Category Archives: Organization Structure

Growing Pains

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
As the CEO, I am stretched a bit thin. I have 10 direct reports, with the prospect of adding two or three more as we continue to grow. I have 1-1s with each manager for 60-90 minutes twice a month, but it leaves little time to spend as CEO. I feel a bit like I am pulled into the weeds.

Response:
Your company is too big to be little and too little to be big. Your company is in No Man’s Land. You have enough resources (budget) to make the hires necessary to relieve a bit of pressure, but these are critical hires, you don’t want to make a mistake, so you continue stretching. There is only one way out.

You have to build the infrastructure of your executive management team. You cannot work longer hours. You cannot work harder. You can only spread the burden.

This is a dilemma first faced by every entrepreneur startup, where the Founder makes all the decisions and solves all the problems. As the organization matures, what happens when all decision making continues with the Founder? What happens when all problem solving continues with the Founder? The speed of decision-making, the speed of problem solving slows down, sometimes stops.

You managed to get out of startup, but your inclinations continue. Others, I am sure, have told you that you have to let go. No.

You have to delegate. This is not a task assignment. What you have to delegate is decision making and problem solving. The most important thing you can do, as CEO, right now, is to build the infrastructure of your executive management team. If you cannot do this, you will end up with 13-15 direct reports and you will still wonder why you are stretched so thin.

The Bloated Organization

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I grew up, as a manager in a small company. I just received an offer, which I accepted at a large company with over a thousand employees. As I look around, and I know this is a corporate structure, I feel a little lost. There are managers of this and that, directors, senior levels, junior levels. I got a copy of the org chart, looks like there are about eleven levels between the clerical team and the CEO. I have only been here for two weeks, but it looks like chaos. Even the meetings I attend seem misdirected. There is a formal agenda that gets blown through quickly, then there is a discussion (argument) that goes until the end of the meeting (always ends on time). Did I make a mistake? Should I have stayed at my old company? (Unfortunately, too late, they already filled my old position.)

Response:
At least they end their meetings on time.

I often get a call from a company like this, complaining of two things. They think they have a communication crisis or a personality conflict between two people. The company wants to know if I can arrive, do some personality profiling and conduct a communication seminar. Your description gives me better clues to what is really going on.

In most cases, I do not believe in communication breakdowns or personality conflicts. I believe there is a structural issue. Structure, organizational structure, is simply the way we define the working relationships between people. On paper, it looks like a chart, in real life, a messy chart.

The most important definition in working relationships is two related concepts, accountability and authority, one goes with the other. To be accountable for an output, I must have the authority to make a decision or solve a problem in the way I would have it solved. If I have the authority to make such a decision, I must also have the accountability that comes with it.

This basis for organizational structure, accountability and authority, also provides guidance for the number of management levels required. Without much more due diligence, my intuition tells me this organization needs no more than five levels, meaning it needs no more than five levels of accountability.

Organizations, like the one you described, get bloated because there is no framework for decision making or problem solving. Supervisors get promoted to manager because someone needed a raise and got a title instead. Or, someone got a raise and needed a title to go with it. Or, an underperforming team member needed more supervision, so they got a special manager to watch over them (instead of a demotion or termination). Organizations get bloated for all kinds of reasons. And, that bloating costs the company in decision friction and problem solving throughput.

But, you are in a situation you are stuck with, at least for now. And you are likely a junior manager with lots of accountability and little authority. Here is your first baby step. Get clear with your manager, in each key area of your role, what is the specific output and how often will that be reviewed. For each accountability, what is the authority you have to make a decision or solve a problem in the way you would have it solved. That will keep you from getting fired in the first 60 days.

Check back with me then and tell me what more you have learned.

The Learning Never Stops

We are in the process of learning and the learning never stops.
What are the impacts to your business model?

  • Pretty much everyone has discovered Zoom. It is not as good as being in person, but it works pretty well. We are learning its impact on travel budgets, travel time avoided, continuity stops and starts between travel trips that did not occur.
  • Individual initiative. We have learned who can work independently (making decisions and solving problems) and who struggles without constant oversight.
  • Necessity of being there. When it is not possible (or prudent) to be there, we learn more about the necessity of being there. Human inspection is replaced by remote sensors, providing not periodic data, but constant 24/7 data.
  • Distributed decision making. If it is convenient for managers to make decisions, decisions get made by managers. With a distributed workforce, where it is not convenient (incomplete data, delay) for managers to make decisions, decisions get made by the most appropriate person.

