Cutting To The Bone

By Chris Chittenden

“Concern for man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavor. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.”

… Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

Working as Coaches within many organisations gives us an opportunity to develop impressions of what is generally happening to people at a personal and systemic level within those organisations. One thing that has been apparent to us for some time is the continual drive for organisations to become leaner in the way in which they operate. I would be surprised if this was really news to any of you. We are all being expected to do more with less. At a personal level, this means many people in organisations are asked to do more each day than they could possibly do in a days work. For many this means stress, feelings of inadequacy or guilt, and overwork.

This led to us thinking about what it means to get rid of the so-called “fat” within an organisation by making them leaner. An organisation is not simply an inanimate entity rather it is useful to look on an organisation as a living system. A living system made of other living systems, namely people. This link between organisations and people led us to consider what fat means to a human being. This was a bit of an eye-opener as “fat” seems to have become quite a dirty word in today’s society, yet for each of us some fat is essential to healthy living. Indeed some literature on the subject indicates that a healthy male has between 15% and 18% body fat and a healthy female between 22% and 25% body fat.

Fat provides us with an energy source, protects our internal organs from injury, provides us with insulation and warmth, and helps rebuild the body’s cells. It can be seen as an essential part of a healthy human being. However, as with all things to do with being human, too much fat or too little fat will have a negative impact on our well being. Too little fat and our bodies are not able to absorb certain vitamins leading to a variety of health problems. Too much fat and we are at risk from heart disease, diabetes and so on. The key to a healthy person lies in an appropriate level of fat.

So what has all this to do with organisations? Simply put, most organisations do not appear to consider what should be a healthy level of fat within their organisation. Rather they seek to trim out every last vestige of what is seen as inefficiency. In doing so, they may create a number of issues, not just at a personal level as we have mentioned earlier but also at a systemic level. For example, staffing levels become such that when people go on leave, work does not get done. This has an added impact on the person going on leave in that they firstly put in an extra effort before going away and an extra effort on returning thereby lessening the value of their time away from work and their personal well being.

We are not suggesting organisations should not strive for efficiency and reduce their costs just that they should be conscious of what they risk when they cut out too much fat. To reduce organisational numbers may make sense at first glance, but may lead to stresses within the organisation that offset any gains. We invite you to consider how these ideas might apply to you and your organisation.

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© 2004 Chris Chittenden