Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen, Part 2 - Span of Control and Levels of Supervision

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen, Part 2 - Span of Control and Levels of Supervision

Changing the personnel structure of an organization is a major undertaking, and not one to be taken lightly. The Wildlife Management Institute (WMI) often assists our partner agencies and organizations with guidance on internal restructuring in conjunction with the development or revision of a strategic plan. While aligning an organization’s structure with the priorities set forth in their strategic plan is often the primary driver, WMI also recommends removing excessive levels of supervision and increasing supervisory span of control, to the extent practicable, to optimize the use of personnel and other resources.

Conservation staff at work

Divisions, branches, regions, districts, teams, and other organizational units are seldom created in a vacuum. Most often, they are developed for a specific purpose or goal, though that purpose or goal may be outdated. When talking structural realignment from my time as an agency director, one of my trusted colleagues often insisted that we “figure out why someone else put up a fence, before we start taking it down.” Most agencies were organized a specific way for specific reasons. However, circumstances, staff, needs, finances, priorities, and other resources change – which may necessitate a reorganization or restructuring.

Span of Control and Levels of Supervision

Span of Control and Levels of Supervision are two concepts related to organizational design that affect an organization’s efficiency and effectiveness. Span of Control refers to the number of employees under the direct supervision of a manager. Optimizing Span of Control is critical for an organization to be managed efficiently. In the corporate world, Spans of Control for small businesses (<500 employees) range from 1:5 to 1:10 ratio of supervisors to direct reports. New supervisors often operate most successfully at the low end of this scale, while higher level, more experienced supervisors operate successfully at the upper level.

Span of Control directly relates to Levels of Supervision, which is the number of supervisory levels within an organization. For a given number of employees, as Span of Control increases, the number of Levels of Supervision must necessarily decrease. Shifting from lower Span of Control and higher Levels of Supervision to higher Span of Control and lower Levels of Supervision is often referred to as “flattening” an organization. Three to four Levels of Supervision are considered sufficient for all smaller organizations (e.g., <500), with three being optimal. The efficiency of an organization is often improved by reducing or flattening its supervisory levels. A low Span of Control creates higher numbers of supervisory layers which in turn increases operating costs, ties up personnel time with supervisory responsibilities, and reduces time dedicated to mission accomplishment.

Span of Control most directly impacts personnel at the individual supervisor level. The factors that influence the determination of the ideal Span of Control for a given supervisor include:

  • Clarity of goals and objectives
  • Complexity of work
  • Degree of public scrutiny
  • Task certainty
  • Cross-training of employees
  • Geographic location of subordinates
  • Liability or risk to the organization
  • Qualifications and experience of subordinates
  • Similarity of subordinates’ activities
  • Supervisor’s burden of non-supervisory duties, and
  • Supervisor’s skill in managing staff.

The consequences of having a low Span of Control often include:

  • Supervisors that become too involved in subordinates’ work.
  • Supervisors that delegate less responsibility to subordinates.
  • Micromanagement by supervisors that may decrease morale.
  • Increases in the number of supervisory levels.

The consequences of having too many Levels of Supervision often include:

  • Slower approval due to unnecessary levels of authority.
  • Lack of accountability when decisions flow through many channels.
  • Communication that is slow or cumbersome.
  • Morale and performance that may decrease.

Flattening the Curve

Table identifying span of control

As a hypothetical example, Table 1 demonstrates that an organization consisting of 500 staff would need to have eight to nine levels of supervision at a span of control of 1:2 but would reduce that to only three to four levels of supervision by increasing the span of control to 1:5, which is still the lowest level for a similar sized corporation. When agencies have a relatively “tall” organizational structure (6-8 levels of supervision and lower spans of control), WMI recommends examining the current structure for opportunities to “flatten” the structure.

Inefficiencies due to an overly tall organizational structure arise from the time expended training almost every employee in supervisory skill sets and from the time that those supervisory responsibilities take away from field staff to get operational priorities accomplished. Furthermore, excessive supervision can often lead the workforce to believe that decision-making is a democratic process in which everyone has a role – often not the case in business or government. By increasing the span of control (e.g., number of direct reports) and decreasing levels of supervision, fewer staff will require supervisory training, those that do have supervisory responsibilities will become better supervisors (with more staff to supervise, evaluate, and lead), and fewer staff will be taken from the field to manage and supervise others.

The lowest hanging fruit for reducing levels of supervision and increasing span of control occur in two places:

  • Where lower-level employees supervise small numbers or direct reports, and
  • Where there is a bottleneck in the supervisory chain that results in a small number of middle and upper-level managers supervising fewer than three direct reports.

WMI encourages agencies and organizations in the conservation field to periodically examine their average Span of Control and Levels of Supervision. While most cannot approach the levels used by the corporate world (e.g., from 1:5 to 1:10, and 3-4 levels), restructuring to approach those levels will often free up additional resources for other priorities with minimal impact to existing operations.

Photo Credit
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Flickr
July 16, 2021