What are the impacts to your business model?

Your Business Model and Constraints

Every business has a model, an internal structure that helps to understand the way it interacts with its market. Business Model Generation defines these elements –

  • Customer Segments
  • Value Proposition
  • Channels
  • Customer Relationships
  • Revenue Streams
  • Key Resources
  • Key Activities
  • Key Partnerships
  • Cost Structure

I suggest another element surfacing as the world comes back on line in this pandemic – constraint.

Every system (business) has a constraint. That constraint is connected to a-capacity-of-something. Initially, constraints show up as whack-a-moles and we arm ourselves with mallets to snuff them out. Eventually we understand that every system will always have a constraint, our job is to put the constraint where we want it (strategic constraint). Some constraints are internal to our business model, sometimes they are outside (external systems, like the market, regulation, finance, labor, technology).

Examine your business model and its constraints. Capacity may have shifted due to the pandemic, your constraint may have moved, your business model may be wobbly because something subtle (or not-so-subtle) has changed.

The First Sea Change

The first sea change for every organization is the way we organize work. The startup asks this question of every new team member. “What do you do well, where can you help us?”

“I can do this and I can do that.”

“Great, because we have some of this and some of that for you to do.”

We always start off organizing the work around the people. People with special talents get special work, others not so much.

Is there work left over? There is always work left over. It doesn’t take long for the founder to understand we can no longer organize the work around the people. We have to organize the people around the work. And, that is the first sea change for every organization, the emergence of roles.

Impact of External Systems

By the time an organization reaches S-III maturity, its core system is maturing and provides for eventual profitability. At S-IV, the organization sees the emergence of multiple systems and sub-systems (marketing, sales, account management, operations, quality control, research and development, HR, accounting).

At S-V, with maturing multiple systems and sub-systems, the organization has to look outward, to external systems. No matter how well the company is organized internally, it is external systems that impact success (or failure).

Market (External System)
Markets organically shift related to demographics, trends, economic growth or contraction. These organic shifts are sometimes subtle and relatively slow. The relative slow speed allows companies to respond (market response).

Regulation (External System)
Most companies are financially regulated (taxes), some are subject to stringent environmental regulation. During COVID-19, regulation dramatically clamped market demand, by defining essential vs non-essential companies.

Labor (External System)
The US went from record low unemployment to depression level unemployment in a matter of 60 days. Labor is an external system that impacts the way we internally organize.

Finance (External System)
Finance includes institutional debt, credit lines, owner investment, private equity investment. The company believes it should be able to borrow as much money as it has the ability to repay. Banks, on the other hand have these concepts called covenants which require certain internal ratios. Finance, as an external system has an impact on the way we internally organize. COVID-19 shifted credit in some cases to forgivable debt guaranteed by government.

Most of these external systems stand alone, but COVID-19 has brought together a not-so-subtle interplay. The organizations who survive are those who are mature in their internal systems, but also understand the interplay and impact of external systems. Those companies funded in the first tranche of stimulus were those who kicked in applications immediately. Most smaller companies, with immature systems, without awareness of external systems were brushed to the second tranche or left in the cold.

It is the role of the CEO at S-V to ensure both, maturity of internal systems and skilled experience in external systems.

Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Yesterday, someone asked me, as we move from shelter-in-place to a re-open of the economy, what should a CEO think about? Of course, there is work to be done, and we will bring people back to do that work, but what should the CEO think about?

  • What does my market environment look like in three months time, one year’s time, two years time? This includes market demand, regulations, capital requirements, availability of labor and technology.
  • What should my company look like in three months time, one year’s time, two years time?
  • What are the internal functions necessary to support my product or service in that market demand?
  • Inside each function, what is the level of decision making and problem solving?
  • What roles do I need to make those decisions and solve those problems?
  • Do I have people on my team who can effectively play those roles?

There are two concepts embedded in these questions.
Necessity
Levels of work (levels of decision making, levels of problem solving)

Necessity
If your company considered the purchase of a $100,000 machine, and it was NOT necessary, would you buy it? That same decision has to be made about the roles inside the company. Now, is an opportunity to examine your organizational design and ask, is this necessary?

