Delegating authority to those wearing multiple hats
March 28, 2002
The author discusses the importance of eliminating duplicated responsibilities, even in small job shops. The effectiveness of a company is improved when each person is responsible for specific tasks.
Have you ever played volleyball at a company picnic? It can be a lot of fun, and the rules are easy enough so that everyone can be invited to play. One of the important concepts is not to let the ball hit the ground on your side of the net. I'd be surprised if that concept wasn't pretty darned clear to all the players. Nevertheless, points are scored when the ball hits the ground.
So the coach huddles up the team and makes it clear that everyone's No. 1 priority is to keep the ball off of the ground. Next point is served. Everyone on the team goes for the ball at the same time. Bodily injury results. Next point is served. The ball sails ever so slowly toward the ground. Three people easily could get the ball, but they hesitate. They aren't lazy. They do care. They also know the other guy is going to do the job. They were burned by doing the other guy's job, and they are not going to repeat the mistake.
So it goes with task responsibilities in the workplace. Try something easy, like answering the phone. If you make it everyone's No. 1 priority to answer the phone immediately, you get only one winner (well, two if you count the caller who is pleased with the fast answer). Everyone else who comes in second loses interest because of negative reinforcement. It might be better to designate a phone answerer and assign everyone else to a backup role to answer the phone on the third ring.
"Fine, Gerald," you say. "However, we run a small shop, and everyone has to wear multiple hats. For example, we have salespeople who make bids, take orders, and write up travelers. The three of them all have overlapping responsibilities. To make them into 'specialists,' with one making bids, another taking orders, and another writing up travelers, would not only result in idle time and delay the processing of orders, it would also sacrifice the center of knowledge that keeps our customer relations as one of our company's core points of success. To track work through the shop, they have to have a complete handle on the order."
Well, one of the "management" solutions in volleyball is to require that you "call it" when you're going for the ball. That easy bit of verbal communication keeps collisions from happening and reduces the errors. If you have to have multiple people with identical areas of responsibility, you have to make sure they communicate and coordinate their efforts. Give the salespeople assigned customer lists so there will be no confusion about who should take care of the request for quote, purchase order, or work order.
Of course, you might rethink your objection to having fewer areas of overlapping responsibility. In a very small organization, it is hard to avoid. However, the duplication of effort limits the efficiency and growth of the company. As soon as you can, either make the job easier so one person can handle the multiple tasks (with better software or outsourcing, perhaps), or increase the volume so each person has one primary task.
As a company grows, it often is hard for the founder to see the duplication of effort or the conflicts in assignment. "Obviously, everyone's primary job is customer service," the boss might say. The organizational chart is so simple that it's meaningless.
To make some progress, try diagramming the sequence of events that an order triggers as it moves through your shop. It might be as easy as request for quote – bid – purchase order – work order – build – accounts receivable – general ledger. The bid, an estimate in response to a request for quote, may include inventory checking, material price checking, schedule planning, computer numerical control programming or layout, fixture design, and so forth. Make the customer service diagram very complete and include every activity.
Schedule a meeting with the boss and review the process sequence. Request that the key people hold a meeting to assign responsibility for each of the tasks. This leads to job descriptions. Those lead to organizational charts that show lines of communication. All of this documentation taken together provides a framework for performance reviews and staffing plans that can be implemented as sales grow.
I'd like to hear about your successes in fixing organizational tangles.