Do More With the Same, not Less

There’s a phrase I hear from executives when working with portfolio companies that I’ve never liked: Do more with less. Generally by the time I’m involved, any cuts that were going to happen to the organization have already been done but when I arrive I still hear the same joke every time (yes, every time) about the Bobs from the movie OfficeSpace (one of my favorites). I’m very sensitive to the fact that people think I’m there to fire them.

My message is not to do more with less, but to do more with the same. Sometimes leaders want me to tell their boss that they need to hire more people. Sometimes they want me to explain that they have too much work. My message is always classic W. Edwards Deming: “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results that it gets.” If you want to get different results, you need to change the system.

The classic joke is that if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. But if you want to climb out of the hole, how do you do that? Each of the companies above had engineering leaders that would explain to me in painstaking detail how they could climb out:

  • Hire more contractors as “surge” capacity to get them past this situation
  • Get the CTO to put a pause on the work coming from Development so they could catch up

The real joke is that every company, everywhere, has more work that can be done, than work that they can do. The trick is to continually improve so you can handle more work, not that you will ever catch up! As I wrote in my book: make the hard things easy so you can work on harder things. I recently read An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management by Will Larsen and he advises that teams should work on things that bring leverage. If you find that you are running around working on manual problems all the time, that is not leverage work.

One of the best examples of working with leverage are the classic Toyota improvements. In John Willis’ new book Deming’s Journey to Profound Knowledge he describes how with their continual practice of improvement, Toyota was able to improve the output of their cars per employee.

Year Ford & GM Toyota
1955 10 4
1964 11 20
1985 13 60

To me, that’s doing more with the same. But they were able to do it with a fraction of the number of suppliers and “half the in-house work.” That’s doing more with less!

Instead of asking the CTO for more time or more money, I explain that it’s like going to the gym. Nobody ever goes to the gym because they find themselves at the end of the workday with absolutely nothing to do for the next ninety minutes, so they might as well go to the gym. You either make time to go to the gym or you don’t. You either change the system and create opportunities for leverage (or “improvement of daily work” per Gene Kim) or you don’t.

You don’t have to ask the CTO for permission to improve daily work. If you automate something, that gives you a little bit more time to automate something else. When you automate that, it will give you a little more time to automate something else. It’s a virtuous cycle (a reinforcing feedback loop). After a while, you will find you’ve gone from producing 4 cars, to 60 cars. You will go from complaining about the hole you’re in, to climbing out of that hole.

In his book Out of the Crisis (pp. 387) Deming wrote: “I remind the reader that the improvements took place with the same people and no new equipment.” We don’t need more contractors to manage. We don’t need to slow down the rest of the business. There is so much capability in the system.

If we work on making it better, every day.