Tag Archives: task assignment

Decisions at Every Level of Work

“You said that if the manager is held accountable for the output of the team, the manager might take better care in selection?” I asked.

Pablo nodded. “It does no good to bring someone on board without the capability for the work, only to later blame that person for underperformance.”

“If that is the case,” I picked up the unspoken question, “then why do managers struggle finding the right fit for the role.”

“They struggle,” Pablo replied, “because they rarely sit down and figure out the work. Most managers see work as a series of task assignments. Do this, do that. No more. Following the task assignment, the manager often asks, ‘So, do you know what to do?'”


“You see, it slips by so easily. That question barely begs understanding. The question from the manager should more properly be, ‘In completing this task assignment, what decisions will you have to make? What problems will you have to solve?’ Most managers miss that completely.”

“But, if the team member knows what to do, what decisions are left?”

“See, even you, my most aware friend, have overlooked discretion built into the work. There is always appropriate decision making at every level of work. Take a fork lift driver, and a pallet to be moved from point A to point B,” Pablo laid out.

“I got it.”

“Do you?” Pablo pushed back. “What decisions are to be made by the forklift driver?”

“It’s obvious,” I said. “Am I moving the right pallet to where it needs to be placed?”

“You’re right, that is the obvious question,” Pablo started. “And, let’s look at some other questions, any one of which could create failure.

  • How heavy is the pallet?
  • Is the pallet properly balanced?
  • Is my forklift rated to handle the weight of the load?
  • Will the size of the pallet, plus a safety buffer, clear the designated pathway to location B?
  • Are there unanticipated obstacles that might temporarily be blocking the pathway?
  • Are there any over height restrictions to the movement?
  • Will this move require flag walkers during movement?
  • Is the forklift in operating order?
  • Are all safety signals, warning lights and sounds operating?
  • Am I wearing appropriate PPE during the move?
  • Is the designated point B a permanent location within a specified perimeter? Or a temporary staging area that must be flagged for safety?”

“Okay, okay,” I laughed. “I get it.”

“Most managers rarely sit down and figure it out,” Pablo was adamant. “What’s the work? What decisions have to be made? What problems have to be solved?”

How to Set Context With Your Team

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

I hear you say that management is about setting context. I think I understand what that means, but I do NOT understand how to do it.

Culture is context. Setting context is the prime objective for every manager. Context is the environment in which work is done. Work is making decisions and solving problems. This is fundamental managerial work. Three moving parts –

  • Communicate the Vision. This is the future picture of a project, picture of a product in a package, the output from a service. This is what a clean carpet looks like.
  • Performance Standard. This is the what, by when. This is the objective in measurable terms. This is the goal – QQTR, quantity, quality, time (deadline or evaluation period), resources. The vision is full of excitement and enthusiasm, specifically defined by the performance standard.
  • Constraints. There are always constraints and guidelines. Budget is a constraint, access to resources is a constraint, time can be a constraint. These are the lines on the field. Safety issues are always a constraint. When the project is finished, you should go home with all your fingers and toes.

That’s it, then let the team loose to solve the problems and make the decisions within the context. Do not make this more complicated. It’s always about the fundamentals. -Tom

How To Measure Time Span in a Role

Marge was frustrated. “I am fed up to here,” she stated flatly. “”I spend more time correcting than I do controlling the work.” She had just paid a visit to the shipping dock. Four orders, mis-packed and two orders with the wrong ship address. Luckily, the errors were discovered before the freight company picked up, but the orders would now be delayed another day.

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

“Well, Martin just doesn’t seem to be catching on. He has been here for five weeks, now, and I swear it’s like he is still in his first week. He is supposed to be matching and proofing orders and picking tickets, catching mistakes before they get out the door.”

“When you look at his job, how would you describe the longest task he has to perform, longest in terms of time frame?”

Marge thought for a minute. You could see some insight wave across her face. “He gets an advance report every Monday that looks two weeks out for orders and their target ship date. It’s like a rolling two week calendar. Of course, the orders during this week are much more definite, but we want him to think out two weeks.”

“And how far in the future do you think he is working?”

“Oh, no more than one day. If you ask him about tomorrow, you get that deer in the headlights look.”

“Did you ever think about that when you hired him?” I asked.

“No, he had experience as a packer, but not as a supervisor. I never thought it would be that big of a deal to really control what was happening.”

“Marge, don’t feel bad. Most companies underestimate the time span required for success in the job. And if you key in on time span, you can get much more specific about the level of the person you need. Here is the key question. When you look at the job, how would you describe the longest task the person has to perform, longest task in terms of time frame?”

Without a Deadline

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

What happens if someone isn’t focused on a timeline? We have a number of people who need to be strategic and who need to maintain a number of balls (projects) in the air, but those projects tend to focus on a “perfect outcome” without a time-frame.

One of the biggest mistakes managers make, is assigning tasks without a deadline. Lots of chocolate messes start out this way. All projects have a deadline, whether stated or not.

  • The manager thinks “by Friday,” the team member thinks by “next month.”
  • The manager thinks this task has priority over all other tasks. The team member thinks this task has second priority over all other tasks.
  • The manager expects to see a draft plan by Friday. The team member hasn’t heard from the manager by Thursday, so stops working on the task, thinking it is no longer important.

A task (goal, objective, project) is not a “WHAT.” It’s a “WHAT, BY WHEN.”

