Category Archives: Accountability

It’s Just Wrong

“But, that’s just wrong,” Jeffrey pressed. “I tell my team what’s wrong and then tell them to fix it. It’s up to them how. I am not going to spoon-feed the solution. I want them to figure it out.”

“And, when you tell them something is wrong, what state of mind have you left them in?” I asked.

“I hope the state of mind is urgency. When they screw up, they need to fix it and fix it fast,” he replied.

“Exactly. And, how does that state of mind contribute to the quality of the solution?”

Jeffrey chuckled. “You’re right. Most of the time, the team acts like a deer in headlights, frozen, unable to move, no alternatives, no solutions.”

“Does the way you state a problem have an impact on the way people approach a solution? Is there a more productive state of mind you could leave with the team other than something is wrong, someone is to blame and there will be a price to pay.”

“But, I want them to know that mistakes are serious,” Jeffrey pushed back.

“And, does that get you closer to a solution or does it stop solution-finding in its tracks? In what way could we restate the problem, to be accurate in our observations, without laying blame, promoting a sense of teamwork, generating alternatives and selecting the best solution?”

Stumped

“I have a quality problem,” Francis explained. “My team was falling short on unit output, so I put a spiff out there, some restaurant cards if we met our weekly output targets.”

“And, the unintended consequences of this little spiff?” I asked.

“We met the weekly output target, but my reject rate went up. My team began to cut corners, so I had to double-down on my inspection samples. For parts that passed inspection, our output was actually lower than before.”

“So, you were expecting an incentive to replace something you should have done?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” Francis objected. “I expected them to work harder, pay more attention. Didn’t turn out that way.”

“Let’s pretend, for a moment, that your team was already working as hard as they could, with focused attention. And that, to reach the target, you, as the manager had to make a change. What change would that be?”

Francis hesitated, looking to abandon responsibility for output. “You mean, I can’t give out restaurant cards?”

“No, what could you have done differently, as the manager? Remember, you control the variables in which your team works. What could you have done, as the manager?”

“I’m stumped,” Francis replied, eyebrows lifted.

“If you are stumped, then who could you ask for ideas?”

Francis grimaced, “You are thinking my team, aren’t you?”

I nodded. “In what way could we increase our production output, while maintaining the same quality standard? Sounds like a reasonable question for any manager to ask of the team. My guess, the response will have little to do with restaurant cards.”

Not a Communication Problem

“I think I have a communication problem with my team,” Jordan explained. “It seems like I have to constantly explain, interpret, assign and reassign, clarify, all to come back and do it over again. I think my team needs a communication seminar.”

“And, what would you hope the outcome of this seminar to be?” I asked.

“That the team understands,” Jordan simply put.

“And, what if I told you I don’t think you have a communication problem?”

“What do you mean? It sounds like a communication problem to me.”

“My telephone rings for two reasons,” I replied. “Most people call to tell me they are in the midst of a communication crisis, or have an unresolvable personality conflict on their team.”

“Like me, a communication problem.”

“In my experience, in the throes of explaining and clarifying, you fail to establish two things. I don’t think you have a communication problem, I think you have an accountability and authority issue. You failed to establish, in the task, in the working relationship, what is the accountability, meaning, what is the output? The second thing missing, in the pursuit of that output, who has the authority to make decisions and solve problems?”

“So, I need my warehouse crew to move material, according to a list, from the warehouse to a staging area for a project. I explain what needs to be done, give them the checklist and then they get stuck.”

“Stuck on what?” I asked.

“The material to move is blocked by other material, the forklift aisle isn’t wide enough for the material, or the forklift is down for maintenance,” Jordan shook his head, “so I have to come back and solve those problems before the team can do their work.”

“Not a communication problem. It’s an accountability and authority problem. What is the accountability (output)? And who has the authority to shift materials, find an alternate forklift aisle or fix the forklift?”

Who Controls the Variables?

“What is structure?” Melanie asked. “I draw boxes and circles, with lines and arrows. The question that guides me is – who reports to whom?”

“And, that would be accurate,” I replied, “if you worked in a command-and-control, reporting environment. This misconception about most organized companies leads us astray.”

“But, that’s my central question, my guiding principle when I put the org chart together. Who reports to whom?”

“Indeed, as managers, we sit around the table discussing a new recruit coming into the company tomorrow. And, the question is, who should this person report to? Quite seriously, it’s the wrong question.”

“I’m listening,” Melanie replied.

“It’s not a matter of who this young recruit will report to, but which manager, around the table, will be accountable for the output of this new hire? It’s not a matter of reporting, it’s a matter of accountability, and it’s the manager who is accountable.”

“Seems upside-down,” Melanie observed.

“Does it?” I responded. “Think about it. This new person comes into the organization. Who designed the role for this person to play? Who determined what this person should do? Who determined the quality spec of the output? Who selected this person to play this role? Who trained the person? Who provided the necessary tools, created the work environment? Who controls all the variables around this person?”

