Layers in an organization eat speed, muddle messages and draw out decision-making.

Like the childhood game, Telephone, when players whisper a message round a circle, layers confuse. What starts out as, “The yellow dog ran toward the hippopotamus,” after seven layers may end up as, “Yahoo digital rooted for hipsters.”

Companies don’t start out to be cumbersome. Yet, with only the best of intentions, organizations evolve. The layer creep begins—like a glacier moving slowly, it takes the entire landscape with it. Few corners of the company are left untouched and un-layered.

As time passes, the organization’s evolution leaves an alluvian fan of managers, each with a few direct reports and the number of layers between the CEO and the frontline resembling a geologic time chart of the Grand Canyon.

In some situations, additional layers don’t add value because the managers make more work by creating more processes that slow down the work and are often unnecessary. The new manager believes he or she needs to create the additional processes to support his or her new role (and sometimes to support his or her ego). Employees are expected to do the additional work that the managers have created, and as a result customer-facing roles often have less time for the part of the business that matters most—selling, building relationships, focusing on solutions—sometimes creates a less-than-productive vicious cycle. Breaking this cycle becomes harder than ignoring it, especially when egos are involved.

GE’s former CEO and chairman, the legendary Jack Welch, believed that the right number for span of control was between 10 and 15. “This way you have no choice but to let people flex their muscles, let them grow and mature,” he said. “With 10 or 15 reports, a leader can focus only on the big important issues, not on minutiae.”

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Geographic/regional location
Widely dispersed direct reports are difficult to supervise and require more time, therefore the span of control will be smaller.

Competency of the direct reports
If the direct reports are highly capable, and do not require much supervision, then the span can be higher. The reverse is the same, less skills require more focus and attention.

Tight work scope
If the work is performed similarly across the work force (for customer service/telemarketing), then the span of control can be higher or wider. And importantly, the capability of the managers is important as is the systems that support the team.

Sloppy processes
Some organizations patch process issues with people trying to solve the problem versus correcting the process.

Old school thinking
Most people believe that few people can manage more than five people. They grew up in a world dominated by hierarchical, militaristic structures.

Call To Action:

Take a fresh look at your organizations with these steps:

  1. Count layers between the CEO and the shop floor. If it’s more than seven, there’s cause for concern.
  2. Count your spans of control. The number of direct reports your managers have. If it’s not around 10, ask why.
  3. Benchmark competition and best practice. If others can do it, why can’t you?