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Businesses earlier this week lost about $1 billion worth of productivity, by some estimates, as employees spent Cyber Monday using their workplace computers to do their holiday gift-buying instead of their jobs—the latest sign of the way that “e-commerce is creating a new and distinct boom,” as Peter Drucker once put it.
In all, Cyber Monday saw $1.25 billion in spending over the Internet, up 22 percent from a year ago, marking the heaviest online shopping day in history, according to comScore, a provider of digital business analytics. People purchasing electronics, shoes, books, and all manner of other items from behind their desks accounted for more than half that total revenue.
Not everyone is happy about the trend. “Spending excessive time on nonbusiness activities while at work raises a red flag for employers,” warns John Reed, executive director of IT-staffing supplier Robert Half Technology, which found that 60 percent of the chief information officers it surveyed say their companies now block access to online shopping sites.
No boss, after all, likes to see a bunch of employees goofing off. Yet Drucker, I suspect, would have found all the focus on these Cyber Monday shenanigans a bit silly. Rather, the real cause for concern among managers should be those time-wasters that dog their enterprises every day of the week, all year long.
In The Effective Executive, his 1967 classic, Drucker identified four specific areas in which time loss “results from poor management and deficient organization.” One of these is overstaffing.
“My first-grade arithmetic primer asked: ‘If it takes two ditch-diggers two days to dig a ditch, how long would it take four ditch-diggers?’” Drucker wrote. “In first grade, the correct answer is, of course, ‘one day.’ In the kind of work, however, with which executives are concerned, the right answer is probably ‘four days’ if not ‘forever.’”
A telltale sign of overstaffing: If the manager of a team spends more than about a tenth of his or her time “on feuds and frictions, on jurisdictional disputes and questions of cooperation, and so on,” Drucker said, “then the work force is almost certainly too large.” When that happens, he added, “people get into each other’s way,” as there is insufficient room “to move without colliding with one another.”
What’s more, Drucker asserted in a later essay titled “How to Guarantee Non-performance,” “overstaffing always focuses energies on the inside, on ‘administration’ rather than ‘results,’ on the machinery rather than its purpose. … It immobilizes behind a façade of furious busyness.”
Another big time-waster is too many meetings. “Meetings are by definition a concession to deficient organization,” Drucker wrote. “For one either meets or one works. One cannot do both at the same time.”
The trouble is not just the meeting itself. Participants must prepare for the session in the first place. And on the back end, “every meeting generates a host of little follow-up meetings—some formal, some informal, but both stretching out for hours,” Drucker cautioned. “Meetings, therefore, need to be purposefully directed. An undirected meeting is not just a nuisance; it is a danger.”
A third drain on time: information that flows to the wrong part of the organization and must then be tracked down by those who really need it, or information that goes to the right spot but arrives in the wrong form and must be reinterpreted.
Drucker, for instance, cited the case of manufacturers that have to “translate” production figures before operating personnel can use them. “They report ‘averages’; that is, they report what the accountants need,” Drucker wrote. “Operating people, however, usually need not the averages but … product mix and production fluctuations, length of runs,” and other expressions of the data.
Fixing this requires, above all, better communication. “We are 100 years past the simple economy in which most people knew what others did at work,” Drucker noted in a 1993 interview. “Farmers knew what most farmers did, and industrial workers knew what other factory workers did. Domestic servants understood each other’s work, as did the fourth major group in that economy: small tradesmen. No one needed to explain. But now nobody knows what others do, even within the same organization. Everybody needs to know your priorities. If you don’t ask and don’t tell, your peers and subordinates will guess incorrectly”—wasting everyone’s time in the process.
Finally, there is what Drucker termed the “recurrent crisis,” the emergency that returns year after year after year. For example, Drucker pointed to one company in which there was always “tremendous scurrying” in the fourth quarter as everyone tried to live up to the very precise annual earnings forecast that had been issued months earlier from the C-suite.
“For three to five weeks, nobody in the management group got any work done,” Drucker recalled. “It took only one stroke of the pen to solve this crisis; instead of predicting a definite year-end figure, top management is now predicting results within a range. This fully satisfies directors, stockholders, and the financial community. And what used to be a crisis a few years ago is now no longer even noticed in the company—yet fourth-quarter results are quite a bit better than they used to be, since executive time is no longer wasted on making results fit the forecast.”
So don’t be fooled. Cyber Monday may be a $1 billion time suck. But it’s overstaffing, an excess of meetings, inadequate information, and chronic crises that add up to a truly costly black hole.