​The symptoms of an overstaffed company

My first-grade arithmetic primer asked: “If it takes two ditch-diggers two days to dig a ditch, how long would it take four ditch-diggers?” In first grade, the correct answer is, of course, “one day.” In the kind of work, however, with which executives are concerned, the right answer is probably “four days” if not “forever.”
A work force may, indeed, be too small for the task. And the work then suffers, if it gets done at all. But this is not the rule. Much more common is the work force that is too big for effectiveness, the work force that spends, therefore, an increasing amount of its time “interacting” rather than working.

There is a fairly reliable symptom of overstaffing. If the senior people in the group—and of course the manager in particular—spend more than a small fraction of their time, maybe one tenth, on “problems of human relations,” on feuds and frictions, on jurisdictional disputes and questions of cooperation, and so on, then the work force is almost certainly too large. People get into each other’s way. People have become an impediment to performance, rather than the means thereto. In a lean organization people have room to move without colliding with one another and can do their work without having to explain it all the time.

The excuse for overstaffing is always “but we have to have a thermodynamicist [or a patent lawyer, or an economist] on the staff.” This specialist is not being used much; he may not be used at all; but “we have to have him around just in case we need him.” (And he always “has to be familiar with our problem” and “be part of the group from the start”!) One should only have on a team the knowledges and skills that are needed day in and day out for the bulk of the work. Specialists that may be needed once in a while, or that may have to be consulted on this or on that, should always remain outside. It is infinitely cheaper to go to them and consult them against a fee than to have them in the group to say nothing of the impact an underemployed but overskilled man has on the effectiveness of the entire group. All he can do is mischief.

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