Maintain a healthy span of control

Span of control is the term now used more commonly in business management, particularly human resource management. Span of control refers to the number of subordinates a supervisor has. Span‘s literary meaning is the distance between the tip of a thumb and small finger when palm of hand is fully stretched out. However, in terms of business management and administration, it means the maximum number of people that can be reached by. In the past, it was not rare to see average spans of 1 to 4 or even less. That is, one manager supervised four employees on average. In the 1980s corporate leaders flattened many organizational structures causing average spans to move closer to 1:10. That was made possible primarily due to development of information technology. Use of IT eased out many middle manager tasks. Some mundane tasks such as collecting, manipulating and presenting operational information, recording the information, processing it on and off for presenting company’s accounts. Senior managers found they could hire fewer middle managers to do more work managing more subordinates for less money.

Some serious work has been done on span of control by management experts; and according to them, the span of control should not be more than 1:6 at the top level, while at the lower level of management, the span of control should not be more than 1:20. This means, the superior at the top level should not have more than 6 subordinates under his control. Similarly, the superior at the lower level should not have more than 20 subordinates under his control. However, these are only theoretical figures. In practice, the span of control depends on many factors such as nature of work, ability of supervisor, ability of subordinates, philosophy of the organization, structure of organization etc.

The concept of Span of Control was developed, initiated and popularized by British Army General Sir Ian Standish MonteithFP Hamilton (1853-1947) through his 1921 published book titled “The soul and body of an army.”

Over the years, however, there have been so many differing views about the optimal span of control and its inevitable conclusion is that it is capability and grasp of the supervisor. The ideal span is partly determined by the nature of the work involved. With craftsmen the number can be quite small because the level of supervision required is high; and at the shop floor, with mass production, however, the span of control can be many times higher because each worker has a clearly defined task to perform which requires little regular oversight. The contemporary view is that spans depend on both the nature of industry and constitution of a firm.

In a multitier management structure more approval layers lead to slower decision making processes. In their eagerness to exercise authority, managers often obstruct, rather than expedite decision making. Besides managers add overhead, and as an organization grows, the costs of management rise in both fixed and relative terms. Also bias cannot be overruled in decision making. In a hierarchy if the power the decision making is vested in a single person, he may distort decisions. The danger is greatest when the decision maker’s power is, for all purposes, uncontestable. Thus, span of control in organizational development becomes vital.

Spans of control can be consciously enlarged by making workers more autonomous and more capable of managing themselves. They can also be distended by increasing the number of rules and constraining the freedom of junior employees to make mistakes. As a span of control gets larger, it exponentially (and dramatically) increases the number of relationships among individuals within each management cell. One manager and six subordinates, for instance, create 222 relationships among the seven of them; one manager and 16 subordinates create over 500,000 relationships.

Traditionally managers were rewarded according to the number of employees under their control. Those at the top are not only responsible directly for the employees who report to them, but also (indirectly) for the lower-level employees who report to their subordinates. The route to higher rewards was to move up the pyramid by climbing the corporate ladder.

In 1800s, Eli Whitney (an American inventor best known for inventing the cotton gin) has experimented by giving his managers different spans of control at his gun factory. Whitney in later part of his life had turned his talents to the manufacture of firearms. He had established his machine shops at Whiteville, near New Haven. Whitney was a multi-faceted person. Almost 200 hundred years later, Eli Whitney’s readings on span of control still continue.

Narrow span of control: Narrow Span of control means a single manager or supervisor oversees few subordinates. This gives rise to a tall organizational structure. 

Wide span of control: Wide span of control means a single manager or supervisor oversees a large number of subordinates. This gives rise to a flat organizational structure.

There is an inverse relation between the span of control and the number of levels in hierarchy in an organization, i.e. narrower the span, the greater is the number of levels in an organization.

Narrow span of control is more expensive as compared to wide span of control as there it involves more number of superiors and therefore there are greater communication problems between various levels of management. Wide span of control is best suited when the employees are not widely scattered geographically, as it is easy for managers to be in touch with the subordinates and to supervise them.

In case of narrow span of control, there are comparatively more opportunities for growth as the number of levels are more. The more efficient and organized the superiors are in performing their tasks, the better it is to have wide span of management. Also, the less motivated and confident the employees are, the better it is to have a narrow span of management so that the supervisors can spend time with them and take charge of them well.

GE’s success in the early ’90s is credited to its philosophy of span of control; when some managers had as many as 10 direct reports to look at and it was evident that it could partially work. Managers were forced to loosen their control-orientation and empower their subordinates because there wasn’t enough time in the day to supervise everybody as they had done in the past. So instead of checking up on people they began to add value in other ways through strategy development, increased customer contact, process improvement, mentoring and coaching.GE’s former CEO and chairman, the legendary Jack Welch, believed that the right number for span of control was between 10 and 15. “This way you have no choice but to let people flex their muscles, let them grow and mature,” he said. “With 10 or 15 reports, a leader can focus only on the big important issues, not on trivia.”

Historically, the concern over span of control was based on the idea that some optimal number of manageable subordinates should exist. Researchers in the past, such as Col. Urwick, stated that the optimal span of control was five or six. This assumption was based on a feeling that managers have a limited span of attention, energy and time. If a manager was responsible for more than five or six subordinates, it was felt that the manager would lose track of what was happening. This was illustrated mathematically by A. V. Graicumas, whose work indicated that the number of potential interactions with subordinates will increase geometrically with respect to the manager’s increasing span of control.

The 2009 economic crises caused a significant decline in automotive market shares. According to the Research and Statistics Branch at the United Nations Industrial Development (UNID) Organization, this decrease in market share and market demand, forced the Big Three GM, Ford, and Chrysler LLC to shut down plants, layoff employees, cut production and make organizational changes such as increasing the span of control. Post 2009 the Big Three started looking at different organizational strategies in order to reduce cost. A particular attention was given to the span of control; looking at its efficiency and effectiveness. According to Stephen Wunker (2012) the new trends within the Big Three are based on downsizing and flattening the organizations; thus, increasing the span of control of the top brass.

The moral of this article is emphasizing on a healthy span of control for success of the business.

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I am a Professor of Strategic Management. I am a blogger. Writing posts on verity of topics is my pa