Doing More with Less

Published June 2009

Last month I shared a theory that our eventual recovery from the Great Recession will be slow and tedious. This is based on the assumption that the future economy will be much less driven by debt.

Data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis indicates a fundamental change among U.S. consumers is already underway as the personal savings rate has increased over the past 12 months from basically zero to over four percent. One has to go back to 1998 to find values consistently that high, a time when the economy was strong and the unemployment rate was roughly half of what it is today. Since it’s pretty difficult to save while unemployed, that indicates those still working are saving at a substantially higher rate to compensate for those out of work. Popular media is providing various articles on ways to stretch every hard-earned dollar. Thrifty is the new cool!

There’s another factor which will slow the recovery. I believe organizations will be very slow to recall workers.

Avoidance of pain is the strongest of motivators among humans. Any manager who recently sat across the table from a solid performer and informed them that – through no fault of their own – they no longer had a job knows what I’m talking about. Most managers remember the pain of those difficult conversations for years, and will do almost anything to avoid a repeat scenario. Only when they are absolutely sure that the recovery is real and that the existing workforce is as productive as possible will these managers consider adding resources.

Businesses, governments, schools, and non-profit organizations will be following the lead of households and searching for ways to do more with less. Undoubtedly, some organizations will respond to this challenge with superficial organizational changes. Others will add automation or try outsourcing, only to later find that they’ve sacrificed flexibility and/or response time.

The most effective way of doing more with less has consistently been shown to be the establishment of a culture wherein each employee knows it is their personal responsibility to actively identify and reduce waste within their jobs. This is the essence of a Lean organization.

So how does one establish such a culture? Volumes of books have been written on the subject. Depending on the industry, several benchmark organizations can be visited to see the end result in action. Be warned, however, that a smooth-running Lean organization makes it look deceivingly easy, much like watching Tiger Woods swing a golf club. And while Tiger’s swing is indeed simple to wrap one’s mind around, duplicating it with any consistency is incredibly difficult.

The situation brings to mind one of my favorite quotes from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.:

"I wouldn't give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity; I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of complexity"

Holmes is suggesting that many things appear simple upon first blush. We just don’t know what we don’t know. This is the simplicity on this side of complexity for which Holmes wouldn’t give a fig.

As we become more familiar with a topic we become enlightened to its complexities and intricacies. Such was the case for me as a college freshman when an inspiring and gifted professor turned me on to the universe of physics. My professor had spent decades exploring the subject and could explain it in simple terms. He was on the far side of complexity for which Holmes would trade his right arm.

For something as critical as changing the culture of your organization, you should choose a partner on the far side of complexity. Next month we’ll discuss the criteria to use in choosing such a partner.

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