Doing less with less

During this recession, companies have tightened their belts. The catch phrase is “doing more with less”. Some companies imagine they have learned to function with fewer employees. But they are fooling themselves. They are not doing more with less; they are doing less with less.

Recently I was talking with a CIO of a large national corporation. I’m going to have to keep this story vague, because I haven’t gotten permission to name names, and besides my intention isn’t to point fingers at specific companies. This story is the same story that is happening with hundreds if not thousands of companies across the United States right now. So for the purposes of this story, I will simply call the corporation in question “Big Company”.

The CIO of Big Company was talking about how frustrated he was about a project that he was dealing with. Big Company had made a multi-million dollar contract with a well-known multinational technology vendor (we will call them Tech Co) to upgrade their computer systems and networks in hundreds of offices around the country. Apparently, it wasn’t going that well.

Oh, the hardware from Tech Co was fantastic, as usual. But they had been contracted to ship, unpack, and install all of the hardware in each of the offices. Big Company was paying a lot of money for this service.

Boxes were arriving in horrible condition. Computers were poorly packed, in boxes that were too small. In some cases, we are talking about servers that cost tens of thousands of dollars being packed into boxes where the top-flaps of the boxes had to be folded in half and taped down with extra cardboard and tape, because the boxes were literally too small for the hardware.

Office trashThen there was the trash. One of the managers in one of the remote offices finally emailed the CIO a photograph of a meeting room, where the Tech Co had unpacked the servers. In the center of the room there was a pile a trash that went all the way up to the ceiling.  Boxes, packing material, puffy plastic peanuts, and transparent plastic wrapping: all piled in the center of the meeting room. It had been sitting there for a week, left there by the people from Tech Co.

“Do you find this normal?” I asked Mr. CIO of Big Company. “I mean, do projects like this usually happen that way?”

“No. Not with these guys. Not with Tech Co.  I’ve had to call them up to yell at them multiple times, just in the last week. Every single time, they apologize, and say that this has never happened before. It’s really unusual.”

“So,” I said casually, “What do you suppose might be behind this? Why do you think this is happening?”

At this point, of course, Mr. CIO could have said anything. He could have said that someone at Tech Co had gone crazy. He could have said that the stupid labor unions are destroying the attitudes of the workers. He could have said that Tech Co had recently changed management and was still adjusting to organizational restructuring.

But no, he said: “It’s the recession. This is happening everywhere. Companies are cutting corners, and things are getting missed. Things are falling through the cracks.”

As I continued to talk with Mr. CIO, it became clear that (at least in his opinion) companies all over the country are not actually learning to “do more with less”. They are slipping. The quality of service is going down, because companies are hiring cheap replaceable contractors for the lowest end jobs. These are people who don’t know what they are doing, or simply don’t care enough about what they are doing to take the time to do a good job at it. So the work is getting sloppy. The core products of Tech Co, the technology that they invent and sell, are still fantastic. But the service is slipping because, in the recession, Tech Co has decided to pay crap prices to buy crap labor.



Weirdly, this made me feel really good. Do you want to know why?

Because it means that at some point, people will get sick of it.

As the recession eases up, the instinct of executives everywhere will be to increase their own bonuses and leave low-end employee pay where it is… just because they think they can. But over time, customers will get sick of bad service. Customers will get sick of Tech Co leaving trash in their meeting rooms, because nobody told the contractors unpacking the boxes that they needed to figure out where the trash goes.

Customers will get sick of it, and some company will realize that they have enough money to start paying their low-end employees more. That means they will be able to hire low-end employees who work harder and care more, and do better work. That means that company will be able to win over the customers by providing better customer service.

So for anyone out there who worries that the corporate down-sizing will be permanent because companies have “learned to operate more efficiently”, my advice is: don’t worry too much. These companies haven’t become as efficient as they think. They are doing less with less, and as the recession eases up, customers will start to demand more again.