Management Articles


Systems and Structure Pathways and Pitfalls

By: Jim Clemmer

Jim Clemmer is an international keynote speaker, workshop leader, author, and president of The CLEMMER Group, a North American network of organization, team, and personal improvement consultants based in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. His other bestsellers include Firing on All Cylinders: The Service/Quality System for High-Powered Corporate Performance, and his most recent book, Growing the Distance: Timeless Principles for Personal, Career, and Family Success. His web site is

"Farming looks mighty easy when your plough is a pencil, and you're a thousand miles from the corn field." (his emphasis)
   ó Dwight Eisenhower, thirty-fourth American president, speech in Peoria, Illinois
  • Effective systems follow, serve, and support rather than control, direct, and dictate. The central structure and systems alignment question is "for whose convenience is your organization designed?" Is it to serve customers and those producing for or serving them? Or is it designed to make life easier for management and staff support groups? Look at planning, accounting, invoicing, telephone, information technology, and human resource systems. Just whom are they serving? Systems either enslave or enable. How do people in your organization feel systems are helping or hindering them?

  • Organization structure and systems are clear indications of management's true values (regardless of what might be printed on pretty parchment paper). How far do they really trust people? How enslaving or enabling are peopleís responsibilities and boundaries? When people miss performance targets are they coached or replaced? The answers to these questions are found in the degree of decentralization and autonomy in an organization. What do the people in your organization think about the control and autonomy they have?

  • To what extent is your system and structure aligned with your team or organization's Focus and Context (vision, values, and purpose)? Your management team needs to agree on the philosophy and approach underpinning any changes to your structure and systems. Get your team to discuss and agree on the key values and characteristics shaping your organizationís structure. How far do you want to go with each one? What are the implications for changes and improvements in your team and the organization? How can you ensure that the structure and system conclusions you arrive at are reflected in your improvement plan? This critical team discussion needs to take place before you reengineer or restructure your organization.

  • Form follows function. Let the structure evolve from your strategy, process, and systems. A strong Context and Focus (vision, values, and purpose) will provide the glue that keeps everyone together. And keeping everyone focused on goals and priorities will allow more fluidity in organization design.

  • One of the biggest barriers to decentralization is the skill level of those being given more autonomy. The more you push authority and operating responsibilities to operating teams, the more training and coaching support they'll need.

  • Ensure your head office is a lean and keen field service center. Turn all staff and support functions to face outward to the customers and serve the servers/producers. Train and hold staff people accountable for being coaches rather than controllers. They exist to provide expertise and support. Don't let their constant requests for information and internal demands get in the way of people doing the work that customers are paying for.

  • Structure, systems, and processes are intertwined. You can make a fair degree of progress by changing processes only. But eventually (and often quickly) process improvement teams will slam into unaligned systems and structures. And most system and structure changes require process changes. Start with process mapping and improvement. System and structural changes will follow.

  • Be careful about splitting sales or customer service groups along division or product lines. It's often too confusing and frustrating for Clients to have to organize your service processes for you. If you're providing complex or multiple products and services, turn your key sales or customer contact people into generalists or project managers (that means lots of training and support). Their role is to manage the customer interface and coordinate all the experts, specialists, and other team members that will be brought in when needed.

  • Make sure everyone in your organization understands that your structure is fluid and must continually change in a fast changing world. There is no such thing as "once we get past this change (such as a reorganization), things will return to normal." Constant change and improvement is todayís normal.
There is no such thing as over-communication in organization improvement efforts. But try to over-communicate why changes are being made and where they fit into your larger Context and Focus and strategic imperatives.
You have to keep pulling out the weeds of bureaucracy (staff groups, controls and constraints, policies and procedures that get in the way, and the like). Itís a never-ending job.

© Copyright 2001 The CLEMMER Group

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