The company’s worst enemy is not its competitors but time. Time to understand, time to decide, time to act, time to solve a problem. Time is the only thing you can’t find or replace once you’ve lost it.
Time is the business’ worst enemy
It’s nothing new and most of them are aware of it. There is now an urge to move fast that is felt by all employees, regardless of their profession or sector of activity. The first to feel it as much as they understand the need for it are employees in the field. They are faced with an ever more demanding and versatile customer for whom time is also a key factor, but they are also the first to be confronted with the speed of competitors. And as Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, said: “When the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near“.
In the field there is therefore a lot of talk about pace and speed, and this has also contributed to a major change in working methods over time in many professions. However, no matter how motivated the employees are, they do not always go as fast as they could or would like to. One of the reasons for this is the complication of an organization that ties balls to their feet while asking them to run faster and faster, but that’s not the only one.
Another reason for this is the different paces of the organization, as not all levels of the company move at the same speed.
In the field, let’s assume that everyone tries to keep pace with the market and the customers. We live with horizons that vary from one day to the end of the week.
Everything’s going fast as long as you don’t need anybody…
Sometimes a question or a problem arises that requires the intervention of a manager, a project manager, an expert or other to bring a solution, make a decision, validate an option, give an authorization …
In general, we are dealing with people who are very busy (whether the occupation is productive or not is another matter when you see the time spent in meetings or doing reports…) who sometimes cannot react within a day but within several days.
It gets worse when the person concerned does not have the knowledge, skills or authority to act. At this point, he or she must raise the problem with others. This can be done more or less quickly or even wait for one of the weekly, monthly or even more spaced meetings that these people have with their peers (provided that they manage to put the subject on the agenda).
She can also “escalate” the problem to someone “above”. That person has even less time and may not have the solution either and must climb back up or wait until the right people are present. Of course the result of a meeting can also be to climb (so time is lost) or to pass the subject on to other people or groups of people.
And so on until we reach people whose attention and availability mean that their reaction time is usually counted in weeks and more in days and they participate in meetings that have monthly or quarterly rhythms.
The more you are, and the more you need the hierarchy, the slower you go…
Generally speaking, there are two theorems that are always true:
1°) the speed of an organization slows down as more people are brought into a discussion and as one moves up in its hierarchy.
2°) The busier a person is, the less time he will have to spontaneously organize a meeting to discuss a subject (and the less time the others will have to participate) so he will tend to wait for the next scheduled, ritual meeting, where he will meet the right people to discuss a subject.
It can happen for good and bad reasons, but that’s usually how it happens.
Add to this the ability of some people to “pass the monkey” so they are never responsible for anything (which is part of the corporate culture in some places) and you can easily guess what’s going on.
I can’t resist the idea of recalling an anecdote that always has an effect. In 2008 Alcatel Lucent had to recruit an administrative assistant in Poland. At the time of validating the recruitment, the manager decided to cover himself and asked his own manager for advice. The latter obviously did not want to take such a risk and forwarded the request to another. After 16 managers and executives refused to take a stand and “passed the baby up the ladder”, the email finally landed at Ben Verwaayen, the CEO. He replied by copying everyone “I don’t want to see this anymore”.
When your horizon is the day, you can’t depend on someone whose horizon is the month.
Depending on the level of autonomy, subsidiarity and trust that exists in an organization, people with a day horizon are asked to depend on people with a week, month or quarter horizon to move forward.
Let’s add to this, of course, that a problem that may be blocking on the field can be seen as anecdotal one or two floors above and therefore its resolution will not be a priority on the scale of a manager’s subjects but essential on the scale of the concerns of the employee in the field.
We thus find people blocked, prevented from moving forward, waiting for information or a decision that will come in a few days or even weeks. The worst thing is that often they may know what to do but do not have the authority to decide and will be blamed later for the delay.
The worst thing is that the goodwill of the people with whom the problem “lands” is often not at issue. They have their own agenda, they inherit in addition to the agenda of others, they have their own priorities and their own pace according to the cycles of meetings and work in which they are involved.
But in the end, the fact remains that the company is moving forward at several speeds and when the field can no longer keep up with the pace of the customer and the market because, above it, things are moving slower, the end is near, as Jack Welch would say. Or, to put it another way, a company is never faster than its management’s ability to answer employees’ questions and solve their problems.
Why does an organization slow down employees?
The causes are familiar:
• Not enough subsidiarity, which causes too many problems to arise and overburden managers who do not have time for the things that are worthwhile. There is often a problem of trust behind this.
• A misalignment of objectives which means that what is a priority for some is not a priority for others. When a problem blocking on the field is not an emergency for the manager or the manager’s manager there is a real alignment problem in the company.
• The institutionalized waste of managers’ time in unnecessary meetings and reporting that leaves them less time to do their job: solving problems that others can’t solve and making them grow.
• A culture of “busy-ness” (as opposed to business) in which organizing one’s occupation, showing that one is busy and has no time is seen as a marker that shows the importance and power of people (based on their ability to slow down the work of others and force them to adapt to their pace).
In the meantime we still see too many employees “blocked” because they expect something from someone. This leads to frustrated, demotivated and above all under-performing employees, dissatisfied customers and overworked managers. And this is true at all levels: we are talking about the employee in the field, but his manager is blocked for similar reasons and so on.
Resynchronizing the different layers of the company is above all an operational performance issue and must be seen as such.