Tag Archives: levels of work

When to Promote

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

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?

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 –

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.

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?


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
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

Registration for our Hiring Talent in the Heat of the Summer is now open. Find out more – Hiring Talent.
From the Ask Tom mailbag –

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.

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 –

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?

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

Outbound Air Now Available on Amazon

Outbound Air is a fictional account of a regional airline acquired by an investment group. The story illustrates the adolescent pains of organizational growth as the new CEO takes one mis-step after another. Outbound Air’s return from the brink of destruction is a vivid tale of how organizations work.

Why read this book –

Every management team wants to take their company to the next level. Most have no clue what that means. I press for answers and get general responses, like –

  • Higher revenues
  • Larger geography
  • More stores

I am a structure guy, and, levels actually exist. Each level in the life of a company has defined characteristics and carries predictable challenges that must be solved before the organization can go to the next level. This book answers the question that no one asks, “Just exactly what is the next level?”

These levels teach us about organizational structure. This structure helps a company understand why it has its problems and how to solve them. This book is about the structure of work, specifically –

  • Predictable levels of organizational growth, a prelude to levels of work.
  • Levels of work and accountability, in both managerial relationships and cross-functional relationships.
  • How to implement functional structure based on levels of work.

The safety briefing is over, buckle up and prepare for an immediate departure.

Outbound Air – Levels of Work in Organizational Structure

Outbound Air

Cross Functional Working Relationship – Auditor


“We have some contractual commitments still in force,” Javier explained. “While we may renegotiate some of these obligations, until then, we have to abide by the contract. In some cases, I enlisted people to review the way we shut down some of the routes and gates. If we are about to do something that will put us in default, they have the authority to delay or stop what we are doing?”

“So, are they prescribing things for people to do, as a project leader?” Catherine asked.

“No,” Javier replied. “They are there to observe and review, but they have the specific authority to delay or stop anything that jeopardizes the project.” Javier thought for a moment. “An auditor is like a safety director. The safety director doesn’t tell people what to do, or give people task assignments. But, if someone is engaged in an unsafe work practice, the safety director has the authority to delay or stop the unsafe work practice, even though they are not anyone’s manager.”

“Okay, I get it,” Catherine agreed.

Excerpt from Outbound Air, Levels of Work in Organizational Structure, soon to be released in softcover and for Kindle.

How to Explain Levels of Work to Your Team

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

I finished your Time Span 101 program and now I understand levels of work. But, I hesitate to talk to my team about it. How do you explain Time Span to a team whose roles are at S-I level of work. I am afraid they won’t understand or will react negatively to their role at S-I.

You don’t have to introduce the concept of level of work to your S-I team. They already know it. Ask yourself a couple of questions.

  • Do your team members in roles at S-I understand they have a supervisor that gives them task assignments?
  • Do your team members in roles at S-I understand that their supervisor likely receives more in compensation?
  • Do your team members in roles at S-I believe the work they do is different from the work their supervisor does?
  • Do your team members in roles at S-I understand they have some decisions they can make and that their supervisor has the authority to make other decisions?

Your team members intuitively already understand levels of work. When I talk to teams in roles at S-I or S-II, we talk about goals and objectives, decisions to make and problems to solve. We talk about accountability. We talk about who makes the decision at what level of work. We talk about who solves the problem at what level of work. We talk about contribution and how roles fit together.

Your teams already understand levels of work. These are normal managerial conversations to have with your team. These are required conversations.

Defining Levels of Work in a Bank

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

You spoke to the Vistage group I attend. I recently transitioned to a new role as the CEO of a lending institution. We are, in essence, structured as a traditional savings and loan, but we only serve a specific target market.

I do not see a model in your book that directly breaks down the strata levels for “banking” organizations. I’m in the midst of a major re-structure, and your info has always been very helpful to me in these situations.

I am not an expert on banking, so if anyone has specific insights, pile on. The methodology below works for any industry.

  1. Set your strategy. Review your current strategy documents, including Vision, Mission and Business Model. Those are likely already defined for your organization.
  2. Define the functions necessary for your organization to operate. Your core function (that which drives revenue) will be surrounded by necessary support functions. My assumption is that your core function is closing loans to specific institutions in the target market you serve. Your ability to book performing loans drives your revenue.
    • Book performing loans in target market (core function)
    • Marketing, traditional and digital media marketing, including social media (support function)
    • Sales, in the guise of customer service at your branch locations (support function).
    • Operations, including all physical transaction activity like deposits, checking, loan payments (support function)
    • Back office operations, including electronic transaction activity, online banking, debit cards, credit cards (support function)
    • Facility operations, including building, building maintenance, leases and real estate (support function)
    • Security, including physical security, electronic security, and custodial oversight of cash and bank instruments (support function)
    • Regulatory (support function)
    • Legal (support function)
  3. Define the level of work in each function, which is likely the basis for your question. Looking at your core function, booking performing loans in your target market.
    • Loans will likely require leads from the marketing department, driven to a branch location or to a telephone loan department.
    • The lead probably lands on a desk at S-II level of work, someone to do the initial diagnostic workup and complete the necessary paperwork. Much of this work is systematized and gathered on template forms.
    • The loan package is then likely reviewed by a role at S-III level of work to make an initial determination and recommendation to a loan committee. If the loan is missing fundamental elements of collateral or “ability to pay,” this role will likely investigate to determine what is necessary to make the loan conform.
    • The loan will then move to a loan committee, comprised of S-III and S-IV roles. There will likely be specialists at S-III to vet the required elements of the loan. The S-IV roles will look at criteria to determine if the loan integrates into the bank’s portfolio. There may also be an S-IV role to ensure the loan will meet regulatory audit.
    • The institution will also likely field an S-V role, a business unit president, to make sure the enterprise is supported by all the functions necessary to drive the core function.

    Let’s look quickly at one of the supporting functions, physical operations.

    • Teller functions and customer service functions are now automated to the point where this role is mid S-I.
    • Each teller or customer service person has a supervisor or manager who ensures that services are delivered accurately and that cash and instruments foot (and cross-foot) at the end of each shift. The supervisor schedules the number of tellers and customer service personnel on shift depending on historical and forecast activity.
    • Each branch likely has a branch manager at low S-III to manage the overall physical operation. In a small branch, this role might by high S-II, and in a very large branch, this role might be high S-III or S-IV.

    Define the level of work for all the other support functions.

  4. Define the specific roles required in each level of work. The definition of level of work in the previous step goes hand in hand with this step.
  5. Establish the necessary managerial relationships in each function
  6. Establish the necessary cross-functional relationships between each function
  7. Assign and evaluate personnel filling each role.

These are the big steps. If you have questions, please let me know.