The Three levels of work – A key to designing for delegation

There are three levels of work: Technical work, process work, and strategic work. If you want to design and build your business for delegation, you need to build it from the bottom up – but think about all three levels from the beginning.


In a previous post I pointed out the critical importance of realizing that management is one of the most common constraints in most businesses. Constantly moving between fighting fires, and trying to also do what needs to be done to move the business forward towards growth and improvement, they tend to be stretched very thin. To move away from this, you must design for delegation.

Let me give a quick illustration:

A day in the life of Fastfix

Fastfix fixes computers.

When a customer calls, caller ID immediately matches as much of the customer’s information as is available to minimize the time the customer has to spend explaining irrelevant detail. A few questions confirms the customer’s identity, the relevant hardware, and gets a description of the problem.

First level support spends no more than five minutes trying to fix the problem remotely, before escalating to 2nd level with a clear description of the situation. 2nd Level support dispatches someone within 30 minutes. If in doubt, they have authorization to directly dispatch a 3rd level support engineer.

Jack works for Fastfix. He is an exceptional 3rd level support engineer. This process prevents him from spending his (rather expensive) time on simple tasks. When something comes to him, he knows it will be a challenge.

Jenny is an operations manager at Fastfix. She monitors this process. Monitoring the process is also a process. Based on information that she gets from the account managers regarding what is happening in their clients’ businesses, she forecasts workload. She also checks if first level support calls start creeping over their 5 minute limit, or when the 2nd level support engineers begin to not make it out the door within the 30 minutes. When these things begin to happen, she has a series of processes to follow, e.g. pulling in staff from the temp pool that they have access to, initiating new hires if the trend is forecasted to be longer term etc.

Having these processes enables Jenny, who doesn’t have a lot of management experience, but a great “get this done” attitude, to keep quite a large team ticking over like clockwork. This also allows her to have sufficient time to continually be identifying and proposing improvements, and implementing the ones that get approved. When implementing these, she follows a well-structured project management process, which enables her to deliver the projects in time, on budget, according to what she proposed – even though she only has a few years of project management experience.

Mary is a director at Fastfix, and Jenny’s department is one of the areas she is responsible for. She monitors how fast Jenny is able to pull her processes back under control when they begin to move outside of acceptable performance. She considers the improvement projects that Jenny, and several other operations managers regularly propose to her, and makes decisions regarding which would be the best to run, and in which sequence – together with other senior managers whose areas are often impacted by these projects.

Mary was one of the founders of Fastfix. Ten years ago she got tired of “working for a boss,” quit her job as senior engineer in a large company, and started doing freelance support work. After a while she became busy, and employed an “apprentice” – called Jenny – that she started training, and sending out on simple support calls.

From technical work to process work

They got busier, and together with her apprentice they created a simple telephone protocol for solving about 70% of their support calls – and then employed and trained someone with almost no experience to follow this process. When this person got too busy, they were able to employ another person and let the first one train the new one in the same process.

When the level 2 support became too busy for Jenny who was now doing pretty well, they designed the level 2 process, and promoted one of the level one engineers.

This routine repeated itself over and over again. Every time some area became the constraint, Mary and Jenny would work with whoever was working there, define the process as clearly as possible, and then train the people to work the process.

In this way they built robust and clear processes that enables quick and rapid delegation of work to lower levels, and enables the business to mostly employ at the lowest levels.

From process to strategy

Initially Mary monitored these processes, but eventually she also created processes for monitoring the processes, delegated this to Jenny and a few others like Jenny, and began to spend her time thinking about how to improve the processes, how to get the different processes and teams to work together, how to expand her market share etc.

Design for delegation starts in the way you think about your business

Darren, who had worked at the same company as Mary ten years ago, resigned at about the same time. He started doing the same as she did, but until now it’s just him and two other guys like him, with a few small customers that keeps them running.

What is the difference?

The difference is not initially obvious, until you speak to Mary and ask he how she thinks about her business today, and how she thought about her business when she first resigned – and ask Darren the same question. You will find that they both thought about their business then in pretty much the same way they think about it today. Darren is thinking about how to fix the next computer, and how to keep the customers he has happy enough to not lose them.

Mary is thinking about how to build a business where she is able to employ someone with the least, but sufficient level of skill and experience, and enable them as quickly as possible to deliver the best possible service to her customers. She knows that this is achieved through constantly clarifying the three levels of work, and then within those levels clearly defining the sub-levels of work that exists.

The three levels of work are:

  1. Technical work – the work that the customer pays for
  2. Process work – the work that creates, maintains, and improves the processes that ensure that technical work is done consistently, excellently, and always done by the lowest level of skill possible without compromising quality and consistency.
  3. Strategic work – the work of deciding what the business will do, who it will do it for, and what processes and technical skills will be needed to do this work.

When Darren started, he focused on the technical work, and he is still doing technical work.

Design for delegation is built from the technical level upwards

When Mary started, she focused on the technical work, whilst looking for the first possible opportunity to begin to delegate some of this technical work, and to create a process that would ensure consistent high-quality delivery even if a lower level skills were to be pulled into the process.

By the time she had mastered the art of designing and implementing processes, she no longer needed to do any technical work, and she was able to start spending more time thinking about how to ensure that her operations managers were able to design, improve, and manage processes. Once she had mastered the art of helping others master processes, she was free to focus on her business and define growth and improvement strategies.

Elevatability as part of the design for effective delegation

Because Mary understands these layers clearly, and is constantly monitoring the processes, she is able to constantly guard against becoming the management constraint in her business – and she is able to constantly empower the managers in her teams to drive the constraints lower into the business – where elevatability is high, and elevation cost is low.

Understanding the impact of elevatability in the decision of where you are going to put the constraint in your business, can have a massive impact on your cost escalations in times of rapid growth.

More about that in the next article.

About the author

I am an entrepreneur and growth strategist who is passionate about helping businesses grow and succeed, in order to build distributed wealth by creating lots of good jobs – and in the process eradicate poverty.

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