Luck? or Variability

“Okay, we got together and hammered out what we think we are facing, as an organization, moving forward,” Vicki explained. “We wrote it all down on eight flip chart pages. We used your chart on Growing Pains. We think we have moved through the first two stages. We have a sustainable sales volume and we have documented our methods and processes, our best practices. But you were right, our problem is our profitability.”

“How so?” I asked.

“We get most of the way through a project, everything is right on track, then, it all goes out the window. Things happen. We get to the end of the project, and boom, our labor budget lands 40 percent over. Lucky, our buyout was 10 percent under, but we still lose 30 points on the job.”

“How often does this happen?”

Vicki squinted, looking for the answer. “Seven out of eight projects in the past three months,” she grimaced. “And the one project on target was a fluke, dumb luck. There was a problem on the job covered by a bond from another contractor. We got through by the skin of our teeth.”

“You realize, you have used the word ‘luck’ twice in the past 15 seconds?”

Can’t Put a Schedule Together

Morgan was complaining. “You have been talking about checklists and schedules as the core tools for Project Managers and Supervisors. It just doesn’t seem that hard. Why doesn’t my lead technician get it? I have showed him how to create a schedule a dozen times.”

“Morgan, it’s not just a matter of training. Supervising and Project Management are clearly Strata II roles. A lead technician role is more likely Stratum I.” I could see Morgan was struggling with this.

“But, if I take my lead technician, why can’t he seem to put a schedule together?” Morgan was pushing back.

“Morgan, a lead technician likely has experience, best machine operator you have, yet may only be capable of running his machine in an expert way. You are asking him to think about coordinating other people.

“The time span required for a supervisor is longer. And the story doesn’t end with just scheduling. Scheduling responsibilities may only require a two or three week time span, but there’s more. Supervisors must also think about building bench strength, recruiting technicians, training technicians, testing technical competence, cross-training. For a supervisor to be successful, I usually look for a minimum three month time span. The supervisor needs to be able to work into the future, without direction, using their own discretionary judgment, on tasks that may take three months or more to complete.”


Sondra finished her project over the weekend.

“Last week, you assigned this task to Dale, but you ended up doing it,” I observed. I could tell she was very pleased with the project result, but miffed that she spent the weekend working when Dale had all of last week to work on it.

“I thought a lot about what you said about being more explicit about my deadline. Next time, I will try to remember that,” Sondra replied.

“More than that, the target completion time is essential to the task assignment. Dale gets all kinds of assignments. To complete them, he has to use his own discretion, primarily about pace and quality. Most of the decisions he makes are about pace and quality. Without a target completion time, he has no frame of reference in which to make his decisions. His ASAP will ALWAYS be different than your ASAP. ASAP is not a target completion time.”

Sondra smiled. I took a look at her project. It was really very good. She will make her client meeting today and life will go on.

By When?

Sondra was holding her head between her hands, staring directly down to the surface of her desk. I tapped the door and she looked at me over her glasses.

“Why the long face, said the bartender to the horse?” I asked.

She smiled through her temporary state of mind. “Gotta work tomorrow, Saturday,” she replied.

“Not the end of the world, what’s the matter?”

“I assigned a project, a major project to Dale on Monday. He asked when I needed it. I said ASAP. Today is Friday. He hasn’t started it and he is leaving town for the weekend.”

“So, what does ASAP mean?”

“It means it’s important and I need it right away. The client meeting is first thing Monday. Another communication breakdown.”

“Oh, it looks like a breakdown in communication,” I replied. “But the responsibility lies with you, the Manager.”

“What do you mean? I told him it was important and that I needed it as soon as possible.” Sondra had pushed herself back from the desk, arms extended.

I shook my head. “This is basic goal setting and you have committed the classic mistake. When you assign a task, any task to achieve a goal, what are the elements in that assignment?”

“Well, I tell them what I want them to do, you know, how many of whatever, and any important details.”

“And what else?”

Sondra was stumped. But in all fairness, her mind was thinking about Saturday. I am sure by now, she just wished I would go away.

“How about when you want the project completed by?” I prompted.

“Well, if it has a deadline, but if I just need it done, it’s going to take whatever time it takes.”

I shook my head. “No,” I said slowly. “Every task assignment ALWAYS has an expected completion time. The classic mistake most managers make is ignoring the importance of the expected completion time. Tell you what. You come in tomorrow, on Saturday, finish your project, that should have been finished yesterday and on Monday, we will talk about the importance of expected completion times.”

Calibrating Level III Roles

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

How do you incorporate Time Span into a Role Description?

This is the third post in this series.
Calibrating Level I Roles
Calibrating Level II Roles

Level III Roles
Level III roles are populated by managers responsible for production consistency, to create predictability in organizational output. Their focus is on the creation, monitoring and improvement of systems. We depend on Level III roles to create sustainable efficiencies. The problems they solve are related to work flow, system layout and sequence.

Given a problem to solve, the central question at Level III is, “why didn’t our system anticipate this problem, or why didn’t our system, at least, mitigate the damage from this problem?” To solve these problems, those in Level III roles engage in comparative analysis or root cause analysis.

The Time Span of their longest projects typically range from 1-2 years. To manage projects of this length, Level III roles depend on planning scenarios, employing “what if” analysis. In pursuit of any task assignment, they create alternate paths to the goal, contingency planning to anticipate roadblocks outside their control.