Frankfurt Airport, Fish-hooks and Job Design

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Job design optimisation and competence imageImagine the scene. Frankfurt airport was snowbound and closed all Thursday evening. It was Friday afternoon. Runways had just been cleared of snow. Flights had resumed at 2:00pm. The queues were huge. Two hundred people queued for the security check. One German security guy hurled bags and coats on the belt. Two security operatives patted down when everyone invariably failed the magnetic screen. And one lone guy manned the X-Ray machine. He progressively failed the bags and selected well over half for further analysis. He left his post by the X-Ray machine and opened each bag. He selected shoes, PCs and handbags and marched the owners to the swab analyser 15 metres away to spend three minutes with each passenger to clear them. That done, he wandered back his X-Ray machine to resume scanning. And all while his colleagues and two hundred passengers waited.

So HOW did this mess happen? How was it that two hundred passengers swore and gnashed teeth? It happened because the manager watching this fiasco did not understand the basics of job design. This short blog shows how an SME manager can analyse his or her organisation. It shows how the manager can optimise the various jobs so that competences are balanced across teams. That done the horrendous Frankfurt inefficiency can be avoided.

A firm offers products to meet a market need. How the firm meets the need is all down to product marketing. The products are a derivative of the aggregate competences in the firm. To achieve the right products and hence succeed in the market, the firm needs the right competences. The diagram shows the relationship.

competence relationshipWe know that a firm is also an amalgam of a number of different roles or jobs. We can deduce that the competences needed are held by job-holders. But what’s the relationship between job and competence? And how do we ensure that all the competences are present in the right quantity for success? How do we avoid the Frankfurt syndrome?

The answer lies in two concepts: specialisation and job design.

At some point between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago humans learned the theory of comparative advantage. They found that it was more profitable for individuals to specialise than to expect to be jack-of-all-trades. It was best to become an expert fish-hook maker and exchange surplus fish-hooks for other goods needed for family prosperity. This concept has stayed with us and the more we specialise, the more society and the economy grow. So is there a limit to specialisation?

In 1947 F.W. Taylor took this to an extreme level in his book on Scientific Management where jobs were broken down to a singular action, perhaps splitting the production of fish-hooks into 10 separate steps. This approach was in search of perfect competence applied to a narrowly defined task. This theory (that the ultimate efficiency can be achieved by extreme specialisation) has been ridiculed in recent years with team approaches and job rotation adopted to move away from boring single actions in search of job satisfaction. So there’s a balance to be had. Such excessive specialisation is also impossible in SMEs. This decision about how specialised to go and how to aggregate competences in jobs is the management activity of job design.

This relationship between job, specialisation and competence leads to the following structure.

job specialisation

The firm needs products to meet market needs. These products come from the firm’s aggregate competence and this can be determined. It’s normally the sum of individual competences. Groups of individual competences are aggregated to form a job. We might expect a yard hand in a builders’ merchant to be competent in handling a fork-lift truck, loading and unloading trucks and estimating materials, three specialisations. We might also expect competence in paperwork and in dealing with customers though we could leave these to the yard supervisor: the choice lies in job design.

How then might the SME manager optimise the firm? The answer is to use the above hierarchy to design the jobs. Begin with the market needs. Then design the products to meet the need. Then determine the necessary aggregate competence (as a set of individual competences). That done, map the competences with various specialisations that can be acquired in the labour market and roll several specialisations into jobs. Finally, address the size of effort that each specialisation and each job can yield and match that with the volume of turnover of each product from the firm’s business plan. Using mapping between competence, specialisation and job allows rational decisions to be made for example about whether to recruit another ‘brickie’ or if a general tradesman could undertake the specialisation of bricklaying and other specialisations together for lower cost.

Finally, this approach allows the firm’s make-or-buy decision to be exercised: associates or sub-contractors can be used where cost effective for some specialisations and competences.

TimelessTime consultants are expert in job design. Call us today to discuss how you could optimise your jobs and avoid the Frankfurt syndrome. Similar ideas are used in staff development. See for further reading on competence and competence frameworks in structuring firms.

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