The silly season

As summer approaches, newspapers become short staffed and, hopefully, the news cycle slows down as what used to be known as the ‘silly season’ begins.

This is the time of the year in which media outlets, in a desperate attempt to fill their columns or websites, re-cycle obscure stories to the front page. One of the perennial favourites is outdated laws that remain on the statute book through some parliamentary oversight. You know the sort of thing, the legal right to drive sheep across Westminster Bridge or to shoot Welshmen abroad after dark in Hereford – I made both of these up but you get the picture.

The joke being that the laws were brought in to satisfy a societal need hundreds of years before, but which has now been significantly overtaken by events.  Outside of the legal field, there is one law, perhaps more of a natural one, that was recently brought to mind when I read a article in the Guardian about solving the latest NHS crisis. Its ‘simple’ solution to the funding crisis was to increase the numbers of staff.  The argument goes that the employment of locums and agency staff at greater costs than permanent staff was at the source of the current funding crisis.

One might argue that the 5th biggest employer in the world might already be adequately staffed but there is another problem that might mean the solution is not as simple as the Guardian describes, and that is caused by Parkinson’s Law.  This states, simply, that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.  

The law, first stated in a humorous article by Cecil Parkinson for The Economist in 1955, was based on empirical observations by him that bureaucracies tend to expand over time.  He claimed that the British Royal Navy in 1914 had 62 major warships and employed 2,000 civil servants.  By 1928, the number of warships had dropped to 20 while the number of civil servants had increased to nearly 3,600.

So why did this happen? Parkinson suggested that there were 2 factors at play. First, officials want to multiply subordinates not rivals, and second, officials create work for one another. The first factor comes into play as a manager begins to feel over-worked. He has the choice of sharing work with a peer or asking for a couple of subordinates to assist him. Parkinson claimed that the official would always take the latter solution.

As the organization grows because managers acquire subordinates ,so administration and bureaucracy also grows to the point that the subordinates start to feel overworked and they themselves seek subordinates – and so on.  Parkinson finishes his piece saying that he has no solution for the problem of expanding bureaucracies but simply provides empirical proof of the law.

In the interest of management development I would like to propose my own unscientific, un-empirically based law of efficient organizations – let’s call it Maddison’s Law of Efficiency.   I propose that you remove one worker from the organization every week until the organizations stops producing effective outcomes.  When you have reached the minimum total input for the required output, you are at maximum efficiency; thus both increasing efficiency while reducing overheads.

I admit it’s a blunt tool but it’s got to be worth a try in an organization where the bureaucracy has grown out of control. All I need now is a 4 box model and I’m halfway to a management book.  Perhaps this will become another story for the silly season.

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