Category Archives: Levels of Work

Bright and Shiny

“What do you mean, make mental sense of the noise?” I asked.

“When you are working on 20 simultaneous project,” Andrew continued, “each project screams for attention. The urgency of the minute details leaps out and hijacks your brain. It is easy to get wrapped around the axle and lose focus on the other 19 projects that also have to be done.”

“So, what’s the strategy?”

“You always have to look at the context. The project and its project manager look only at the context of the project. I have to look at the context of all the projects together, including projects that haven’t started. It’s a longer timespan of focus. And, only with that longer timespan of focus can I anticipate the resources necessary, now and in the future, for all the minute details that have to be resolved.”

“So?”

“So, looking inside a single project is very noisy. I can’t ignore the noise, but I can’t let it consume me, prevent me from seeing the patterns inside the entire portfolio of projects. The noise is bright and shiny, easily grabs your attention. I have to see the larger context.”

Am I Capable?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I have been an avid reader of Jaques’ books for quite some time, and I have a question: most of what you say is to help managers and HR workers to find and hire the correct people.

But what about someone who is creating a company (my case)? How can I accurately measure my own capability, and, therefore, structure my company correctly so that its complexity doesn’t surpass my own level of thinking, while also hiring subordinates exactly one stratum below, in the case of the first hire(s)?

I would be very much interested since I’m having a hard time to be objective trying to evaluate myself.

Response:
How does the song go? “Lookin’ for love in all the wrong places.”

First, your interest in assessing your own cognitive capacity will almost always lead you astray. Don’t attempt to assess yourself, assess the work.

Second, a start-up organization has a different focus than other, more mature organizations. There are so many missing pieces and fewer resources to work with. The start-up has a quick timeline to death.

So, my first question is always, what’s the work? As you describe the work, what is the decision making and problem solving necessary? More specifically, what is the level of decision making and level of problem solving required to make a go as a start-up?

Here are some other necessary questions for your start-up.

  • What is the (market) problem you are trying to solve?
  • Does your product or service solve that market problem?
  • Can you price your product or service high enough to allow for a profit?
  • Is your market big enough to provide enough volume for your product or service? Is your market big enough for a business or just big enough for a hobby?

The first focus for every start-up is sales. Can you get your product or service into the market place and please find a customer to buy it?

In the beginning, the level of problem solving is very tactical. Can you make it and will someone buy it? That’s about it. That is why there are so many budding entrepreneurs out there. That is also why so many fail. They cannot get their company to the next level of problem solving.

Once you have a sustained momentum of sales, the next level is all about process. You see, if you can create a sustained momentum of revenue, you will also create competitors. The next level is about process. Can you produce your product or service faster, better, cheaper than your competitor? This is a different level of decision making, a different level of problem solving. It is precisely this level that washes out most start-ups.

So, focus on the work. Do you have the (cognitive) capability to effectively make the decisions and solve the problems that are necessary at the level of work in your organization? Stay out of your own head and focus on the work.

BTW, we have only described the first two levels, there are more.

Not a Matter of Skill

“I don’t understand why John doesn’t do better,” Marissa complained. “I constantly have to give him critical feedback, and I know he doesn’t like it, I can see it in his face. If he would only pay attention to the problems right in front of him, I wouldn’t have to correct him.”

“What do you think the problem is?” I asked.

“Well, he got promoted to be a supervisor because he was a great team leader, best machine operator we have. All he has to do now, is make out the work schedule for the department, order materials and supplies, schedule preventive maintenance on the machines, keep overtime in check, how hard could it be?”

“What do you think the problem is? Where does he struggle?”

“He struggles with all of it,” Marissa replied. “And his attitude is in the dumper, he mopes around all day because he thinks I yelled at him for doing such a crappy job.”

“What does he do well?”

“That’s part of the problem. We had a machine go down yesterday and he spent the entire afternoon tearing it apart and putting it back together. All the while, we don’t have next week’s schedule and we are almost out of materials. I had to put in a rush order so we can keep production online next week.”

“So, who promoted him?”

How to Define Decision Making in a Role

In a role, until we identify the specific decisions to be made and specific problems to be solved, the hiring manager will never hire the right person. This is not magic.

For a technician –
In this key area, what are the decisions that have to be made?
What is the time frame for those decisions?

  • Am I working fast enough to accomplish the output assigned to me today?
  • Does my output meet the quality spec assigned to the work today?
  • Does my attention to quality slow down my output?
  • If I work faster, does quality suffer?

