Posts Tagged ‘flat organizational structure’
Skyvision centers is a hybrid organization that brings together multiple, disparate skill sets in a medical environment. If you ask any of the staff or doctors who we are and what we do you will hear something along the lines of “we’re a customer service business; our product just happens to be eye care.” The founding principle for Skyvision was the creation of a truly patient-centered experience achieved by borrowing liberally from such customer service stalwarts as Nordstroms and the Canyon Ranch Spa organization. These practices were then layered on top of a flow process that was adopted from the Toyota manufacturing system in order to allow the doctors and staff to provide medical care that exceeded all industry standards for outcomes, safety and efficiency.
It became clear very early in the development of Skyvision that a traditional management structure would be counter-productive. Most small businesses, and essentially all medical businesses, are run using a steep pyramid set-up: doctor at the top, office manager next, and all kinds of middle management on top of the folks doing the real work of caring for patients. Command and control was exactly the wrong strategy for us. We adopted the ultimate flat organizational structure, the POND.
The Pond Theory of Management is best viewed from overhead. Unlike the pyramid of the traditional management flow chart, the Pond Structure is nearly invisible when you look from the side. Staff members “float” on the pond like overlapping lily pads. Tasks are determined initially by job description. Responsibility for seeing that larger projects are accomplished is determined by “mutual affirmation” in the overlapping individuals, and those who affirm a leader take on the responsibility of helping that task leader succeed.
With the appropriate systems in place and so much of what we think of as traditional staff management happening on something that looks like “cruise control”, what is the role of the “Boss” in a flat organization? Rising just above the lily pad-covered surface of the pond are the very few “flowers”, the leaders of the organization. If the “Tribe of Adults” is managing its own intra-staff personal relationships and taking responsibility for outcomes, what does the Boss do?
The common misperception of management in a flat organization (and in groups practicing TQM/CGI) is that there is no longer a leader or “Boss” role at all. This, of course, could not be further from the truth. The primary role of leadership in a flat organization is to make broad policy decisions and set major goals for the organization as a whole. The first of these is to choose to have a flat organizational structure! It is the few leaders who are charged with setting the general course of the business, from choosing the products or services to be offered, to determining the variables that will be measured to keep the organization on track.
Once the organization is up and going it’s important to identify the metrics necessary to maintain a tight focus on the goals that have been chosen. Monitoring these metrics and reacting to them is the responsibility of the “Boss”. From just above the Pond an effective leader is able to offer broad guidance without being involved in the minutiae of the day-to-day machinations of the business by reacting to these metrics. This also frees up the Boss’ time for critical planning, meeting with significant customers, and other larger picture tasks that will help the business grow and prosper.
It seems as if the flat organizational structure is designed to inoculate the Boss from any real staff management, doesn’t it? In reality, the only thing that the Boss might miss out on is any of the fun aspects of day-to-day interaction with employees. For better or for worse while the Boss may not do the hiring it is the Boss, and only the Boss, who must do the firing. At the end of the day, a business that chooses a flat organizational structure is not immune to any of the factors that make an individual employee an unsuitable member of the team. Remember, there are no managers, only a Boss, and no one else available to perform this (hopefully rare) task.
The role of the Boss in a Flat Organization is at once bigger and smaller than in a traditional hierarchical structure. Smaller in that the number of management tasks he is asked to perform is radically reduced. Bigger since the remaining tasks are more global and reach into every aspect of the business. Certain types of individuals are more geared to fulfilling this role (it helps to be a little more laid back and patient), and certain abilities are more helpful (delegation, data analysis, “blue-sky” planning). Indeed, the more of these characteristics one has in a leader, the fewer leaders you need!
The better the Boss, the flatter the organization.
We’ve had lots of new people around Skyvision Centers recently. Two sets of consultants have come through at our invitation, our hope being that they would help us improve our patient education process. While they certainly had lots of really good ideas, systems and protocols that have been tested and found to be quite helpful in typical eye care practices, we found that they didn’t really translate terribly well “off-the-shelf” at Skyvision.
