Cups on a Tray: An Organizational Model & What To Do About It

Organizations seem to develop personalities. They are designed and set-up to function in a way that is perceived best for that business. However, organizations change over time. On paper they may appear exactly as they were designed, but may no longer function efficiently.

To be effective, managers must recognize how their organizations really work. Are they as efficient as their original design suggests or have they become tired and dysfunctional? This article describes one such unintended design that can occur and provides a suggested remedy for it.

The Situation
Does your organization function like this? You’re leading a meeting discussing a project or business topic. Representatives from various areas of the organization are present. The discussion is a lively one with everyone sharing his or her perspectives and opinions freely. However, one group is on the hot seat with the others consistently poking at them with superficial data or conjecture to buttress their claim.

In either case, it appears that this one group is responsible for all of the business’ woes. And more importantly, this same group is expected to correct those problems immediately with little or no help from the other groups in the business. Despite the fact the one group is getting beaten up pretty badly and the premise is that their performance will make or break the business, no one else is offering to help. Instead, what you do find is a type of comment that is meant to sound objective, unemotional, and not directed at anyone in particular. Superficial suggestions like, “Someone needs to analyze…” or “There needs to be a review,” resound. These passive voice comments usually end in the non-spoken parenthetical, “But don’t expect me or my group to do it.”

I first noticed this dynamic when I worked for a small consulting firm. As a small team, I expected that titles and departments would be secondary to the work at hand; rather, we would all work together to get things done. Instead what I found was that at every staff meeting when we discussed tasks or projects the Finance and Admin managers would explain how the task did not fit within their charter. Not, mind you, that they weren’t capable of handling the task. Rather, that it simply was outside their purview. Consequently, if the task didn’t fit neatly into Finance or Admin, it naturally spilled over into Operations. This phenomenon is neither peculiar to one industry nor limited to certain levels within the organizations. Rather, I’ve found the scenario described above to be pervasive. I’ve termed this phenomenon, Cups on a Tray.

Cups and Tray Analogy
As I said in the introduction, most organizations have found the need to arrange themselves in some rational manner. Whether by function, geography, customer, or product, these divisions form the basis for the overall organizational hierarchy. Some organizations may be flatter or deeper, but the bottom line is most businesses find the need to distribute the workload in some way. The underlying belief is that this design best supports their business objectives.

Recent literature has come to criticize these varied divisions by calling them silos. Where the silo managers remain in their own little functional area instead of working together to achieve the common goal. Managers seek only to maximize their own performance many times at the risk of sub-optimization for the business as a whole. In lieu of the term silos I’ll call these divisions simply “cups.”

Cups have clearly defined roles and responsibilities and a relatively small and specialized staff. Cups are typically in support roles for the business. Administration, contracts, product development, accounting, finance, and customer service are all characteristic cups.

Cups are generally specific in size, capacity volume and scope of work. Consequently, their managers control with remarkable certainty what work comes in and what goes out of the cup. As a result, management can always appear busy and yet not be maxed out. Interestingly, their managers continually lament their workload despite their control. In other words, the bottom of the cup steadily rises making it look full; in reality it has less and less actual volume over time.

Typically, people with considerable longevity lead cups. As a result, they play off of their history and corporate memories. Additionally, cup managers, having been in the same position for a long while, have proven that they can weather the storms; they are survivors. And survivors, by definition are able to withstand inquiry. I can almost guarantee there’s never been a capacity analysis or task analysis conducted for their areas. Instead, they are able to convince upper management that their team is overworked usually with little or no data to support the position. These same managers are skilled at only pointing out problems that reside elsewhere. Further, cup managers have an ability to deflect tasks to the next group. Statements like, “I’ve got a lot on my plate;” or “That falls under so-and-so’s charter;” or the famous, “I could do it, but you asked me to take care of …;” seem to roll off their lips with no effort and are accepted without challenge. Often these excuses sound reasonable, but they lead to one single result. The problem or issue at hand spills onto another part of the organization that I call the “tray.”

