Completed Staff Work Revisited

by Russ Westcott

The principle of completed staff work, also called a doctrine, has existed since biblical times.1,2,3

It is a principle embodied in military training materials, including those of the U.S. Army.4,5

Failure to apply the principle of completed staff work and to consider the consequences can be an impediment to your career.

As a quality professional, you were hired because of your competence (knowledge, experience, skills, aptitude and attitude).

Unless you work for a dictator who makes all the decisions, you are expected to demonstrate competence in assisting your boss in making her or his decisions.

When asked to resolve a problem, do you do any of the following:

  • Confront your boss with a stream of questions about how to do it?
  • Come back with a list of things you have looked at and then question your boss about what to do next?
  • Present a handful of solutions and a horde of detail and then consider your work done?

If any of these moves are typical of your approach, you’re not doing your job effectively. Your work is not complete.

A Boss’s Job

It you are the boss, it is your job to instruct those who report directly to you on the principles and criteria that you use to guide your decision making. Then you must rely on your people to properly gather the appropriate data, analyze the data, select and weigh alternatives and make a recommendation.

If you are a quality professional, it is your job to advise your boss on what to do. Completed staff work relieves a boss from poring through voluminous data, from rejecting ill-advised suggestions and from accepting the monkey on his or her back.

In addition, the quality professional who has a well-thought-out and documented concept or project to be considered will find a more receptive decision maker.

What Staff Work Is

Completed staff work is a single proposed recommendation that:

  • Has been thoroughly analyzed.
  • Has been coordinated.
  • Represents the best recommendation possible.
  • Requires simple approval or disapproval.
  • Is prepared in final form for signature.6

It’s your job to research the details, analyze your findings, prioritize and categorize, and choose the one alternative you will recommend along with the reasons for doing so. Table 1 summarizes the process of completed staff work.

Depending on the situation, you might discuss one or two secondary considerations, how you arrived at your recommendation, the criteria you used and some of your backup data.

The key is that you take the responsibility for doing the detailed analysis. As the person performing the staff work, your role is to produce an easy to understand recommendation based on well-researched and analyzed data. Your boss’s role is to make the decision, confident that you’ve done your work well.

When you engage your competence in completing an assignment or solving a problem, you are experiencing the whole problem solving and decision making process. Except for the boss’s decision, you’ve been totally involved.

Most managers will respect you for your work because you have added value to the organization and have provided the boss with more time to do boss work.

Beware Envious Bosses

Some caution is advised. If you’re really good at completing staff work, an insecure boss could be reluctant to let you move onward and upward. A boss might even envy your competence and consider you a threat to his or her position. Take the time and make the effort to know how to respond to your boss’s needs and methods.

My advice is to document your work, noting the results of your recommendations and the lessons learned from each incident. Aside from honing your abilities, these data will be good discussion material during your performance appraisal and could be the basis for good stories to tell in a career enhancement job interview.

And remember the lessons learnedprinciple, both as it affects your career and when you’re teaching others.


  1. The Principle of Completed Staffwork, asq.org/-/media/public/qp/principle-of-completed-staff-work.pdf?la=en
  2. The Doctrine of Completed Staff Work, www.dolan-heitlinger.com/quote/stafwork.htm.
  3. In his book Principle-Centered Leadership (new education edition, Simon Schuster Trade, 1999), Stephen R. Covey devotes an entire chapter to completed staff work. He recounts a story of Moses “trying to do everything for the children of Israel, to judge all matters large and small.” Moses was advised to first teach the principles that guided his judgments, and then entrust people to apply them. Moses developed faithful followers and made judgments on only issues of extreme importance, based on recommendations from his followers.
  4. Preparing Staff Work, www.cpol.army.mil/library/train/courses/st7000d/2.15.htm.
  5. Preparing Staff Work, www.cpol.army.mil/library/train/courses/st7000d/2.16.htm.
  6. Preparing Staff Work, see reference 4.

RUSSELL T. WESTCOTT of Old Saybrook, CT, is an ASQ fellow, certified quality auditor and cer-tified manager of quality/organizational excellence (CMQ/OE). He is editor of the CMQ/OE Hand-book, third edition; co-editor of the Quality Improvement Handbook, and author of Simplified Project Management for Quality Professionals and Stepping Up to ISO 9004:2000. Westcott also is a co-instructor of the ASQ CMQ/OE refresher course.

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