The right supervisor ratio

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on June 1, 2010 · 3 comments

“How many direct reports do you have?” That used to be a question asked to measure someone’s importance. People wanted control. Building an empire was a status symbol. But that has little to do with effectiveness.

I have been writing a lot lately about topics related to organizational design, such as Organizational Design Solves Lean Challenges and What is the right span of control for a manager? It’s been on my mind a lot lately, particularly as we at the Lean Learning Center have been busy designing a really interesting course for HR professionals in lean journeys.

A challenge many organizations face is how to match up the right ratio of supervisors to team members. There is no one right answer. Early in one of my lean experiences, we were comparing Toyota’s ratio of 1:4 to our ratio of 1:75. There were many arguments for hiring more supervisors..a lot more supervisors. But we were doing wasteful things with those resources, and adding more would have likely only added to the waste. We needed to fix the resources first.

Are you struggling with designing the right ratio? You’re not alone, but here are some of the factors you should consider in the thought process.

  • Your operating system maturity – having a consistent system of management means that supervisors can be more effective. Without one, each one manages to the beat of their own drummer. Adding more often just adds more variation to the system.
  • Process stability – if the process is unstable, you are basically in a firefight every day. More supervisors mean more firefighters, which might help you get back to stability but also might just be wasteful.
  • Process criticality – running a nuclear power plant? Letting a few details slip through the gaps just isn’t an acceptable risk. Know your risk.
  • Operator density – having a team working in 20 square feet is different than having them spread out in trucks over 20 square miles. That density affects communication which is one of the major tasks within a supervisor’s day.
  • Complexity of tasks – the more complex, the more knowledge required, and often the more communication and coordination that takes place beyond the team.
  • Relevance of matching skill sets between supervisor and team – sometimes supervisors don’t know the first thing about the skills and tasks of the team they are managing. Sometimes they are the expert. That relationship will affect the nature of the daily work and therefore the proper ratio.
  • Work content required to remember – how much is done from memory? How much of it varies from day to day, or is reactive? The more to remember, the more supervision, coaching, etc. is required.
  • Required rate of improvement – are supervisors going to put in a substantial amount of time into improvement? Will more supervisors increase the rate of improvement?

There is no right answer. Many consultants and HR departments try to solve this problem through benchmarking. What’s the minimum we can get away with? What the industry average? These are the wrong questions. Be more thoughtful. Design your system, don’t let a couple benchmarking ratios design your system for you.


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