In this key area, what problems have to be solved?
What is the time frame for those solutions?

  • Is this machine noise normal or abnormal?
  • If the machine noise is abnormal, do I need to shut the machine down, now?
  • Can I wait to shut down the machine when it finishes its current cycle?
  • Can I wait to shut down the machine at the end of my shift? And then, call maintenance?

For a project manager –
In this key area, what are the decisions that have to be made?
What is the time frame of those decisions?

  • Is the average output of production this week, sufficient to meet the output target for the month?
  • If output will fall short, what things can I shift in production to speed things up overall? More hands on deck? Overtime?
  • If output will overshoot, are we cutting corners in quality? Did I overestimate resources required? Can I temporarily reassign team members to another area?
  • If output will overshoot, are we using up raw materials in one process that may be needed in another process? What are the lead times on the raw materials? Re-order thresholds?

In this key area, what problems have to be solved?
What is the time frame for those solutions?

  • How often will we sample output for quality problems?
  • In what step of each process do we sample output for quality problems?
  • Should we discover a quality problem, what is our first step to prevent more output that does not meet spec?
  • When we solve a quality problem, how does that change our sample frequency?

It’s all about the work. Every role contains appropriate problem solving and decision making.

How to Diagnose Role Fit

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
How does management ability tie into different levels of work. I’m thinking about people who are good at building (S-III) systems (flowcharts, time studies, etc.) but who are miserable at managing the people side of the equation.

Response:
In the workshop you attended, you will recall Elliott’s Four Absolutes. Your question describes one dimension of success, likely two dimensions of underperformance (failure).

Four Absolutes

  • Capability (measured in timespan)
  • Skill (technical knowledge and practiced performance)
  • Interest, passion (value for the work)
  • Required behaviors (contracted behaviors, habits, culture)

A person may have the capability to be effective in the work of the role, but lack other characteristics (of equal importance).

Specifically, a person may have the capability to be effective at S-III system work, yet in a managerial role, may lack the management skills for other key areas (people related). A skill is anything that can be learned, anything that can be taught. For a manager, there is a specific set of skills related to communication, listening, delegation, decision making, team problem solving, planning, coaching, meetings.

For a manager to learn those teachable skills, they must also possess the interest and passion for that work. We have interest in and passion for that work on which we place a high value. A person who values self performance over team performance will suffer mightily as they realize there is no such thing as individual achievement.

There is no priority in the Four Absolutes, they are of equal importance.

Service System Capacity

From the Ask Tom mailbag – Related to Integration is a Fancy Word. The illustrative example described an imbalance of systems in a manufacturing model, where there is a build-up of finished goods inventory (unsold).

Question:
Can you provide an example of an anemic sales function in a service industry. What would you get instead of an inflated inventory?

Response:
Thanks for the question. In a service industry, say you have 20 trucks, 20 technicians, optimized to average three service calls per day. The daily average capacity is 60 calls.

If sales only sells 55 average daily calls, you have excess unsold capacity of 5 service calls. You may not even notice. If the average drops to 50, you may begin to notice, and so do your service technicians. How long does it take a service technician to complete two assigned service calls vs three assigned service calls? The answer is 8 hours, no matter which. Parkinson’s law – work expands to the time allotted.

This is functional integration work, to monitor the capacity of each function, to make sure the impact of one function doesn’t outstrip or adversely impact the capacity of its neighboring functions.

In this service example, the math is pretty easy, 20 technicians x 3 calls = 60. Sometimes the service work has more subtle variations where the math is not so clean. That’s why system capacity makes for fascinating study.

What is VUCA?

There is term used in the vernacular of Agile that describes the challenge of every organization.

VUCA

It’s an acronym for the world in which we live. Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. VUCA. Without any further definition, Agile offers many good ideas in dealing with that world.

Acknowledging that we live in this VUCA world, can we do more than spitball solutions?

And, that is where Timespan comes in. Most people clearly understand there are some problems more complex than others, some decisions more complex than others. There are different levels of VUCA. Timespan gives us insight into those levels.
S-I – (0-3 months) – trial and error problem solving
S-II – (3-12 months) – best practice and SOP problem solving
S-III – (12-24 months) – root cause analysis
S-IV – (24-60 months) – systems (multi-system) analysis

When the Deepwater Horizon blew up in 2010, the world looked, aghast, at a terrible environmental accident. I watched the coverage, the cameras on the ocean floor in real time and the engineers struggling with the problem. They tried this, they tried that. They tried the blowout preventer, that didn’t work. They tried the blind shear ram, that didn’t work. They were in a mode of trial and error problem solving. Why?

