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The Whiteboard: Time to patch the cracks in your organization

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I was recently facilitating a leadership team when we reached the point of assigning leaders for various strategic initiatives. This led to a serious discussion about lack of clarity in the organization regarding staff members' roles and responsibilities.

Richard Randall
Richard Randall - ()

It wasn’t that they didn’t understand their day-to-day jobs, but there were many areas of overlap and areas of uncertainty that had built up over the years. These would become apparent when something out of the ordinary happened.

If a client called a staff member with a request for some kind of service that was out of the ordinary, staff members couldn’t be sure where to turn in the organization. They might try to handle it themselves or go on a hunt for another staff member willing or able to help.

This is an issue that I’ve seen in a number of organizations. I’m working on job descriptions and operating procedures with a manufacturer. As we start defining who is responsible for what, we keep finding exceptions and carve-outs that were never part of a carefully designed plan. They just happened over time and became embedded in “the way we do it around here.”

So when a customer returned a product, claiming that it did not meet his requirements, there was confusion about who was going to oversee the process of checking the product when it was returned, determining a course of action and making sure it was handled effectively. Over the years a variety of people in different departments had done that kind of thing, but no department or job title had ever been clearly named as being responsible for it.

Overlap, gray areas and confusion about roles and responsibilities can be annoying when you are trying to get something done, but that isn’t the worst of it. They can result in disastrous outcomes. It is a near-certainty that miscommunications will happen, sooner or later with serious consequences. Overlap and gray areas are the cracks that things always seem to slip through.

This is one reason it is important to document operating procedures and job descriptions. When you set out to do that and do it properly, you ask a lot of questions about who does what and how different situations are handled. That is how you find the overlap and gray areas, hopefully before anything really bad happens.

One of my old bosses was a stickler for defining what he called single points of contact. For example, if a customer returned a product to our plant, he wanted to know, without any uncertainty, who was the one person ultimately responsible for handling the problem.

In our case that was the quality manager. It didn’t mean that salespeople or engineers weren’t going to be involved. It didn’t mean that the quality manager was personally going to come up with the solution. It simply meant that once that item reached our plant, the quality manager owned that problem, was responsible for pulling together whoever was needed to solve it, and better know its status at all times.

That certainty was baked into operating procedures and job descriptions. Great organizations have processes that are repeatable, that is, they produce the same results every time. You can’t do that when people are unclear about roles and responsibilities.

The good news is that it isn’t very difficult to clear up the uncertainty by creating or updating operating procedures and job descriptions. If you are in an older organization with overlaps and gray areas, you can stop things slipping through the cracks pretty quickly, and with a very good return on investment.

Richard Randall is founder and president of management-consulting firm New Level Advisors in Springettsbury Township, York County. Email him at info@newleveladvisors.com.

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