Why? It turns out that we have a very different culture at Skyvision, and that the management structure we use to foster that culture is so foreign to traditional medical care that we had to eat up some of our consulting time teaching the consultants who we are and how we work. Oddly enough, the question that set this process off was one that probably seems to be ridiculously basic to these two groups of consultants, but one that turned out to be nearly impossible for us to answer. “Who is your office manager?” Um… well… Gee., we don’t really HAVE an office manager. “Well, who should we talk to , then?” The answer to this question turned out to be just as difficult for them to understand: “everybody.”
I should start, I guess, with a word about our culture. I described the Skyvision culture to a new employee yesterday as a group of adults behaving like adults and treating each other like… adults. I told her to think of us as a Tribe of Adults! This is all I really wanted from my staff five years ago when I founded Skyvision. My most enjoyable part of management has been “blue-sky thinking”, setting priorities, charting a course, and allowing my people to work to the absolute limits of their capacity and ability in order to bring us home. Employee relationship monitoring and management is beyond boring and only barely tolerable. Hence, a Tribe of Adults.
Unfortunately, the typical management structure in small businesses in general and medical businesses in particular is not really conducive to fostering this kind of culture. Pretty much every other medical practice that I’ve ever been involved with, either as a physician, a patient, or a consultant has been set up as a steep management pyramid. Very strict top–down management in a command and control environment. Lots and lots of rules and regulations with an equally dense layer of middle management whose prime objective appears to be applying discipline to everyone who falls below it on the pyramid. Individual initiative is totally suppressed, and even the task of managing your relationship with a coworker is given over to a manager. Yuck.
But a Tribe of Adults clearly needs to be managed in a totally different way. A group of people who are willing to take responsibility, not only for the outcomes of their work product but also for their own personal behavior and relationships within the organization is best managed with as flat a management structure as possible. The ultimate flat organizational chart would be one in which literally no management existed. This is impossible, of course, because at some point someone has to chart the course, lay out priorities, and designate goals. After that a Tribe of Adults shouldn’t need much management!
Enter the “Pond Theory of Management.” Unlike the top–down management of a pyramid, if you look at an organizational chart set up according to Pond Theory from the side, what you will see he is a very thin layer on the surface of the pond and a few tiny flowers sticking up a bit above the surface. The magic, though, is looking at this organizational chart from above. If you look down on the pond what you see are a number of lily pads which flow on the surface of the pond, one for each employee in the business. The flowers above the lily pads represent a small number of individuals responsible for big picture issues and those very few instances where the Tribe of Adults cannot work through an issue on its own.
How does this Pond Theory of Management really work? The key, critical difference between a business run based on Pond Theory and one that is run on traditional command-and-control principles is in the allocation of tasks. In command-and-control theory some manager assigns a worker to a task, and might even assign that worker responsibility to direct other fellow workers in the accomplishment of that task. In the Pond there are areas where lily pads overlap, tasks that could be performed and responsibilities that can be shared among two or several workers with similar skills or job descriptions. Where these lily pads overlap the responsibility and the accountability for completing this task or achieving this goal is determined by mutual affirmation of all the workers whose lily pads overlap.
The individual who now has accountability and responsibility for this task retains them as long as he or she is able to deliver the desired outcome; all of the other workers whose lily pads overlap accept this individual as their leader for this particular task. In a similar and related manner, those workers who have affirmed this individual give up any “right” to criticize how this outcome is achieved. There are certain rules and regulations that might apply, of course. In our medical world HIPPA and other government regulations are unavoidable. National, state, and local laws apply, too! Beyond this what we achieve in “The Pond” is outcomes with minimal managerial oversight, interference, or necessity.
After two full days with us I’m still not sure the consultants really got what I was talking about, and if they did I’m pretty sure they didn’t really believe me. How about my new hire? She came from an extremely rigid practice with rules and regulations to account for pretty much every minute of her day, and a manager who monitored each one of those minutes to make sure that there was 100% compliance with all of those rules and regs. What was her reaction when I explained to her the culture of a Tribe of Adults working in an extremely flat organization, working on the Pond?
“Wow! We’re all BIG girls here!”