Melanie paused, the answer so obvious. “The manager, of course.”

“Then, why should the manager not be held accountable for the output of this new hire?”

The Accountability Chart

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
For the past few years, I considered my company as a level V company. Your posts the past couple of weeks have made me question that position? I think I have organized the company, at least on paper as level V, but in reality, I may be wrong?

Response:
Most CEOs suffer from optimism. Optimism is required to forge a company against the odds, most startups fail in the first five years. And, those rose colored glasses cover the sins of organizational structure. We like to think our organizations are perfect renditions, we find the best in our people, sometimes ignoring deficiencies, both in structure and people.

An effective organization requires competence in leadership and management. Competence is a combination of Elliott’s four absolutes

  • Capability
  • Skill
  • Interest, passion
  • Required behaviors

Any element on the list can be a dealbreaker. We understand skills, interest and passion, we even understand required behaviors. It’s capability that often eludes us. I can train skills, I cannot train capability. Capability is born and revealed, naturally matures and is relatively predictable.

Your Organization on Paper
Elliott defined three versions of the org chart for his description of a Management Accountability Hierarchy (MAH), an accountability chart.

  • Manifest – the way we draw the org chart
  • Extant – the way the org chart really works
  • Requisite – the way the org chart should look using timespan and requisite principles

The org/accountability chart is an easy way to step through your optimistic thinking, to ground it in reality. An effective organization takes both a requisite structure, appropriately defined roles and competence in each role. Simple, right?

It is only the requisite accountability chart that considers the level of work required in each organizational function. With the level of work accurately identified, the managerial layers fall into place. And, that’s the structure part.

But, even a requisite structure will fail if not fielded with competent players in the right roles. A level V structure will fail lead by a CEO with capability at level III.

Maximum Number of Team Members

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I read with interest your response on the number of levels in an organization. It sounds good, but as the organization grows, we need more and more managers. It is difficult for a single manager to handle more than 6-7 people on the team. With more managers, don’t we end up needing more layers.

Response:
I would first challenge your assumption on the maximum number of team members for whom a manager is accountable. Your number of 6-7 has no basis in theory or fact. Elliott was often asked this question, let me whisper his number, 70. It is likely that a single manager will begin to struggle when the number of team members reaches 70.

I know the blood just drained out of your face, so as your brain is restoring its circulation, let me explain. The maximum number of team members a manager can effectively be accountable for depends, not on an arbitrary number like 6 or 7, but, rather on the variability in the work.

Large call centers may easily have 70 people on the floor at any one time, with a single supervisor. How can a single supervisor be accountable for the output of 70 people? Look at what those people do. Most of the time, those call center team members do the same work day after day, there is little variability.

How many people on a Navy Seal Team? I would guess six. Why such a small team? The variability of the work is high. The number of people a single manager can be accountable for depends on the work.

Without a frame of reference, organizations do get bloated. I once worked with a company with 12 layers, but only needed 5. Levels of work creates the frame within which we can determine not only who should be whose manager, but how many managers are at the same level. The objective measurement of timespan takes out the guesswork and bias that inevitably creeps in. About once a year, you should round up your managers for a calibration meeting to make sure the bloat is not settling in.

How Many Manager Levels?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
The template you sent out looks like it only handles five levels of work. Our organization has seven manager layers, total headcount 62 people. How do we fit in the extra two layers?

Response:
The reason you have more than five manager layers in your company is that you use some other criteria to define a managerial layer. You decided someone in your company needed some manager experience, so you promoted them with a new title, and gave them someone to manage. Your criteria for creating a new manager level was that someone needed experience. Your criteria has nothing to do with the complexity of problem solving or decision making. You created a managerial layer as an accommodation to a single person. Don’t organize the work around the people, organize the people around the work.

With a headcount of 62 people, I can safely assume that your company should have no more than five layers and possibly needs even fewer. Stop looking at the people you have, and look at the work. What is the necessary work required to accomplish your organization’s mission? When you base your organizational structure on the complexity of decision making and problem solving, the work naturally falls into the levels described below. Using that framework, you can identify where your organization is bloated and where it is thin (too thin).

Levels of Work

  • S-V – Business Unit President or SME CEO. The focus is on the entire enterprise as it sits in its marketplace.
  • S-IV – Executive manager. The focus is on the integration of departmental workflow. Looks closely at work handoffs from one department to another and the output capacity of each department as it sits next to its neighboring departments.
  • S-III – Manager. The focus is typically on a single department, which contains a single serial system, or a single critical path.
  • S-II – Supervisor. This is a coordinating, implementing role, making sure production work is complete, within spec and on-time.
  • S-I – Production. The focus is on pace and quality, how many units at a specific spec.

Art Form or Detective Work?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Love it – the four levels of thinking directly related to the flow of inputs, manner and tempo. This helps so much in understanding an additional vector of complexity, in addition to future ambiguity (as measured by timespan).

