How Many Ditch Diggers Does it Take…

Cisco Systems has a lot of workers. But it’s about to lose 10,000 of them, or roughly 14% of its workforce, according to Bloomberg. Says one analyst, who is clearly pleased by the development: “The company is not staffed on an appropriate level. They simply have too many employees.”

This complaint about overstaffing at the networking equipment maker has been echoed by other Wall Street analysts, journalists—and even Cisco employees. “Two years ago, the Wall Street Journal detailed a management structure at Cisco that was so byzantine and bureaucratic that it prompted us to wonder aloud whether [Cisco CEO] John Chambers had lost his mind,” Henry Blodget wrote a couple of months ago at Business Insider.

Peter Drucker had a strong aversion to overstaffing and wrote about it frequently. “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 recounted in The Effective Executive. “In the 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.’”

[EXPAND More]Overstaffing doesn’t mean that people sit idle. It means that they work hard on useless things—a circumstance that is difficult to countenance even as we remain deeply worried about the nation’s unemployment crisis (especially in light of last week’s dismal jobs report). “Overstaffing always focuses energies on the inside, on ‘administration’ rather than ‘results,’ on the machinery rather than its purpose,” Drucker explained in an essay collected in Toward the Next Economics. “It always leads to meetings and memoranda becoming ends in themselves. It immobilizes behind a façade of furious busyness.”

By contrast, in a lean organization, “people have room to move without colliding with one another and can do their work without having to explain it all the time.”

Even with U.S. unemployment at 9.2%, do you see overstaffing as a common problem in corporations today? What about at your organization?