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More People Isn't Always the Answer

Just back from a conference where I had an interesting exchange during a session I was conducting on providing services in a global economy.

I was presenting to a state-wide group of government and nonprofit workers who help people access education and find jobs. We were discussing how business has changed the ways in which it operates and how these organizations could utilize some of the new principles for operating in a flat world to run their own organizations. As inevitably occurs, the topic of staffing came up. "We need more people if we're really going to get this job done," one participant informed the group. Nodding heads all around. Yes, of course, throwing people at the problems will take care of everything.

Here's the thing, though. In my experience, these organizations--like many organizations--need to look at how they're operating before they start thinking that they need more people. Hiring more people is like the age-old belief that when you have a performance problem, training is the the answer.

So I challenged the group to first think about a few questions:

  • Are you making the best uses of technology to share information and provide services? Are there processes that could be automated? Are there ways you could use technology to enhance self-service opportunities or to help staff better manage their work?
  • Have you developed an effective customer flow? For example, in many of these organizations, there's a tendency to provide one-on-one, face-to-face services in situations where self-service and/or group processes would work just as well if not better, allowing them to serve more customers, more effectively in less time.
  • Have you identified and eliminated all unnecessary paperwork? Have you looked at how to automate paperwork or how to combine several forms into one?
  • Does the way you've defined job descriptions and activities make sense or are there opportunities to redefine job functions and activities to provide more efficient and effective services?
  • Are you duplicating work being done by another organization or department and would you be better off partnering with them to provide services?

Once you've addressed these issues, then I think you can start talking about the need for more staff. But adding more people to run a creaky, inefficient organization isn't going to cut it.

The other problem with this viewpoint is that it often stops organizations from doing what they should to address inefficiencies. They say "We need more people to really get the job done, but we don't have the funding for it, so we'll just have to settle for how things are now." I roundly reject this kind of thinking and frankly, get REALLY frustrated when I encounter people who operate this way. The way to think about these issues is to say "We're not operating as well as we should and we need to take a look at how we can do better, given our constraints." In fact, it's often the constraints of limited resources that lead to the most creative solutions!

So before we start thinking that if only we had more staff we could do so much better, I think we need to take a look around at our operations and decide if we're doing everything we can to run "lean and mean" with our current resources. Adding more people to a poorly-run organization only means you have more people doing poor work.

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