I’m not exactly a big fan of Jack Welch, and neither are some other lean bloggers. He doesn’t exactly epitomize respect for people. But for grins and giggles I usually skim through his column at the end of each Business Week, and generally roll my eyes and move on.
A couple weeks ago however he mentioned one aspect of management, not leadership, that is a pet peeve of mine: the propensity to create organizational layers.
The organizational compulsion to insert layers is just about as inexorable as, say, hurricane season every year. And it can be just as damaging. The only difference is that layers can be prevented. And they must be.
What are the organizational consequences of this lustful desire?
First of all, in a world where faster is not just better but necessary, layers slow everything down. Take decision-making. The more layers, the more people who have to thump their rubber stamp. The more Power Point presentations to be made before the rubber stamp.
Or take communicating change. Layers make that process – hard enough as it is – like that children’s whispering game, telephone. Layers do that, too, adding spin, interpretation, and buzz with every telling.
Or take getting a business going. Layers bury startups, particularly within large companies, under piles of bureaucrats and processes, depriving any entrepreneurial venture of the oxygen and sunlight it needs to thrive.
Perhaps the worst outcome of layers is meddling. When there are a lot of layers, it usually means managers have too few people reporting to them. They [manager] end up babysitting their direct reports, or worse, doing their jobs for them.
Nothing all that new there, although it does help to be reminded. But what is an appropriate number of layers?
You’ll know you’re there if you’re, well, uncomfortable. That is, you’ve probably gotten to the right level of layers if your company is 50% flatter than you’d like. Managers should have eight direct reports at the minimum and up to a dozen if they’re experienced.
CEO’s should have more. Indeed, the higher you are in an organization, the more direct reports you should have. After all, senior people should be good enough to operate without their boss’s constant glare. That’s why they’re senior.
And it’s those last few lines that tweak my peeve. There should be no supervisors and managers of two or three person "departments." All you’ve created is bureaucratic lag and some nascent ego formation that will haunt you in the future.
Find and hire good leaders and let them lead. If you need all-day staff meetings every week, then you have a staff development and competency problem, and perhaps an ego issue of your own. Simple communication mechanisms to create ongoing information flow and calibration, metrics to create accountability, and a defined and reinforced strategic direction should be enough.