Span of control: The simpler it looks, the more problems it hides

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Reylito A.H. Elbo

Reylito A.H. Elbo

A HUSBAND and wife were walking one Saturday afternoon at a busy, crowded shopping mall. The husband delighted his wife by taking her hand. She asked: “You don’t want to lose me in this crowd?” He replied: “I don’t want to look for you in this crowd.” The message is the same, but the approach is different. That’s one commonality in marriage and people management—you start out by committing suicide and then try to save yourself.

In marriage, you try to narrow down your differences with your spouse. The same thing could happen in management where the number of workers must be narrowed down to its lowest possible number so that they can be closely monitored.

But what’s the ideal number of workers per boss? The best theoretical answer is not more than 20 workers per line supervisor and not more than seven per manager. That was in the 1900s when management theorist Henri Fayol prescribed narrowing the span so that bosses can make the best decisions for any questions from their mechanical robotic-workers.

The problem is that this approach is expensive for many organizations. You need to maintain a team of high-salaried managers and supervisors to do it. Also, the need for hands-on, close supervision is time-consuming and unbearable. And the situation can make the workers bored to death with a highly-standardized process where they have no other choice but to do either white or black.


Today, I’ve seen and heard organizations having as many as 50 workers per supervisor and 25 per manager. This is being made possible through the simultaneous use of both soft and hard technology. By soft technology, it means empowering people so that they can decide for themselves without waiting for the boss’s decision. In some areas, this is called self-directed teams.

With a self-directed approach, teams can replace direct supervision with informal communication and specialized knowledge. Self-directed teams manage their budget; arrange their work schedule, among other things. And in every step of the way, daily activities and results are reported on-line to all concerned workers and their boss, regardless of their geographical location, distance, and time zones.

Hard technology as a solution to expanding (not narrowing) management span of control is best exemplified with the use of the latest computer hardware and mobile gadgets.

As a responsible management journalist, it is my responsibility to give you the best possible advice you will need to become a productive member of any organization. So I have to test many propositions that are in my head that I have to leave the comfort of my air-conditioned room to discover how a live, real organization is making it happen.

So I took myself to one business process outsourcing firm in Eastwood Libis last Friday. Indeed, it was an excellent experience listening to and learning from a group of young professionals explaining their company strategy on open-book management, which can be a good material for use in my future column.

I enjoy visiting companies like that. It’s one opportunity to socialize, and more importantly to bridge the past and the future of people management. I’m generally shy, but when I meet like-minded managers and professionals I don’t mind having conversations with them.

I’ll be sitting idly while listening to their presentations as I attempt to analyze several hundreds of reasons why Jurassic strategies must not be used today because the answer is obvious—they’re Jurassic, similar to what we know about Fayol’s prescription.

Speaking of Jurassic, another question often asked by young and active management practitioners is: “What if the boss stubbornly clings to his old-age strategy?”

The best answer is found in Tom Peters and Robert Waterman 1982 seminal book, “In Search of Excellence.” If the companies that are modeled in the book are still alive and kicking today, then you only have to discover how they manage to survive after three decades. If they didn’t survive, then find out why.

I will not beat around the bush. Regardless of your age, education, and work experience, you must challenge the status quo and offer something better than before. Junk those management textbooks and bestsellers. Instead read anything that should help you unlearn and learn many things, including those that are not yet discovered.

After all, if you read the same books that people read, then you will have the same bias as those people. Don’t believe in everything you hear or anything that the boss and senior guys would say. Change the rules, if necessary. But be ready to justify your existence and thoughts.

Otherwise, it would be costly for your career.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to elbonomics@gmail.com or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random management thoughts.

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