How to Set Span of Control for Leaders

Earlier in the week Jamie Flinchbaugh started a great conversatoin when he asked “what is the right span of control for a manager?”
Jamie defined span as:


“…how broad an individual managers responsibility is defined, be it defined by subordinate ratios, geographic expanse, or process breadth. Layers is is how many levels exist in the organization between an action and a decision. It is best defined by handoffs – how many handoffs are required in the process of making decisions, making improvements, or solving problems.”

The idea of right-sizing the span of control is a straightforward application of lean thinking to organization design. Eliminate the muri (overburden) of having a single leader trying to oversee an unreasonably wide or deep scope, which can result in mura (variability in level and quality of attention given to subordinates and their processes) and ultimately many surface level examples of muda (wastes and poor outcomes). Too often instead of starting with the root cause which is structural, we change the person in charge, how they are measured or compensated, or simply implore them to perform at a higher level.

The way to set a logical span of control has everything to do with the role and expectations placed on leaders in keeping systems and work process moving along smoothly. This requires consideration of the following steps.

1. Define the ideal condition. The logically sized span of control of leaders must allow them at a minimum to monitor and supervise both the results of the work and the work itself, respond to calls for support in a timely basis (andons), and to enable total engagement in continuous improvement by coaching the problem solving process. More responsibilities can be added, but not at the cost of meeting these minimum requirements. If a supervisors is managing 50 people, most likely she is not able neither to respond to andon calls quickly nor to coach problem solving. If a team leader is working 90% on the line doing hands-on work along with the team, they may not have time to allocate to being a leader regardless of the span. The hypothesis we need to test is that certain types of problems will be prevented or solved more quickly and effectively by bringing more management attention to the front lines.

2. Make a business case. Most organizations are in a situation where they don’t have nearly enough front line leaders, so closing the gap between ideal and actual requires creating more indirect front line leader positions. However these same organizations often also lack the room in the budget to create these indirect positions, or the long-term leadership vision to bite the bullet and add these costs. Fortunately, most of these companies will be experiencing significant chronic losses in productivity, quality, on-time delivery, safety etc. that can easily be addressed by having stronger front line leaders who can respond more quickly to the first sign of problems, based on a logically sized span of control. There is a business case that can, and may need to be be made.

3. Test the hypothesis. Rather than spending months on justification to place additional team leaders, group leaders and managers across the whole organization, select a value stream, a group or section of the business and model the new team design. By comparing key performance indicators for a few months before and after the introductions of smaller work teams led by adequately trained leaders and managers, significant changes will be seen in operational performance as well as sustainable gains from lean. Of course there will be challenges, adjustments and compromises necessary, so this test period can be used to establish a scalable model to roll out across the organization. Often we find that as processes stabilize, leaders adjust to routines and team dynamics improve the span can increase and the need for additional leaders lessen. Much is also learned during the test phase about the necessary skills and qualities of a leader within a particular environment.

4. Raise and stabilize supervision skills. Before undertaking a full organization design involving changes to spans of control and layers, it is important to insure the capabilities of leaders are at an appropriate level. The apt analogy may be to think of an asset such as a machine which needs to operate at a certain level of OEE (overall equipment effectiveness) before we consider putting that asset to work within a flow line where each process depends on the availability and quality of the others. The TWI model is a good model to work with and it is in the public domain. A strong element of standard work and visual management is also necessary. Taken at the senior leader level, this is an uncomfortable or impossible conversation for most lean champions or consultants, since it involves telling a leader that they need to be retrained in order to function within a lean organization. That leads us to step 5.

5. Start bottom up. The routine parts of leader standard work are basically the same for senior leaders as for front line team leaders, just on a longer cycle the more senior you are. Senior leaders can learn from front line leaders. There will also by necessity be far more team leaders than senior managers within an organization so it is easier to model one section, whereas it is difficult to do this for just part of the senior leader team. If it is not true that there are many more front line leaders than senior leaders, either organization design has failed or job titles have been inflated. When the span of control for team leaders and managers has been set logically, tested and rationalized, it is easier for the senior leader level to link into the leader standard work routines at lower levels in the organization.

Since team leader spans and routines are set by the pace, variability and the frequency of repetition of front line work that results from customer interaction, when senior leaders adjust their span of control to remove waste by paying more consistent attention to key areas, they are linked to the heartbeat of the business. Form follows function.
Simplistic organization design directives for “de-layering” or applying ratios of leader to led without considering the realities of the work and how it needs to be managed can do more harm than good. Organization design is more than appointing value stream managers. It is the deliberate, time-based and customer focused design of high performance teams. There are guidelines but no one-size-fits-all models. Luckily these are human systems, easy to test, change and adapt along with the needs of the business.

1 Comment

  1. Jamie Flinchbaugh

    May 21, 2010 - 1:05 pm

    I am truly honored that you have decided to pick up on not one, but two, of my recent blog posts.
    I like the points you made here and wanted to add a couple a specific points.
    1. Yes, most organizations likely don’t have enough front-line managers / supervisors. I remember when I started on the floor I had 85 people. My training was to be handed a radio. There was a case in the organization to add more. But currently, most of the supervisors were doing wasteful things. If we added more, we likely would have added more waste. Part of your business case must be really proving that you can provide organizational value, before adding those resources.
    2. On the point of testing the hypothesis, most people look at this as something they want to work. So which manager do they pick to test the hypothesis, or which department – the cream of the crop, the best of the best, the group that would win no matter what the structure. That’s not a good test. Make sure your organizational test is realistic of how it would be expanded throughout the organization.
    Jamie Flinchbaugh