Category Archives: Levels of Work

Levels of Work in an SME

Why would small (SME) organizations have curiosity around the research of Elliott Jaques? Admittedly, Elliott worked with large organizations, containing multiple layers of management, which demonstrates that his research had relevance in very complex structures.

But, will it work for my SME company?
If a large organization has a problem, they have budget and people resources to throw at the problem. And if they miss, they have more resources left over to try again.

If a small enterprise has a problem, they have a smaller budget and fewer resources to resolve the issue. And if they miss, it might be fatal.

Why a structural approach?
Most people call me with one of two issues. They feel they have a communication problem or a personality conflict inside the company. I allow them to explain for about ten minutes before I interrupt and interject that I do not believe it’s a communication issue or a personality conflict. I think it’s a structural problem.

Most SMEs have a flexible organizational framework, which is the beginning of the problem. The company was organized, out of necessity, to focus on things that look non-structural, like sales. Every startup has to focus on sales. If there are no sales, the company dies, sooner rather than later. As the organization creates a sustained momentum of sales, things become more complex and the organizational structure takes shape, without forethought, without discipline.

Organizational structure is simply the way we define the working relationships between people, related to these two things.

  • Accountability
  • Authority

When we fail to define the accountability in a working relationship and fail to define the authority in a working relationship, we get organizational friction that appears to be a communication problem or a personality conflict. You can have all the communication seminars you want, do all the personality testing you want, until you get clear about accountability and authority, the problems will remain and become more persistent over time.

Before Someone Finds Out

Saul was reluctant.  “Okay, you want to know what the work is for a project manager?  I’ll tell you.  You show up early, before everyone else, so it’s quiet and you can think.”

“That’s a good start,” I replied.  “What do you think about?”

“You get out the first project folder.  You don’t even have to open it,” Saul chuckled. 

I looked at him sideways.  “You don’t have to open it?”

“Of course not.  You already know what’s inside.  You better know what’s inside.  You sit there, in the quiet and think about what is going to happen today.  It’s a rehearsal.  What is going to happen, step by step?  Until you hit that ‘Oh, shit’ moment.  You imagine what you forgot yesterday that is going to settle out today.”

It was my turn to smile.  “It’s early in the morning, so you still have time to fix it.”

“Well, yes, fix it, of course,” Saul was deep in imagination.  “But, more importantly, fix it so no one finds out that you forgot something important.”

“So, that’s what you want your project managers to do?  Show up early and fix things so no one finds out?” I asked.

“Oh, hell no,”  Saul replied.

Second Part of Every Skill

“But I have told him a dozen times how to get the job done,” Nelson explained. “So, it can’t be a matter of skill.”

“You mean, you have explained the technical part to him?” I confirmed.

“Till I am blue in the face.”

“What about the other part?” I asked.

“What other part?”

“Look, Nelson, I can explain to you, how to throw a ball. I can demonstrate a hundred times, but if you want to gain the skill, is that enough? What do you have to do?”

“Well, I would have to practice,” he replied.

“So, when you explain things to Isaac, it does not mean he has the skill. Isaac has to practice. If there is any degree of difficulty, he has to practice a lot. And what is your role while Isaac is practicing?”

What’s the Level of Work?

“But, we need to ramp up quickly,” Bruce explained. “We have a lot riding on this project.”

“What’s the rush,” I asked.

“We didn’t know if we were going to get the project, it was a very competitive bid process. But we pulled it off, at least the contract. It’s fast track, four months to complete with liquidated damages on the back end if we miss the deadline.”

“When you say ramp up, what do you mean?” I wanted to know.

“We have the production crew to do the work, they’re coming off of another project. But, the project manager is moving to Seattle to start another job. He was good, and a great opportunity for him. Unfortunately, that leaves us in the lurch. I need a project manager and I need one, now!”

“What’s the level of work on this project?”

