September 2006

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Corporate Anorexia and Productivity
Starving yourself to health:
Human Anorexia is a pathological fear of weight gain leading to faulty eating patterns, malnutrition, and even death. Sometimes, companies adopt a similar destructive pattern.

  Al De Wachter, President

Lean and mean. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. You need to get down to your fighting weight.

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In your job, chances are you are doing more with less. Properly applied it’s a fine idea, of course. Organizations, like people, can accumulate excessive fat. To correct that they eat less (stop hiring), shed some pounds (attrition), or even take more extreme measures (firing, close divisions) to get into shape. They cut away the accumulated fat and get rid of unneeded frills that detract from the mission at hand, or to get lean in anticipation of difficult times.

It feels better to be in shape, competitive, alive. Surely we can do a bit more trimming, we can all handle a little bit more work, we can drop one more employee.

Like many things in life, this good concept when driven to extreme levels can destroy companies rather than focus them, when the mantra becomes “do more and more and more … with less and less and less”. When productivity problems exist, a company must take some action. If that action is a regimen of ill conceived cost reductions, before you know it, a Corporate Anorexia cycle may be started, and a healthy regimen becomes a fatal fetish.

Corporate Anorexia, “cutting staff for fear of getting fat”, is debilitating, much like the human form of the condition. It describes a condition where a company is “too lean to be mean”, and has gone too far, thereby ending up in a destructive cycle that has an unhappy ending.

How can a company avoid that cycle? Eat better, not (just) less.

Take a critical look. If you recognize that you are at risk for a case of corporate anorexia, take action now. The condition cannot be easily fixed after it takes root. You are vulnerable, and should not delay action.

Evaluate your true strength. If an opportunity were to present itself, are you staffed to take advantage of it? Or would it just add more strain to your people and make matters even worse? Train your people, hire extra talent, take some pressure off, be ready for the next opportunity.

Replace cutting and slashing with common sense.

Rearrange the work to provide more client value and employee productivity, not just to eliminate jobs. Think higher quality and service levels, not just lower cost. Consider less management, more employee autonomy and job satisfaction. Try to achieve one-touch processes (e.g. avoid re-entry of the same data) where the results can be achieved by the most appropriate person.

Hire before you have an emergency, otherwise there is a danger that you’ll settle for a warm body, and you’ll have wasted precious time and resources. Hire the absolute best people – they are worth it.

Train your current staff, ask for their input, and act on their best ideas.

Ask employees to provide solutions to their daily tasks: they know better than anybody does where waste is hidden and where improvements would have the highest impact. If they are not smart enough to have ideas, refer to “Hiring” above.

contemporary Invest in modern tools.

Ironically, this can be part of “getting lean” as well as building the core strength of your operation. Better tools allow the job to get done with fewer people, but they also allow more and better quality work to be done with the same staff, hence they can be a growth vehicle as well as a cost control method. You would not hesitate to get your electrician the most productive installation tools; why is a software tool for your salesperson, project designer or admin staff any different?

Also, accept that productivity is a management problem and share concerns with the employees affected, since they will more eagerly become part of the solution; as Mark Twain said, “Nothing concentrates the mind so wonderfully well as one's own impending hanging”.

But above all, take the initiative to make positive changes, “It’s folly to expect different results when resorting to the same actions”.

Consider these statements:

Finally, management may need outside help to see the problems in the company, and to keep the changes on track without egos and emotions derailing the process. Right-sizing is a challenge that demands discipline: you don’t want to succumb to corporate anorexia!

About the Author

Al De Wachter has been active in the Building Automation industry for over 38 years.  He has held senior positions with leading companies in the field and is currently the president of ICS (Independent Control Specialists Inc).  ICS develops advanced productivity software for Facility Automation Integrators and consults on related productivity issues.


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