What’s a Manager For?

“Here is one thing we do know,” Peter chimed in. “We think everyone comes to work, at Outbound, every day, intending to do their best. We can watch a technician doing their best, yet, sometimes the output falls short. Maybe they couldn’t finish an installation on time, or they have four maintenance items to do and the second item turns into a bag of worms, so they only finish three during their shift. Sometimes, in spite of doing their best, the expected output just doesn’t get done. So, the technician gets called out and humiliated in front of the team, when the truth is, they were doing their best.”

“But, isn’t the technician accountable for all four items?” Jim asked.

“Of course,” Peter continued. “But, here’s the thing. Let’s say the technician couldn’t finish a project because the shop runs out of materials. Or a specialized piece of equipment isn’t available, or it takes two people and no one else is around to help. There is someone in charge of all those things, but it’s not the technician, it’s his manager. We are wondering, if the technician is accountable for doing his best, is it the manager who is accountable for the output of the technician? It’s the manager who controls all the variables around the technician – supplies, equipment, tools and other personnel. Should it be the manager who is accountable for the output of the technician?”

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

Outbound Air

2 thoughts on “What’s a Manager For?

  1. Stefan Norrvall

    Hi Tom, found this site via Michael Cardus and posted the same question to him and its a thing that I struggle to get my head around with RO and levels of work. “It’s the manager who controls all the variables around the technician – supplies, equipment, tools and other personnel.” How often is it actually the case that the manager controls ALL the variables around staff that impact on productivity and output? I’d say that it’s a rare situation and possibly only a theoretical one for most organisations. There will be policies that limit the extent to which the manager can use suppliers, what equipment is available etc. By this logic would not the head of the organisation be accountable for everything? Is that a workable situation I wonder?
    Organisations can be viewed as complex adaptive systems and as such I’ve been pondering the extent to which we can (or should) define authority and accountability to specific roles or if a more fluid approach is required. Look forward to reading the book when it is released. All the best, Stefan

  2. Mårten Bernstad

    The Head is indeed accountable (however, not responsible) for all that happens in the org. That is, as I understand it, one of the fundamental concepts of RO. Then, this accountability is delegated, so that the board can hold the Head accountable, the Head can hold his directors accountable etc. If the org is set up in a requisite way, all employees will also have the requisite authority to manage their accountability.

    For both philosophical and parctical reasons I would not say that the manager “controls” all – I would say that the manager has the accountability and the matching authority, to manage resources at his/her worklevel and to delegate the accountability, authority and thus management of “supplies, equipment, tools and other personnel”, in accordance with the subordinates work (assuming you have the person who live up to the requirements of the position. If not, the manager is accountable to handle this in some way).

    In my view, its extremely important to always remember that ALL work means exercising discretion and that a part of the managers work is to delegate accountability and authority, so that their reports can exercise their discretion (take “control”). This is often forgotten and people then come to misunderstand RO as being a system where the only ones who can have ideas, be smart, make decision etc are managers when its actually the opposite! Eg in agile ways of working, people sometimes think RO means that the SW programmers becomes enchained “factory workers”, when instead they are liberated through being recognized as filling positions which are at least on str II, where they should have the accompanying accountabilities and authorities, and of course also be on at least str II themselves, other wise they will not be able to add value in an agile set up.


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