Tag Archives: manager

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.

The Shift from Supervisor to Manager

“Tell me, Joel, in making your transition from supervisor to manager, why do you think things slowed down for you?” I asked.

“The biggest difference,” he replied, “is that I am not dealing with things so much as I am dealing with people. When I was a supervisor, I just made sure material got received, stocked, staged and moved around, that machines worked, and that everybody was at their workstation. Sure, things shifted around and we changed the schedule all the time, but it was easy compared to this. As a manager, things have slowed down, but it’s a lot harder to get things done. It’s more complicated. I have to think further into the future.”

“How far into the future did you have to think as a supervisor?” I pondered.

Joel thought for a minute. He had never considered how far into the future he to think. “Well, as a supervisor, I guess it was only a few months out.  I mean, we had some long lead time items, and sometimes we had to reject materials that were out of specification, meaning the lead time doubled, but even with that, four to five months.  And with people, I just scheduled from the list of people of the team.  Now, I have to look out and see if we have enough people on the list.  I have to decide who is on the team.”

“Tell you what, Joel. The next time we meet, I want you to list out the longest tasks you had as a supervisor. I want to go over that list with you to see if we can make some sense moving forward as a manager.”

Being a Manager, Different From Being a Supervisor

Joel was not shaking, but he was certainly shaken.

“I just don’t know,” he said. “Since I was promoted from being a supervisor to a manager, things are different. It is certainly not as easy as I thought, a bit out of control.”

“Being new to management is tough. No one prepared you for this, they just promoted you and expected you to figure it out,” I replied.

“And what if I don’t figure it out?” Joel asked.

“Oh, you will figure it out. But that is no insurance that you will succeed. There are a number of reasons that managers don’t make the grade. The first reason is commitment. This is harder than you thought it would be. Being a manager requires a passion for being a manager. Being a manager is a lot different than being a supervisor.”

“You are right about that. Being a supervisor was fun, fast paced, things were always changing and I had to respond quickly. Being a manager, things move slower. I have to think about things. And the worst part, most everything I do is accomplished through other people. Other people are hard to control. They don’t always show up the way I want them to.”

“So, you are facing the first challenge of a being a manager. Do you really want to be a manager? Do you have a passion for it? Just saying yes doesn’t make it so. Why do you have a passion for it?”

Expectations as Clear as Mud

“Most of the time, your team members will do exactly what is expected of them, if they could just figure out, what that is,” I explained.  ”When you observe underperformance, look for the cause.  It is usually in one of these five areas.”

  • Make the expectation (of output) clear.
  • Ensure the availability of required resources.
  • Validate the required skills and sufficient practice for the task.
  • Match the persons capability with the capability required for the task (measured in time span).
  • Ensure the person places a high value on the work (interest or passion for the work).
  • Ensure the person engages in reasonable behaviors required to complete the task.

“But I told my assistant that I needed the report ASAP,” Carolyn objected.  ”When I went to find out the status, I found out the report had not even been started.”

“Let’s work through the list.  The expectations were clear to you, but were they clear to the team member?  What does ASAP mean?  You needed the report for the meeting on Friday, so ASAP could mean – as soon as possible before Friday.

“When I look at expectations, clarity of expectations, I think QQTR.  Quantity-Quality-Time-Resources.  If I miss any of these elements, then the expectation is not clear.”

  • What is the quantity of the output?
  • What is the quality standard (so I know what to count and what not to count)?
  • What is the time deadline, specifically, date and time?
  • What resources are available, or not available?

QQTR

How to Hold Someone Accountable

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

Question:
I very much enjoy your blog and always find improvement opportunities within your messages.  As you point out rather frequently, holding the right people accoutable is crucial.  In that regard, I would like to ask, what different ways have you found effective in “holding people accountable” beyond expressing your dissatisfaction with their performance, formal performance improvement requirments (PIP)  or replacing them?  I would like to know what tools/techniques you recommend and believe most effective.

Response:
Here is my short list -

  • Raising my voice.
  • Repeated criticism.
  • Frequent complaining.
  • Public flogging.

The person who believes these methods effective is someone who has no children.  None of these work.  I spent several hours with one of my executive groups on this very issue and at the end of the day, here was our conclusion.  The only person who can truly hold me accountable is me.  All other forms of harassment are largely ineffective.  Self-accountability is the only path.

Yet, we still say that we have to hold someone accountable.  My definition of a manager is that person held accountable for the output of their team.  So I say it, too.

So, here’s a better list of conditions required for self-accountability.

  • Make the expectation (of output) clear.
  • Ensure the availability of required resources.
  • Validate the required skills and sufficient practice for the task.
  • Match the persons capability with the capability required for the task (measured in time span).
  • Ensure the person places a high value on the work (interest or passion for the work).
  • Ensure the person engages in reasonable behaviors required to complete the task.

If we still observe underperformance or misbehavior, we have to make a judgment as to the cause.  Then we have to make a judgment if this cause can be corrected.

The Role of the Manager’s Manager

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

Question - 
I have appointed a new manager to my team, so I am his manager.  I thought he would pick things up quicker, but he seems to be floundering.  I think he will make over time, but I wanted to know if I should send him to training, get him a book on management?

Response -
If you think this new manager will make it, over time, just needs a sprinkling of managerial pixie dust, then you will hate this response.  The most potent step you can take is for you, as his manager, to get directly involved.

