Category Archives: Levels of Work

Discretion in the Quality of the Data

“You describe the role as entry level. The output must conform to strict guidelines, which creates the quality standard. What are the decisions that must be made in connection with the work?”

Arlene was shaking her head from side to side. “We don’t allow a lot of latitude with this work. Sending prescription drugs by common carrier is serious business.”

“You think you don’t allow latitude. In fact, you tell your team members there isn’t a lot of latitude, when in fact there is. There are a ton of decisions that must be made.”

Arlene was quiet.

“Look, most of the prescribed duties involve collecting data from your customers to determine their qualifications. While it seems cut and dried, there are many decisions that must be made about the quality of their responses, the accuracy and completeness of the data.

  • Is the customer address we have on file their current mailing address?
  • Is the customer mailing address the same as the shipping address?
  • Is the telephone number we have on file a mobile number we can send a confirmation text message to?
  • Will the shipping priority we have on file assure the product reaches the customer on time?
  • If the customer does not answer the door, is it okay to leave the product on the front porch, or is there another more secure location?

“The difference between ok performance and outstanding performance is not in filling out the forms, but in the decisions related to the quality of the data that goes on the forms. The job may be completing the forms, but the work is the decisions that must be made.

“An important discussion between the manager and the team member is not about the forms, but about those decisions.”

Entry Level Work, Not Cut and Dried

“I still don’t know what you are getting at,” Arlene shook her head. “It’s entry level work. You are right, it’s not that interesting.”

“Don’t be so swift,” I reprimanded. “Let’s talk about this entry-level work. First, what is work?”

Arlene was looking up, retrieving the answer planted in her mind some weeks ago. “I remember. Work is making decisions and solving problems.”

“Okay. And what decisions must be made in connection with this entry-level work?”

“It’s pretty cut and dried,” Arlene related. “Our work is highly regulated. Everything we do has to be within very specific guidelines.”

“And what if it’s not cut and dried,” I challenged. “You see, the guidelines you work under only set the quality standards for the output. Let’s ask the question again. What decisions must be made in connection with this work? And as we answer, I think you will find this work is quite a bit more than entry-level.”

Interest in the Work (Not the Job)

“What’s missing in this young recruit’s career?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Arlene replied. “All she seemed interested in was how many vacation days she is going to get.”

“Why do you think she is focused on her vacation days? What’s missing? What was missing in her work before she came to your company two months ago? And perhaps is still missing in her work?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Arlene. “It is pretty basic, entry level work. Perhaps there really isn’t that much to focus on, except how much vacation comes with the job.”

“You might be right be right about the job,” I agreed. “But what about the work?”

Don’t Judge People

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
It’s been at least four years since you spoke to my TEC group. I was chatting with one of my members yesterday and he asked me if I knew whether there was a profiling tool available that indicates a person’s capability related to stratum level?

Response:
I had the same question in 2002. The answer was and still is, no. There are some consultants who propose to have a profiling solution, but I would question its validity. Anecdotally, most profiling tools have about a .66 correlation with reality. You might say, well, that’s not too shabby until you understand the flipping a coin has a .50 correlation. So, even if there were a psychometric assessment, its validity would likely not be any better than the others.

I don’t judge people. I’m not very good at it. So, let me propose a much cleaner method. Focus on the work. I don’t judge people, but I do judge the work. Work is decision making and problem solving. Focus there.
Problem Solving Methodology

  • S-I – Trial and Error, substituting a single variable at a time until something works.
  • S-II – Cumulative diagnostics, experience, best practice. Solving a problem by connecting to a best practice.
  • S-III – Cause and effect, if-then, required for a single serial system or a single critical path, root cause analysis.
  • S-IV – Multi-system analysis, how one system impacts its neighboring system, based on outputs and inputs, or capacity mis-match.

Look at problem solving required in the work. Then look at the candidate. Is this person any good at solving problems at that level. If they are, that is a clue. Design a project with embedded problem solving, see how they do.

Don’t overthink this level-of-work stuff. It’s not that difficult.

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?”

To the Next Level

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
As I talk with other CEO friends, they keep talking about taking their company to the next level or that they want to scale their companies larger. It sounds like they know what they are talking about. But do they? They are my friends, and I don’t want to disparage, but in many cases, I have my doubts.

Response:
No organization can ever grow larger than the CEO. If it does, the wheels will get wobbly and the organization will falter. The same is true as levels of work are built inside the organization. No level of work can exceed the capability of the manager. If it does, the wheels will get wobbly and the organization will falter. It doesn’t matter if the company is S-I, S-II, S-III, S-IV or S-V. Faltering can happen at any level.