Levels of Work
Most CEOs do not think about the work necessary to make the product or provide the service. Understanding the level of decision making and the level of problem solving are specific clues to the talent you need. Now, is an opportunity to examine the levels of work and ask, do I have the people on my team who can effectively make those decisions and solve those problems.

Integration is a Fancy Word – Part III

The purpose of system and sub-system integration is not to get rid of our silos, but to integrate them together. The second issue in this integration has to do with individual system capacity and total system throughput.

As organizations grow, there is constant pressure on efficiency (lean, six sigma, MUDA), but as the internal systems multiply, efficient as they are, they begin to get in each other’s way. It is not enough to have a collection of perfectly efficient systems, the organization now has to look at total system throughput. Capacity output and constraints of each system come into play.

Is it possible for Sales to write so many orders, that it outstrips the capacity of Operations to complete those orders? Unfilled sales orders become back-orders. Unfilled back-orders become cancelled orders. Customers go to competitors. What’s the problem? Both Sales and Operations are running full-tilt within the constraints of their function, but one function is outstripping the capacity of the other.

Let’s flip this around. Our Operations function has the latest, greatest state-of-the-art equipment, a cracker-jack operations team and the capacity to crank out finished goods like there is no tomorrow. Yet, if our Sales function is somewhat anemic, not that they are writing no sales orders, but certainly not selling everything that gets produced, what happens to the unsold finished goods? Into inventory they go, stacked in the warehouse. Until the warehouse gets full, then what do we do? We get another warehouse. What is happening to the cost-of-goods-sold?

This second issue of system integration is optimizing the capacity of each function as it sits next to its neighboring functions. There are dependencies, inter-dependencies, constraints, contingencies and bottlenecks that govern total system throughput. It does no good to write sales orders for products and services that cannot be filled.

Integration is a Fancy Word – Part II

Even small organizations assemble systems and sub-systems, and face the same system integration issues as large organizations. Remember, this is not an exercise to eliminate silos, but to integrate them together.

The first integration issue has to do with work as it travels sideways through the organization, from one function to the next – marketing – sales – project management (account management) – operations – quality assurance – research and development – accounting – human resources.

The first issue is to establish the quality standard of the work output as it travels from one function to the next. What does sales always say about the leads that marketing gives them?
“The contact person you gave me hasn’t worked at the company for three years.”
“The telephone number you gave me is a fax machine.”
“The email address you gave me is misspelled and bounces when I send to it.”

What’s the problem? Marketing is proud of the quantity of leads passed to sales, but, the leads miss the mark. The first step to integration is to establish and enforce the quality standard of work output.

In construction, there is a critical work hand-off between the estimating function and project management function. If there is a defect in that hand-off, the defect will be embedded in the project until it surfaces in either operations or quality inspection. The integration of those two functions (estimating and project management) demands the hand-off meeting has a hard agenda with detailed checklists. Problems identified in this hand-off meeting are easier to correct on paper than later, after steel and concrete.

The second issue related to integration has to do with capacity, subject of our next post.

Integration is a Fancy Word – Part I

Each level in Elliott’s level-of-work schema corresponds to a macro organizational function.
S-I corresponds to production work, timespan 1 day to 3 months.
S-II corresponds to supervisory work, to make sure production gets done, timespan 3 to 12 months.
S-III corresponds to system work (single serial system), timespan 1-2 years.
S-IV corresponds to system integration work (multiple systems and sub-systems), timespan 2-5 years.

Integration is a fancy word, what does it mean?

As the organization matures, grows larger and more complex, distinct functions emerge. These started as single roles, but grew into teams. Here is the quick list –
-Marketing
-Sales
-Project Management (or Account Management)
-Operations
-Quality Assurance (QA/QC)
-Research and Development
-Accounting
-Human Resources
There are a ton more, depending on the business model, but you get the drift.

Each of these functions begins internally focused, mostly because we said so. We told each function they had to efficient, internally profitable, no waste, prudent use of internal resources. We told them to be internally focused.

As we stack more functions next to each other, we can see the problem we created. The problem presents itself as a communication breakdown, sometimes a personality conflict. Each function competes for budget, prestige and managerial attention. This is the silo effect.

And we have all been told to get rid of our silos. Not so. We put those silos in place for very specific reasons. It is not a matter of getting rid of our silos, it is a matter of integrating them together.

Integration is a fancy word. What does it mean?