Is there a measure that is commonly used and can be attributed to positions in a Requisite Organization design? Can we measure the amount of activity needed in each/any of the four levels to know what type of sophistication a) the org needs at that level and b) that a candidate has? Or is it intuitive only (we sense it and we know it when we see it)?

Can you use this to help bring clarity to the org chart?

Response:
Some would say that identifying capability is an art form, know it when we see it. My take is that it’s more detective work, assembling clues within a framework. The brilliant insight in the question is the focus. Typically, in an attempt to identify capability, we focus on the person. More brilliant, in the question, the focus is on the work, flow of inputs, manner and tempo.

I don’t judge people, I’m not very good at it. But, I DO judge the work. My calibration of level of work always ends with timespan, but at first blush, timespan might mislead, I need other clues, and then timespan falls in place. If all projects are one-week projects and we have twenty of them, it might seem the timespan is one week. But, to handle twenty simultaneous projects, the start time and the stop time begins much earlier and ends much later than the one-week project.

Before the projects start, we have to examine, in all the projects, what is the same? Can we apply the same solution to identical problems? In all the projects, what is different that requires a unique solution? What is our capacity to handle twenty simultaneous projects? Do we need two project managers or four project managers? If we only have two PMs and need four, where will we find two more? What steps in the project can be started immediately? What steps can be done at the same time? What steps must be done sequentially? When we start to answer those questions, we find the timespan is much more than one week?

Laying out the org chart, I generally use a pre-cursor document (spreadsheet) that has columns for each function on a team, or columns for each team in a department, or columns for each department in the organization. The rows in the spreadsheet designate level of work. If you would like a copy, just drop me an email. I use this spreadsheet to clearly identify the level of work before I translate the structure into an org chart.

Assessing Capability

“Your turn,” I said. “Step me through these four levels of work and tell me where you think Jason is struggling.”

Elisa started slowly.

  • Direct action – Jason began as a project manager. We started him on simple projects, things (variables) came at him slowly enough where he had the time to immediately respond, and in that, he was very effective.”
  • Diagnostic Accumulation – Jason did so well on a single project, that we gave him two simultaneous projects. The just reward for hard work is more hard work. With two projects, he did the second project the way he did the first project. He was able to effectively put things together, recognize similarities, connect the dots.
  • Serial Thinking – is where Jason begins to struggle. We asked him to work over the shoulder of junior project managers, up to twenty simultaneous projects. We thought the project management software would handle all the detail, but the sheer volume of decisions and problem solving required Jason to think ahead, anticipate. He had to play “What if?” He had to look at twenty projects and see all the things that were the same, simultaneously understanding the nuanced differences between each project. He had to put a system together and that’s where he struggled.
  • Interactive Systems Thinking – is way beyond Jason. Project management sits inside our organization next to estimating, procurement, logistics, workforce and finance. Most of that is outside of Jason’s scope.

“And, so, where would you peg Jason’s level of capability?” I asked.

“Now, it’s very easy,” Elisa nodded her head. “Jason is on the upper end of Diagnostic Accumulation, but struggles with Serial Thinking.”

“Understanding this framework, can you now, as Jason’s manager, more accurately determine what project assignments, how many, how complex that Jason can effectively handle?”

Four Levels of Work, Four Levels of Capability

“Okay, okay,” Elisa replied. “You are right, easy to see the number of variables in a single project multiplied by twenty projects.”

“This will help us understand the complexity of what we are asking Jason to do and Jason’s capability to actually do it. When we look at levels of work, identifying the level of work in a project, we have to look at the variables. More variables, the more complex the variables, the more difficult the task, more difficult problems, more difficult decisions,” I began to lay the groundwork.

“We understand projects and we understand variables,” I continued. “Let’s look at Jason’s capability* to effectively respond.

  • Direct Action – are variables we can deal with one at a time, that come at us at a pace where we can see it arriving and deal with it.
  • Cumulative Action – are variables that arrive together, where the pace of incoming is faster. We are required to diagnose things together (diagnostic accumulation). We can solve problems that look alike the same way, but only if we are able to see those similarities quickly enough.
  • Alternative Serial Thinking – are variables that arrive in groups, the pace of incoming groups is so fast that to effectively deal with the problems and decisions, we have to anticipate. That is why this level of work requires as much thinking (ahead) as it does action.
    We have to think of each group as a system, with internal cause-and-effect elements.
  • Mutually Interactive Groups – are groups of variables that, as they arrive, begin to impact other groups of variables. If we can see each group as a system, we have incoming systems that impact other systems, systems thinking.

“Our ability to think and act effectively is an accurate way to understand an individual’s capability. You can also see the progression in variables as we move from five simultaneous projects to twenty simultaneous projects.”
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*Four levels of mental processing. Elliott Jaques. Requisite Organization