How Many Ditch Diggers Does it Take…

Posted on Jul 13, 2011 | 2 Comments

Cisco Systems has a lot of workers. But it’s about to lose 10,000 of them, or roughly 14% of its workforce, according to Bloomberg. Says one analyst, who is clearly pleased by the development: “The company is not staffed on an appropriate level. They simply have too many employees.”

This complaint about overstaffing at the networking equipment maker has been echoed by other Wall Street analysts, journalists—and even Cisco employees. “Two years ago, the Wall Street Journal detailed a management structure at Cisco that was so byzantine and bureaucratic that it prompted us to wonder aloud whether [Cisco CEO] John Chambers had lost his mind,” Henry Blodget wrote a couple of months ago at Business Insider.

Peter Drucker had a strong aversion to overstaffing and wrote about it frequently. “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?’” Drucker recounted in The Effective Executive. “In the 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.’”

Overstaffing doesn’t mean that people sit idle. It means that they work hard on useless things—a circumstance that is difficult to countenance even as we remain deeply worried about the nation’s unemployment crisis (especially in light of last week’s dismal jobs report). “Overstaffing always focuses energies on the inside, on ‘administration’ rather than ‘results,’ on the machinery rather than its purpose,” Drucker explained in an essay collected in Toward the Next Economics. “It always leads to meetings and memoranda becoming ends in themselves. It immobilizes behind a façade of furious busyness.”

By contrast, 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.”

Even with U.S. unemployment at 9.2%, do you see overstaffing as a common problem in corporations today? What about at your organization? 

2 Comments

  1. Kalen Fitch
    July 15, 2011

    This is an interesting concept. The most compelling point in my opinion is the following statement: “Overstaffing doesn’t mean that people sit idle. It means that they work hard on useless things”. The cause of this in my opinion is either poor strategy or poor management to strategic objectives. Unfortunately, overstaffing is usually just the result of a higher level problem. On the other hand, America still has some of the highest productivity levels in the world. One final note that you failed to mention, is that the boots on the ground (general labor force) are usually the first ones to notice overstaffing in an organization and the effect can be poor morale.

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  2. Meeting Standards | The Drucker Exchange
    February 22, 2012

    [...] mentioned meetings often (here, here and here, for example), not least because Peter Drucker found them to be big potential [...]

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