, elements in the system are uncertain, yet must be accounted for. Project management software replaces the spreadsheet checklists. (MS-Project is a spreadsheet on steroids). Stratum III level of work, one to two years.

And then we realize that we have more than one project attacking the same set of resources. Everything that could go wrong on one project is now multiplied by several projects. Projects, and their resource allocation, begin to impact each other, competing for budget and managerial attention. Simple project management software gives way to enterprise project management software like Primavera and Deltek. Stratum IV level of work, two to five years.

With the level of work defined, looking at problem solving tools, the next step is to interview candidates about their projects.

  • What was the time span of the longest project?
  • What were the problems that had to be solved, decisions made, in the planning stage?
  • What were the problems that had to be solved, decisions made, in the handoff stage to operations?
  • What were the problems that had to be solved, decisions made, in the execution stage?
  • How were those decisions and problems managed?
  • What systems did you use to manage those problems and decisions?

Don’t play amateur psychologist. Play to your strengths as a manager. It’s all about the work. It’s all about the level of work. -Tom