Is your organisation working too hard?

A strange question, no doubt. But is all that work necessary? And are you quite sure? To help you ponder this question, Bob Patchett says you need to recognise that organisations of any size can be afflicted with two diseases — bureaucratic creep and redundancy blindness.

Bureaucratic creep

As organisations grow we see a greater need for support functions — staff or departments that do not directly produce the output of the organisation. Someone needs to pay the wages, keep accounts, recruit and keep the place safe. But why did we set them up? Did we really need them, or at the time did it seem a good idea, perhaps based on some new management theory? In reality most employees, even those directly producing, have some bureaucratic duties such as record keeping, so bureaucracy is not bad in itself; the threat is that it can grow without us realising. If orders drop off, we clearly see how we need fewer direct workers, but we are less ready to recognise how our need for back office workers has reduced.

Redundancy blindness

We may recognise the need for fewer people and know how to manage redundancies — there is after all a legislative path we are required to follow that ensures that we evaluate, select and deal with employees fairly. The problem is that we tend to measure work units in terms of people and jobs: how many fewer do we need? We would have a clearer understanding of our work needs if we were to evaluate tasks instead. We recognise that an employee no longer has a job to do, but are less likely to notice that some of the tasks people are carrying out are no longer necessary. We may load employees with extra tasks as the need arises but are less likely to withdraw them as the need diminishes.

Task analysis

If we are to keep our organisation’s efforts fully focused on what is necessary for the most efficient attainment of its objectives, then we need to ensure that non-essential tasks are eliminated. Everything that each employee does needs to be geared towards the organisation’s aims, and this may be achieved by continuous task analysis.

Each employee should be asked to list every task they do — constantly, daily, monthly — including meetings, answering phones, record keeping. The result should then be discussed at a meeting between the employee, the immediate supervisor, and a senior executive who has a broad perception of the organisation and its needs. Some tasks may need to be added, some clarified, but no judgments should be made at this stage of either the importance of the task or the employee’s level of performance in carrying it out. The purpose simply is to identify every task that currently is carried out within the organisation.

  • Have each employee draw up a list of tasks they carry out.

  • Allow time for this — perhaps a month.

  • Have the immediate supervisor and senior executive check these lists for completeness.

Task evaluation

This is a job for a team of senior executives. Each task should be graded A, B or C. An A grade denotes that the task is essential for effective attainment of the organisation’s objectives. Without that task being performed, the organisation could not deliver. B tasks are important. Life would be difficult if they were not done, but in extreme circumstances the organisation could cope. A C task, strictly, is unnecessary for the organisation’s success and should be graded accordingly. This might suggest that all C tasks should be eliminated, but some may require further consideration. For example, if the building is surrounded by grass, the effectiveness of operations would not be affected if it was never mowed and became a jungle — but might this affect the perception of potential customers? A telephone and internal phone directory could easily replace a receptionist, but might this look uncaring? Some C tasks therefore should be continued if they can be justified rationally.

The senior executive involved should be particularly questioning; for example, why is it crucial to collate these statistics, who uses the results, how often and why?

  • Appoint a team of senior executives to grade each task.

  • Consider the wisdom of retaining some C tasks.

Using the result

A logical, though unacceptable, next move would be to eliminate all the C tasks, reduce the number of B tasks, and then restructure jobs to contain largely A tasks with some Bs. This would leave a surplus of employees who would then be made redundant. However, redundancy is expensive, disruptive, has a cruel effect on employees and their families, demotivates remaining employees, and can have an adverse effect on subsequent recruitment and the organisation’s reputation.

Plan for efficient staffing

Nevertheless, this work can form a useful planning exercise. Presumably, it describes a perfect staffing structure in which jobs contain few, if any, tasks that are not vital and, if carried out carefully, can provide an even spread of A and B tasks. Therefore, whenever any staffing change needs to be made, for example an employee leaves, this structure should be consulted to see if a step could be made towards the ideal it represents. So, while the whole exercise might initially be viewed as an opportunity to make some people redundant, it can in fact be used to obviate redundancy by ensuring that people are not set on unnecessarily. Employees may have to be persuaded to accept tighter staffing to make the organisation more efficient and thereby greatly reduce the risk of redundancy. And to take the exercise further, they may be persuaded to accept a general restructuring of their jobs, certainly as natural wastage occurs. The more employees are kept in the picture of what is happening, the more they are likely to accept it. A salary increase for the people affected, or for all employees, could be a necessary sweetener, and might be funded from the savings made.

  • Use the result of grading to create an ideal staff structure.

  • Relate any necessary staff change to this ideal.

  • Convince employees that effective staffing offers greater job security.

Ratio of critical to important tasks

A common complaint of chief executives, especially when business is difficult, is that the organisation has too many back office workers, usually phrased as a profound-sounding ratio such as the number of indirect workers carried on the back of the ones who do the real work. In this exercise, the ratio would be expressed as the number of B tasks used to support A tasks — and there is no right figure. However, do look at that ratio and ask yourself if it seems excessive. If so, then perhaps you are being too generous with your B tasks and therefore need a review. This might become necessary if indeed business falls off. Nevertheless, if you have 20 direct workers but business reduces by half, you would still need one payroll clerk. This exercise gives you facts, but it is up to you to use them in ways that are appropriate to your organisation at any point in time.

Two important points

  1. Look at tasks rather than employees.

  2. Constantly look out for ones that are losing their value.