Certainly, you could offload him into a leadership program, there are many good ones around.  You could purchase a management book for him to read, but both will pale in comparison to the direct influence you can have, as his manager.

Every employee is entitled to have an effective manager with the capability to bring value to their problem solving and decision making.  Your job, as his manager, is to bring that value.  Easy to say, hard to do.

And just to make sure I have your attention.  It is you as his manager, that I hold accountable for his output in the role.  You selected him, you on-boarded him, you control the environment he works in.  You are in control of his training.  You are in the position of coach.  You are the manager accountable for his output.

How Does a Non-Engineer Manager Bring Value to An Engineer Solving a Problem

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

Question - 
You said yesterday, that a non-engineer can be a manager to an engineer.  How could that work?  I remember you said that one purpose for a manager, is to bring value to the problem solving and decision making of the team member.  How can a non-engineer manager bring value to the decision making and problem solving of an engineer?

Response-
I will assume that an engineer can make decisions and solve problems that are clearly within their defined level of work, or they wouldn’t be in the role in the first place.  Further, I assume the engineer may need managerial support for tough problems and tough decisions.

Your question is, how can a non-engineer manager bring value to an engineer attempting to solve a tough engineering problem?

The most effective managers are those that ask the most effective questions.

  • Describe the problem, what do you observe?
  • What are the possible causes of the problem?
  • Have we solved this problem before?
  • What are the alternative solutions?
  • Of those alternative solutions, which will most likely address the underlying cause of the problem?
  • How will you test the solution to determine if that will solve the problem?
  • If you test the solution and it doesn’t work, will it cause more damage?
  • How will you mitigate the damage so the problem doesn’t get worse?

A manager does not have to be an engineer to ask these questions.  Would these questions have been of value in the roll-out of a complicated website?

 

Can a Non-Engineer Manage an Engineer?

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

Question:
We are having a discussion about one of our engineers and who he should report to?  The engineering manager says that all engineers should report to him, that a non-engineer doesn’t know how to manage an engineer.  Our plant manager says he needs the engineer on his team full time without going through the engineering manager to get things done.

Response:
First, let’s shift the question to get to the answer.  Every employee reports to lots of people.  Team members work on a project, contribute to a report, complete a routine task and then, work on another project.  In all of these activities, they report to many different people.  That’s normal.

But each employee can only have one manager.

The first question for every new hire into the company is, “who should this person report to?”  Wrong question.  This new employee will report to lots of people.  But each employee can only have one manager.

The central question is, “which manager will be accountable for this team member’s output?”  By definition, a manager is that person in the organization accountable for the output of other people.  Which manager will be accountable for this team member’s output?

Back to the engineer.  Which manager should be accountable for this engineer’s output?  Let’s ask some questions about the plant manager.

  • In the plant,does the plant manager know what tasks need to be completed, which will require engineering technical knowledge and skill?
  • For those tasks, does the plant manager know the reasonable amount of time it should take to complete those tasks?
  • In the plant, is the plant manager accountable for those delegated tasks being complete within the time frame?
  • Does the plant manager have enough engineering work to require a full time engineering role on his team?

If the answer is yes, then the plant manager should be held accountable for the output of this engineering resource.  And yes, non-engineers can be held accountable for the output of engineers.

Identifying Supervisory Capability

“When was the last time you walked the floor and talked to the line crew,” I asked.

Denny paused.  He knew it was a loaded question.  ”I walk the floor a couple of times a day.  But, I depend on my supervisors to talk to the line crew.  As the Plant Manager, I have a lot of important things that keep me in my office.”

“So, what do your supervisors tell you about the line crew?”

“Mostly, they just complain about this one coming in late, or somebody out sick.  The usual stuff.”

“So, you never actually talk to anyone on the line crew?” I pressed.

“No, if there is a problem, I let my supervisors handle it.  I don’t want to interrupt the chain of command,” Denny explained.

“What happens if one of your supervisor’s quits?”

Denny peered over the top of his glasses.  ”I guess I would have to hire another supervisor.”

“And, where would you go first, inside or outside?”

“I don’t know that there is anyone on the line that could step up and be supervisor.  I would just put an ad in the paper, do some interviews and pick somebody.”

“Why don’t you know if there is anyone on the line with supervisory capability?”

What to Do With Untapped Potential

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

Question:
What action should we take if we have a person with Stratum IV capability in a Stratum III role?

Response:
First, I would ask, how do you know?  What behavior are you seeing?

You might see competence.  Competence with spare time left over.  Spare time to help other people.  Spare time to coach others.  Spare time to train others, teach others.  Spare time to participate in higher level planning.  It’s not such a bad thing.

The problem with having someone with S-IV capability in an S-III role is to determine if there is enough challenge in the role to gain their long term interest.  You might observe boredom with their day to day problem solving and decision making.  Boredom can create sloppiness, inattention to detail.  But boredom can also lead to effective delegation, innovation, efficiency initiatives.  I can hear the words.

“I am a bit bored with this task.  In what way can I make it more efficient?  In what way can I delegate this task to someone who might see this work as a challenge, to help them develop professionally?  So I can get on with more interesting work.”

Having someone with S-IV capability in an S-III role is an opportunity.  Just ask them.