Unlike cups the tray’s roles and responsibilities seem to grow continually. They have a relatively large staff, at least as compared to the cups, and the day-to-day work is nearly always tangible and usually with customer impact. Trays are often that part of the organization that actually produces something.

While cups are generally very specific in size, capacity, and scope, the tray on the other hand often suffers from an ill-defined organization. Tasks, issues and/or problems that do not fit nicely into the role of a cup naturally fall to the tray. It’s fairly easy to add more to the tray, as their responsibilities are so vast. Given the company dependence upon the tray’s output, the tray is forced to pick up all that spills. Trays are naturally perceived as being responsible for the matter. In short, the constant spillover results in the tray becoming awash in all of the company problems with an ever-declining ability to affect them.

An Example
A recent example of cups on a tray can be found in my own company. Like most companies we have a marketing department that is charged with developing new products, mounting innovative campaigns for those products, and selling those products to new market segments. Apparently falling outside of their charter is considering and planning for the consequences of these events on other parts of the organization. For example, when asked how these products, campaigns, and new markets will affect the back-room (in effect, our manufacturing facility) we’re met with an “I’m sure they’ll figure it out,” response. There is a belief that the back room has infinite capacity and if not can simply throw a few new employees at the problems should the resources be needed. Of course budgeting for those new FTE is never considered by marketing. It’s elementary to see that in this case marketing is the cup and the back-room is the tray.

What Should One Do About the Situation?
As I said in the introduction managers must recognize how their organizations really work. If the cups on a tray analogy applies to your organization, I suggest the following steps:

Be Aware
Assess regularly what each organization, cup or tray, does and more importantly what they should do. Understanding the organizational roles and responsibilities is the first step in determining whether or not you have an organization that meets your business objectives. Additionally, things have a way of evolving over time; the organization that you created yesterday may not look anything like the one at work today.

Complete capacity analyses for all departments. Even rough order-of-magnitude studies can serve to highlight workload discrepancies. Finally, share the results among all organizations. Nothing will help breakdown historic falsehoods than a little dose of reality.

Divide the Tasks
As tasks and/or problems arise, assign the resulting projects based on talent and not necessarily by organizational fit. This approach will serve two purposes. First, it will likely result in a more creative solution because the team selected will be unencumbered by past baggage. Secondly, your greater organization will develop an ownership and collegiality that will help break down the existing organizational barriers.

Focus on the Customer
Every division with your organization and every employee with those divisions must understand and be able to articulate how they contribute to serving your customers. Too many organizations have allowed certain divisions, your cups, and their employees to forget their role in delivering the ultimate product or service to paying customers. Cups sometimes forget that they could not exist without the tray. Remind them regularly and ensure they provide the support that they are paid to provide.

Move Managers
Although I am not a fan of reorganizing for reorganization’s sake, I will agree that it is sometime necessary. If your managers have become parochial in their viewpoint and can no longer function as a true team, then you may want to consider shuffling the deck. Like Dividing Tasks above, this approach can serve two purposes. First, it will breath a new life and creativity into existing organizations. New managers bring new ideas and the cross-pollination that follows can spark the entire organization. Secondly, it will engender a new appreciation for the challenges faced by other managers and thereby, foster a more cooperative environment.

Despite our best efforts organizations can change over time. These unintended transformations are not always for the best and can result in inefficiencies and sub-optimization. The cup on a tray analogy characterizes one type of organization that can arise. If cups are allowed to control their workload continually and the tray is forced to deal with the constant spillover then the tray becomes awash in all of the company problems. Furthermore, the tray’s ability to affect these problems declines with every new one that’s added. To correct this problem, managers must remain aware of unintended organizational changes, divide work efficiently, and remain focused on the customer. Like an old friend once said, “One more car doesn’t matter, but at some point there’s a traffic jam.”

Anthony DiBona is an internal management consultant with over seventeen years of business process consulting experience supporting a variety of government and industrial clients. He has also taught undergraduate business at Columbia Union College and served as an officer in the U.S. Navy.

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