Bruce stopped to think. “It’s only a four month project, so that’s S-II. I am hoping there will be a decent candidate pool. Sometimes, we post for a job and no one shows up.”

“How does risk play into understanding the level of work in this project?” I pressed.

“There are lots of moving parts, lots of detail, and if we miss the deadline, our profit could be wiped out pretty quick,” he replied.

“But, we have computer software to handle the detail,” I nodded. “What about the risk embedded in the uncertainty of the project?”

“What do you mean?” Bruce furrowed his brow.

“Will you need to trust your suppliers to deliver on time? Hold their pricing? Are the materials in the spec even available? What’s the lead time on materials? Will you depend on your client for approvals? What could hold up the permits for approval? I know you will have subs on the job. Are they dependable and available in each phase schedule? What if there are change orders? How quickly can you identify something out of scope and its impact on the contract? Is the client litigious? To keep the project on track, how will you schedule quality inspections to make sure each phase meets spec before you can move to the next phase?”

I saw the blood begin to drain from Bruce’s face. I continued. “I think this project has more to it than the 4 months timespan after mobilization. The relationships and synchronicity required have to be developed way before mobilization. The trust in your subcontractors needs to already be in place now. This is more likely an S-III project that started before you even got the contract. The biggest mistake most companies make is underestimating the level of work in the project.”

When Does It Start?

“What’s the timespan of this task?” Reggie wanted to know.

“It depends,” I replied. “When does it start and when does it end?”

“It depends,” he smiled. “Depends on who you ask.”

“I’m asking you, you’re the manager. Timespan is a manager’s judgement. When does it start and when does it end?”

“Depends on the role I am thinking about.”

“Exactly, different roles at different levels of work see the timespan of the task differently, indeed, they see the starting point and the ending point at different places. The starting point and the ending point create the timespan of discretion, the point in the project where they have the authority to make decisions and solve problems. On the same project, we have different roles with different timespans of discretion.”

“So, right now, in my department, we have three projects under three different project managers,” Reggie mused out loud. “I have three project managers who have the authority to make decisions only within the scope of their one project. They are concerned about resources available to them, the project schedule they agreed to, the contingencies within that project when things goes sideways. They have a very sharp focus and don’t spend any time thinking about the other two projects assigned to other project managers. The project starts when the contract is signed and ends when the punch list is complete and accepted by the customer.”

“And you? When does the project start with you as the Senior Project Manager?” I pressed.

Reggie nodded. “For me, it starts way before the contract is signed. I have to work with our sales department to see what we have in our pipeline and what is likely to close. Based on our closing ratio, I have to decide if we have enough project managers with the capacity to handle all the projects that are likely to come under contract. I have to continuously monitor that pipeline to make sure we have enough work to keep everyone busy as project managers cycle off completed projects. I have to figure out what they are going to do next. So, the project timespan for me, over multiple projects, begins long before the contract is signed and I am accountable for the workforce long after specific projects are complete. It’s a different level of work.”

What Do We Pay For?

Question from the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:

How do you incorporate discretionary responsibilities into the job description?

Response:

This discussion hinges on the difference between prescribed duties and discretionary duties.

Prescribed duties are easy. Those are the ones you are told explicitly to do.

But do we pay an executive, who writes a letter, for the mechanics of pushing a pen to make ink flow onto a piece of paper, or pressing keys to make letters appear on a screen? Or do we pay an executive for the discretionary thinking that goes into the message of the letter?

Do we pay a machine operator for the prescribed duties of moving a piece of metal into position and pressing a button to cut the metal? If that were the case, we would simply purchase robotics. Or rather, do we pay the machinist for the discretion of how raw materials are organized to enter the work area, the cleanliness of the scrap produced by the machine, the attention paid to the preventive maintenance to keep the machine operating?

Indeed, effectiveness in a position may have more to do with discretionary performance than prescribed performance.

So, how do we build discretionary performance into the expectations of the job? Can it be done through the job description document? Comments?

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.