Back to Basics
Getting the Whole Picture
Effective presentations explain recommendations to managers
by Matthew Barsalou
The concept of completed staff work has existed since World War II and is intended to provide a method for subordinates to quickly present leaders with an analysis of a situation as well as possible alternatives. It originated in the military, but can be applied to quality and business as a whole.
A manager making a decision based on a subordinate’s report must be able to assess the quality of the conclusions. When critical information needed to assess the conclusion is missing, the manager is simply carrying out the subordinate’s suggestions. In such cases, it would be better to skip the middleman. Why employ managers who are only there to read off other people’s bullet points?
Completed staff work is ideally suited for the modern, presentation-filled business environment, as shown in Figure 1. The executive or manager gives the assignment to the subordinate—hopefully using specific, measurable, attainable, resources and time oriented goals—and the subordinate returns with the key points in management-friendly bullet points. This report is supported by a backup or appendix that contains evidence supporting the recommendation, as well as an explanation on how the decision was reached. With such details, it is would be possible for the manager to assess the validity of underlying assumptions.
In such a scenario, the manager would tell the employee exactly what is needed and when. For example, a manager may say, "I need to know if product A or product B will better meet customer X’s needs. I need a one-slide summary by noon on Thursday." A subordinate may reply, "product B better meets the customer’s needs," and the manager can happily report that to his or her executive.
But what does that mean? What if product B is better because it has an estimated failure rate of seven parts per million (ppm) and product A has an estimated failure rate of nine ppm? Fewer failures are better than more failures, but what if the entire production run will consist of only 10 units, and product B costs five times as much as product A?
If a backup or appendix with the assumptions made had been provided, the manager could realize that the subordinate may have reached the wrong conclusion.
If the subordinate chose to recommend product A, but did not provide additional details, unfortunately for the subordinate who does not provide additional details, the opposite conclusion also could have been wrong.
It is all too easy to imagine the hypothetical manager storming into the subordinate’s cubicle demanding, "Why did you recommend Product A? The production manager blindsided me when she told me that it has a higher failure rate!"
The manager would have known why the recommendation was made if all assumptions and decision criteria were available.
Busy managers and executives need short summaries so they don’t get bogged down in details, but this does not mean they don’t have an obligation to make informed decisions. For that, they must know why their subordinate made a recommendation. Using completed staff work can provide the necessary information to make the correct decision.
Otherwise, managers are not a filter, evaluating the subordinate’s recommendation. They are a parrot with the ability to read a presentation slide.
Matthew Barsalou is a statistical problem resolution Master Black Belt (MBB) at BorgWarner Turbo Systems Engineering GmbH in Kirchheimbolanden, Germany. He has a master’s degree in business administration and engineering from Wilhem Büchner Hoschschule in Darmstadt, Germany, and a master’s degree in international business and global political economy from Fort Hays State University in Hays, KS. An ASQ senior member, Barsalou is an ASQ-certified quality technician and engineer, Six Sigma Black Belt, and manager of quality/organizational excellence. He is a Smarter Solutions-certified lean Six Sigma MBB, a technical reviewer for QP, editor of the Statistics Division’s Statistics Digest and the ASQ country counselor for Germany.