Lighten the load

Supervisory burden analysis can bring relief to overwhelmed managers

Lighten the load

Posted by Michael Puleo and Don Miller on July 09, 2015.

For the past few years, we’ve been examining the trend of the overwhelmed employee and its effect on workplace productivity and engagement. Research from our Global Human Capital Trends 2015 report points to the complexity of the work environment as a contributing factor: 74 percent of surveyed business and HR leaders rate their work environment as “complex” or “highly complex” (see Simplification of work: The coming revolution). And 40 percent of American employees surveyed don’t believe it’s possible to succeed at work, make a good living, and have enough time to contribute to family and community.1 Managers responsible for supervising the work of others can be particularly strained—a phenomenon we’ve been studying and helping companies alleviate through supervisory burden analysis.

Consider a manager’s span of control, which comprises the number of employees directly reporting to him or her. Mangers whose span of control is too wide, with too many direct reports, can lose touch with what’s happening day-to-day on the ground, or become so burdened they require “assistant managers” or “chiefs of staff” to help them cope. Managers whose span of control is too narrow are often serving as “player-coaches” who micromanage or perform the same work as their employees.

So what’s the right span of control? Supervisory burden analysis helps determine this by measuring the interplay between four components of work: the nature of the work, its degree of standardization, its complexity, and its interdependency.

  • Nature of work
    looks at the similarity of the work being done by a manager’s direct reports. Supervisory burden decreases as the similarity of work increases. For example, a marketing manager overseeing multiple product campaign managers and their respective projects.
  • Degree of standardization
    considers the similarity in the work employees are performing. More standardization allows for a wider span of control without creating an overwhelming supervisory burden. For example, an HR manager leading a team of recruiters for a specific business function.
  • Complexity of work
    considers how simple, repetitive, or intricate the work is, recognizing that as employees’ activities become increasingly complex and varied, the appropriate managerial span of control decreases. For example, a life sciences R&D manager leading a team conducting various research trials.
  • Interdependency of work
    looks at how closely employees must coordinate their activities with one another (often working in work groups) and with their manager. When more manager coordination is required, supervisory burden increases and the appropriate span of control decreases. For example, an automotive supply chain manager leading a team responsible for sourcing, pre-production, manufacturing, and shipping activities.

Instead of relying on external benchmarks that may or may not apply to your organization, supervisory burden analysis offers a fact-based, bottom-up approach to developing and implementing span of control targets. Achieving the right span of control can not only help relieve overwhelmed managers but also lead to more efficient work processes and greater organizational productivity. It can also uncover opportunities for cost savings, as one company we worked with found.

Examining the organization’s hierarchy (spans and layers) revealed widespread workforce inefficiencies and small work groups. A supervisory burden analysis identified many of these small work groups that were not justified. It also highlighted gaps within the current state and formed the basis for new departmental targets. Where the current span of control was 5.6:1 (5.6 employees for 1 manager), the analysis calculated the appropriate span of control to be 7.6:1.

The company set an interim span of control target of 6.2:1, which translates into $30 million in potential labor savings, and a longer-term target of 7.0:1, which is projected to yield another $30 million in savings, for a total potential savings of $60 million.

Our new publication, Relieving the overwhelmed organization, dives deeper into the concepts of spans of control, the player-coach model, and supervisory burden analysis. Take a look and see how they could help provide the relief so many of us are seeking—and potentially enhance performance at the same time.

Michael Puleo is a director in the Strategy & Operations practice of Deloitte Consulting LLP. He focuses on assisting companies with organizational effectiveness initiatives, operating model design, and strategic cost reduction.
Don Miller is a senior manager in the Organization Transformation & Talent Human Capital Practice of Deloitte Consulting LLP, where he focuses on helping companies improve performance by building organization structures to execute new capabilities through their workforce.

1 “New Allstate/National Journal heartland monitor poll finds narrow majority of Americans see work/life balance as attainable,” National Journal,, accessed January 20, 2015.

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