The Disk Theory of Management

Human Resources is a system of interrelated functions. Changes in one area invariably affect other areas. Sometimes the interrelations are difficult to explain and describe. Managers and employees often have difficulty understanding why job descriptions and performance management systems are important, or how they can help the company be more effective. The Disk Theory of Management is a simple way to illustrate the relationship between organization design, job descriptions, and performance management, and to highlight the importance of these key human resources practices.

The Story

A box.Once upon a time, there was Alan. Alan had what he thought was a wonderful idea so he started his own company to pursue his idea and seek fame and fortune. Alan was successful and the business flourished. As the only employee, Alan was the company and the company was Alan. Everything that Alan did the company did and can be represented by this box. Alan looked at his organization and decided it was good.

A rectangle.Eventually, the business grew too large for Alan to be able to do everything himself. So he hired some of his friends to help him. Barbara, Carl, Denise and Eric joined the firm. Alan only knew one way of doing business so he taught Barbara, Carl, Denise and Eric to do everything that he did. Everyone did everything and they were the company. Everything that they did the company did and can be represented by this box. Once again Alan looked at his organization and decided it was good.

A larger box.Alan, Barbara, Carl, Denise and Eric all did a terrific job. The business continued to grow and soon they needed more staff. They hired Frank, Gina, Hong and many of their friends. Like before, Alan, Barbara, Carl, Denise and Eric only knew one way to run the business, so they taught Frank, Gina, Hong and the rest what to do. Everyone did everything and they were the company. Everything that they did the company did can be represented by this box. Once again Alan looked at his organization but this time he decided it was not so good.

A box with columns.Everyone still worked hard, but the business did not grow anymore. Alan, Barbara, Carl, Denise and Eric talked about what the problem might be. They decided that having everyone do everything wasn’t a good idea. They needed to break the group into smaller pieces. Alan, Barbara, Carl, Denise and Eric would each take some workers and form departments. The work would then flow from department to department. They could then better manage the activities of the organization. The structure of the organization could now be visualized like this. Alan looked at his revised organization and decided it was good.

A box filled with squares.Once again everyone worked hard and once again the business grew. As time went by more people were needed to meet the needs of the customers. Paul, Quentin, Roberta, Sarah, Terri and others joined the firm. They were divided into the different departments. Eventually the work of the departments bogged down. Even though everyone worked hard, they couldn’t keep up. Adding more people simply confused the situation and performance suffered. Alan, Barbara, Carl, Denise and Eric got together again and examined their problems. They agreed that more organization was necessary and they divided each of their departments into different jobs. Now their organization looked like this. Once again, Alan looked at his revised organization and decided it was good.

A box filled with squares with a circle in each square.As the company continued to grow and change, Alan began to notice things. He saw employees doing things that they didn’t really need to do. Some of those things were simply unproductive steps such as excess checking or redundant filing, while others involved non‐ work activities like surfing the Internet. After careful consideration, and consulting with Barbara, Carl, Denise and Eric, Alan decided that they needed to write descriptions for each job. The job description would define everything that the employees should do. The things that should not be done would be left out of the job descriptions. This diagram shows the effect of the job descriptions. Areas inside the circles are parts of the job while areas outside the circles are not.

A box filled with squares, with a circle in each one, filled with another shapre representing employee performance.After the job descriptions were finished and shared with employees, Alan, Barbara, Carl, Denise and Eric noticed that not all employees were doing their jobs properly. Some employees did everything they were supposed to and nothing else. Others didn’t do everything they should do. Some did everything they were supposed to as well as some things they weren’t. Finally, some people did some of what they should do and some of what they shouldn’t. Often, some could be seen doing work that others were supposed to do. The disks in this figure represent the workers. Again, Alan looked at his organization but this time he decided it was not all good. Something had to be done.

Alan, Barbara, Carl, Denise and Eric discussed the problems and agreed to develop a performance management system. This system involved establishing performance objectives based on the job descriptions for each employee. Then the employee’s performance was assessed relative to the objectives. Based on the individual’s performance, different actions could be taken. Following are some of the possible examples of performance and the related action.

Job description and performance objectives match perfectly, no changes needed.This employee (the disk) is directly aligned with the job description. Continued good performance should be encouraged. No changes are necessary at this time.

Performance not meeting description.This employee is not doing everything required by the job description. Performance objectives should be developed that help him complete the entire job. It is possible that additional training is required.

Performance not focused on description.The employee in this figure appears to be fully capable of performing the job, but has lost some focus. Performance objectives should be developed that focus her on completing the tasks of his position and not working on tasks that don’t need to be done, or are the responsibility of other positions.

3-5

This employee appears to have skills and performance substantially below the requirements of this position. It is possible that a considerable amount of additional training may be required for him to be successful. It is also possible that the best career path for him is to move to a different job that more closely aligns with his skills and abilities.

Performance overqualified for job description.Conversely, this employee appears to be overqualified for this position. She can easily perform all of the required duties but finds it difficult to stay focused and challenged. It is possible that this employee can be encouraged to keep focused, but it is more likely that she should move to a different job that more closely aligns with her skills and abilities.

Poor mix of skills and abilities for position.Finally, the employee in this Figure has a poor mix of skills and abilities for this position. It is also possible that he has behavioral problems. It is most likely that he should be encouraged to pursue a success opportunity outside of the organization.

The Moral of the Story

While each of these examples is both a simplification and an exaggeration of real life, they illustrate how performance management and position descriptions are outgrowths of organizational design. Organizational structure is needed to improve efficiencies. As an organization grows, more structure is needed. Job descriptions help define what work should be done, and by omission, what work should not be done. Performance management systems need to link directly to Job Descriptions and to the organizational structure. If these sometimes disconnected Human Resources activities can be integrated, organizational performance improvement is likely.


ROGER DUSING, SPHR is a Sr. Consultant with OMNI Employment Management Services LLC in Overland Park, KS. He is responsible for providing selected clients senior human resources leadership and support. He has enjoyed a very successful career as the senior HR executive within several Kansas City based, mid‐sized organizations, and was most recently the Vice President, Human Resources for Ascend Media, LLC. Roger was recently recognized as the 2009 HR Executive of the Year by the American Business Media association. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering from Bradley University, and his MBA from Central Michigan University.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Mr. Steven D. McDaniel, former President of Old American Insurance Company and the original creator of The Disk Theory of Management.