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Passion, People and Principles

Assigning People and Work

post # 125 — July 6, 2006 — a Careers, Client Relations, Managing post

Jim Bennett, a partner in a CPA firm, writes in to ask:

Once a staff person gets assigned to a client, we have always tried to keep them on that client for as long as they are with the firm. This certainly has advantages in reduced learning time, and clients don’t complain about “training” someone new.

But I’m wondering if there is also benefits to looking upon clients as learning opportunities and moving staff members into new client assignments to help them advance. Continuity of staff can be important to clients, and can be one reason that they use a small firm. But I’m also thinking that we need to make more of an effort to put people into the assignments that they need to grow.

Jim, I first analyzed this issue in a chapter called “On the Importance of Scheduling” in Managing the Professional Service Firm.

cover of David Maister's book, 'Managing the Professional Service Firm'

I argued there that scheduling and staffing of work determines darn near everything a professional business needs to accomplish. Tell me which people get to work on which jobs, and I’ll tell you with 95% certainty the following things:

a) Client Satisfaction Levels: (as your firm knows, continuity is important to clients for quality, efficiency and service reasons)

b) Skill Development and Learning (as you and your partners know, the pattern of work someone gets, and the degree of responsibility within the job, affects whether or not they are continuing become a more skilled professional.

This is JUST AS TRUE for senior people as it for juniors. If anyone (in any profession) does the same work for the same client repeatedly every year, that person will exposed to only limited developmental opportunities. More and more they will become a higher-priced person living off past skills, ie increasingly obsolescent.

c) Profitability. Over time profitability is only ever achieved by continually looking for ways to get the same quality job done at a lower cost than before. If you were to measure (on a fully-costed basis, as you should) the difference between revenues for a job and what it cost you to do the job, you will probably find that a policy of automatically reassigning the same people as last year is economically wasteful and not profit maximizing.

d) Motivation and morale. The single biggest determinant of excitement and enthusiasm (at ALL levels) in a professional business is the pattern of work people have to do. If they always do similar things, they will lapse into being good citizens, but will not be throwing themselves eagerly into the pursuit of excellence. Why should they, if they are going to end up (according to your firm’s shorthand rules)with the same mix of clients and business next year, no matter what they do?

The key lesson here is that decisions on scheduling are inherently strategic, with lots of consequences and should not be dealt with as matters of administrative convenience (“If you were on the job last year, you’re on it this year”) or considering only a subset of consequences: “Clients like it, so that’s the end of the discussion.”

You say that you are a small firm. Actually, that should make it easier, not harder, for you to take a more thoughtful, managerial approach to this set of decisions. You have the chance to have regular discussions with everyone (top to bottom) about what they should be working on and how, COLLECTIVELY, you’re going to handle the trade-offs. Large firms often suffer the disadvantage of having to deal with things like this through bureaucratic policies.

Ultimately, clients care about quality, efficency and service – continuity is just a short-hand rule-of-thumb to try to get to these things. If you can be more thoughtful about how you achieve these things, they will give you more leeway in pursuing your other goals and won’t insist on always seeing the same faces. And, with more thoughtful staffing, you’ll be able to improve leverage, profits, learning and morale. Go for it!


Rich Berger said:

Good question, good post. I recently worked at a firm where the staff was theoretically available for all the consultants. This structure was intended to expose staff to a variety of assignments and allow shifting of resources as needed. The unintended and harmful result was a tug of war between the consultants to make their work and clients the highest priority. This constant pulling and wrangling is hard on the staff and does not enhance relations between the consultants.

In two weeks, I start at a new firm where one of my key roles will be to build and train a staff. Jim’s post is a great reminder of the need to give team members assignments that will challenge and interest them, David, your response reminded me to purchase Managing the Professional Service Firm. I read it before but the copy belonged to my previous employer’s library (I requested that they purchase it). I also purchased three of your other books this morning. Your blog is a gem and I am recommending it to as many people as I can. Thanks a heap.

posted on July 6, 2006

DUST!N said:

“Over time profitability is only ever achieved by continually looking for ways to get the same quality job done at a lower cost than before.”

Doesn’t that only guaranty increased margins, not necessarily profits? Increasing quality (or preferrably VALUE) at a greater rate than increasing cost could prove profitable as well (see Toyota/Honda).

A difference of top line/bottom line focus.

posted on July 7, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Great point, Dustin. Applied to the example of staffing work, it means that the continuity principle could be a good one if it truly led to year-on-year greater value. (but I doubt that it does after the first few years.)

Thanks for the plug, Rich.

posted on July 7, 2006

amyn jassani said:

The difference between scheduling of machines and professional staff is that in case of scheduling of machines objective is to get maximum output while in case of scheduling of professionals along with profit there is an crutial objective of career development .

One should upfront (as part of understanding client expectaion) explain to client the rational for scheduling a mix of new and old staff. The practice of scheduling few new staff on job actually helps in ensuring staff continuity because by scheduling right mix of new and old staff the learning is high and attrition comes down. There are enough old staff available in the firm who know the client and can be recalled for the client service in case of urgency. Further, profitability improves as job becomes standardise and experience staff gets replaced by new staff.

posted on December 23, 2007