The engineers were not trying to solve a three year problem. No one said, “guys, let’s go back to the drawing board and over the next three years, let’s develop a better oil well so this never happens again.”

They said, “guys, we have to solve the problem today. We don’t have time to design the real solution. Figure out a way to cap it!”

Our understanding of timespan gives us insight in the levels of VUCA, and the level of problem solving required to make sure Deepwater Horizon doesn’t happen again.

Levels of Work and Morale

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Let’s say I buy this stuff about levels of work. What will it help me do as a manager? What results should I see?

Response:
Immediately, as a manager, understanding levels of work will assist you in figuring out what you can delegate and what you have to self perform. As you look at task assignments, understanding levels of work will help you understand who to delegate work to.

Here is the immediate impact, you can make sure there is enough challenge in the work for your team to feel engaged at the highest level, stretched to their maximum capability. When people find challenge in their work, using their full attention and competence, what happens to job satisfaction?

There is no managerial trick. As a manager, you do not have to become a motivational speaker. It’s all about the work. Match the level of work in the role with the capability of the person. Maybe it is a little like magic.

How Many Layers Do You Need?

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

Question:
In your review of the tenets of Agile, you missed a glaring one, a flat organizational structure.

Response:
How many layers do you need? As organizations grow and mature, increase in headcount, I see the construction of too many layers. In an effort to create a flat organizational structure, I see too few layers.

Most organizations follow a military protocol and misunderstand layers as reporting relationships. When I ask any group of managers if they have direct reports, they all raise their hand. I have to remind them they are not managers so people can report to them.

In the struggle to create “reporting,” too many layers emerge. The decision of who reports to whom gets made based on seniority, age, political pressure, personality. None of these are good reasons for “reporting” and eventually create organizational friction.

Every organization faces different problems to solve and has different decisions to make. Some problems and decisions are more complex than others. It is problem solving and decision making that demands layers (contexts). We can measure the complexity of the problem or decision by defining its context. That metric is timespan.

Looking at context, most problems and decisions for a small to medium enterprise (SME) fall into five levels. If we organize around the decisions and problems, we come up with a natural order of layers, not too many and not too few.

  • S-I – decisions and problems at hand, where variables are known, concrete, tangible.
  • S-II – decisions and problems of intention, related to quantity, quality and time. This is the land of supervision and coordination. These are short term variables (up to 12 months).
  • S-III – decisions and problems related to variables that fall along one specific critical path, or system. Intentions for system output are consistency and predictability. Goals and objectives up to 24 months.
  • S-IV – decisions and problems related to the existence of multiple systems (multiple critical paths) that must be integrated for total system throughput. Goals and objectives up to 60 months.
  • S-V – decisions and problems related to the enterprise in the context of its market (external system). Goals and objectives range from 5 years to 10 years.

It’s all about context related to decision making and problem solving. What is the level of decision making, what is the level of problem solving required? As the organization grows, it must meet those decisions and problems with the people who have the capability to make those decisions and solve those problems. The people in those positions must be able to bring value to the decision making and problem solving of the team one level of work below. And, that’s how many layers you need.

Next Gen Technology

Looking at Agile through the lens of Levels of Work. Today, we move down the list to next gen technology.

  1. North star embodied across the organization.
  2. Network of empowered teams.
  3. Rapid decision making and learning cycles.
  4. Dynamic people model that ignites passion.
  5. Next generation enabling technology.

Next generation enabling technology
Technology will replace many roles, AND it will drive the necessity for higher levels of work to design, configure and implement technology. When is the current technology obsolete? When is next gen mature enough to rely on? We always overestimate what we can do this year, and underestimate what we can do in ten years.

This technology transformation allows for more transparency in core operational and support functions, more rapid project deployment requiring the use of cross functional teams. The easy problems will be solved by technology and will create the necessity for more functional integration. Core functions and support functions will still exist, but the organization can now focus in functional integration (don’t get rid of your silos, integrate them). This integration will focus on functional capacity and the balance of those capacities between functions. It will also require the inspection of each function’s output used by related functions. Some of that output will be accelerated through the use of technology. Data will be collected in real time and routed democratically through the organization.

This is not subtle stuff and the organization will look different.