Most who say they want to take their company, or department, or team to the next level has no clue what that means. Timespan and levels of work create the only framework that clearly identifies what that means.

Scalability doesn’t happen until S-IV, where multiple system integration occurs. Listen carefully to your friends, but judge not what they say, only judge what they do (or are capable of doing).

How Many Levels?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You recently described an organization as having five levels. You also said that some organizations don’t need five levels. I am trying to figure out how many levels our company needs?

Response:
Your question is similar to the manager’s span of control issue. The consultant’s answer, “it depends.” The number of levels in an organization depends on the complexity of the decisions and problems faced by the company’s mission. That’s why it is important to occasionally sit down and revisit the mission. We think of mission as “what the company does,” but it also includes which markets, geography of those markets, market segments, governing rules and regulations, availability of labor, incorporation of technology, availability of capital. All of these elements play in to the complexity of the organization.

The initial mission always exists in the individual eyes of the founder. In the beginning, that mission may be modest, simply to prove the concept is viable (minimum viability). With early success, the mission can grow, be redefined as the organization learns more about the environment it created. And we think, with more levels, the more success we see. That is not altogether true. You can have a successful organization at any level, with an appropriate number of managerial levels, even an organization with just one.

S-I (One level of work) – This is the sole practitioner, an individual technical contributor, whose mission is to solve a narrow market problem requiring only one mind, usually supported by technology. Successful sole practitioners could be an artist, writer, even a computer coder developing a single application to solve a market problem. A good living can be had by the savvy sole practitioner, though it is rare to reach any large scale by yourself. (Timespan 1 day – 3 months).

S-II (Two levels of work) – This is the sole practitioner who gathers surrounding assistance. There is too much work for one and that additional work is necessary to solve the problem. At this organizational level that additional work requires coordination for quantity output, at a given quality spec, according to a deadline time schedule (QQT). There is no system yet, because the quantity or complexity of work does not require it. This could be a entrepreneur with a small team. It could also be that the organization requires a system, but does not possess the internal capacity to develop that system. Many successful S-II organizations simply purchase their system from someone else, as a franchise or a license from a larger organization (who has a system for sale). (Timespan 3 months – 12 months).

S-III (Three levels of work) – But even a small franchisee, with one or two stores, who wants to increase to three or four stores, eventually requires an internal system. At three to four stores, an additional level of work appears. It is interesting that one of the larger franchisors, Chick-fil-a only allows one store per franchise. This may be an unconscious realization that the capability of their franchisees is limited to S-II. The hallmark of an S-III organization is a single serial system (single critical path). This is often an artisan craftsman, a subcontractor on a larger project. (Timespan 1 – 2 years).

S-IV (Four levels of work) – Consists of multiple parallel systems that have to be integrated together. S-III as a single serial system is limited in its growth. For an S-III company to scale, it requires the coordination of multiple systems. From its core production system, the S-IV organization also has to coordinate material purchasing, equipment procurement and maintenance, personnel recruiting and training, marketing campaigns, sales efforts, legal review, project management, quality control, sustaining engineering, R&D, human resources and accounting.

S-V (Five levels of work) – This is the enterprise in the marketplace. And, the marketplace is not just about customers. Marketplace includes regulation, labor, finance, technology, competition, logistics, supply chain. This is still within the Small to Medium Enterprise (SME) but also extends to larger organizations.

An organization can be successful at any level, it is governed by the level of their mission.

Why Organizational Structure?

What is organizational structure? On a single piece of paper, it’s called an org chart.

Organizational structure is simply the way we define the working relationships between people with the organization. All social settings have a social structure. Parent-child, teacher-student, politician-constituent, minister-congregation, coach-player, manager-team member. The social structure helps us understand what is expected and what are the norms of behavior.

Organizational structure in a Management Accountability Hierarchy (MAH), helps us understand the working relationships between people in the company. It is important to know who has the authority to make decisions, the authority to solve problems (the way we would have them solved), but most importantly, who is accountable for output.

Managerial roles are stacked in levels of work so we can more quickly understand the context in which that role is working.

Levels of Work

  • S-V – Business Unit President or SME CEO. The context is on the entire enterprise as it sits in its marketplace.
    Timespan 5-10 years.
  • S-IV – Executive manager. The context is the many parallel systems that have to work together. Timespan 2-5 years.
  • S-III – Manager. The context is on a single serial system, or a single critical path. Timespan 1-2 years.
  • S-II – Supervisor. The context is on the work in hand in the near term. Timespan 3-12 months.
  • S-I – Production. The context is on the work in hand today, tomorrow and next week. Timespan 1 day to 3 months.

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.

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?”