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Across our public and private sectors in the UK, “bullshit” is rife. Millions of pounds of taxpayers' money and companies' top line capital are consumed every day by processes and people that are just not necessary. Yet more bullshit is created every year. In this highly outspoken report, Onley Group explores the bullshit problem, and how to go about resolving it.
What is Bullshit?
Bullshit (BS) is any process, task, person or activity which does not yield any appreciable benefit for an organisation, and is not necessary for the completion of another activity which yields a benefit.
Care should be taken when defining “benefit” in this context: we do not just mean profit, we mean any aspect which improves the profit, performance, image or longevity of an organisation. For example, while a pledge to donate 10% of profits to charitable causes actually adversely affects profit for a private company, it will probably carry a significant social, PR and staff morale benefit (unless the charitable funds are badly managed!) thus is not bullshit.
Benefit may be long term rather than short term, so investing in expensive training for employees may be costly in the short-term, but might yields a future generation of excellent senior staff who will have a much greater benefit in the long term. The same can be said for investing in the quality of a product: while there is frequent temptation across many sectors to “maximise profits” by squeezing the costs of a product or service, this can kick off a long-term decline in custom due to customer's perception of falling quality of the product or service. Thus, what appears to be a good new strategy to increase 3-monthly profit to satisfy a shareholder itch, can actually be damaging in the longer term.
So analysing whether something is BS or not can actually be a little more complex than taking it at face value. Nevertheless there are many examples of elements which are plainly BS, yet no action is taken to eliminate them. Examples of very obvious bullshit Onley Group has encountered include:
- Scheduled weekly meetings which come around too soon for any real progress has been made. The hour is filled with aimless chatter just because there is a perception that the meeting is necessary.
- Collecting, analysing and charting metrics about the number of loaves of bread a hospital ward kitchen is buying every month.
- Nurses being required to complete entries across 20 pages of paperwork for every patient, every day.
- Funding research and development which has not been given a concrete brief, or whose aim is to discover things that will not appreciably help the company.
- Discussing, creating and publishing glossy internal company print magazines which are seldom read.
- Discussing, creating and publishing lengthy Mission Statements for an already established company.
- Advertisements for financial services which contain highly abstract statements which the target customer cannot appreciate.
- Publishing glossy share advertisements ahead of a public floatation for a company where the IPO shares have already all been allocated.
The last decade has seen a rise in popularity of spring-cleaning management strategies such as “Lean” and “Six Sigma”. These have become popular, not because they have some magic quality or are well marketed, but because they are one of a few strategies in a whole sea of management fads that actually cut back on the BS. Managers who employ Lean and Six Sigma have realised on a subconscious level that their problem is spending on excessive bullshit, but lack the mental acumen to recognise the BS in their own organisations and eliminate it themselves.
Types of Bullshit:
Bullshit generally falls into the following categories:
- Strategic:Dead-end strategy (strategy that has ceased to be relevant or yield results)
- Personnel:useless or obstructive people, unnecessary departments
- Metrics:internal data collected and analysed but doesn't have any beneficial use
- Documentation:paperwork that is automatable, pointless internal documents such as lengthy policies about trivial matters, policies in conflict with customers' expectations
- Marketing:off-message or ineffective campaigns, campaigns / exhibitions / communications which reach the wrong target market
- Expenses:non-essential expenses, failure to secure the best price due to being on expenses
- Redundant assets:redundant equipment, empty building space with no near-future potential use, redundant inventory for old product lines, excessive inventory for slow moving product lines
- Operational: unnecessary steps in the development or delivery of a product or service
Why Does Bullshit Get Created?
There is very rarely one single person or department responsible for an organisation's bullshit. BS is almost always created by multiple people from multiple sources working on an independent basis. Items of BS are usually added in very small steps and so appear to be minuscule individually, however their cumulative effect is to eventually become immensely wasteful of resources. The fact that BS gets created in small steps, by multiple people not in communication with each other about their work, explains how an entire tide of BS can mount up without anyone really noticing (until they start drowning).
The types of environment where BS gets created are those which are: within large organisations, risk averse, top-heavy thus overloaded with managers, poorly communicative, blame-cultures, lacking in introspection, heavily regulated and/or heavily litigated. Therefore public sector organisations such as Government departments tend to suffer from more BS than private bodies, but BS is still considerable in the private sector.
BS therefore has many causes. These can be divided into internal and external causes. The majority are usually internally derived, and most of these do indeed come from management tiers, not from the front-line:
Internal causes of Bullshit:
- Changes in strategy
While changing strategy may be massively beneficial, it may cause related strategies to become dead-ended, and leave behind unnecessary operational steps, unnecessary departments and unnecessary documentation. An important part of shifting strategy is to redistribute freed resources and cut away the dead-wood left behind. It may not be immediately apparent what BS will get created by a shift in strategy, and this should not prevent you making a beneficial strategic change; instead ensure you look back over your organisation after the change to deal with the BS it has created at a later date.
- Corporate 'habit'
People are creatures of habit. The way things were done in an organisation may have been optimal ten years ago or when a new senior person started / got promoted, but times and best practices change. You may be ignoring new best practices, or employing unnecessary operational steps to deliver something that the customer used to require but does not any more. You may be inappropriately mirroring the processes from one department onto another just because that's what feels familiar rather than being appropriate.
- Bureaucratic culture
The mixture of people and processes may have led to a culture where every decision and process gets documented. New decisions loyally follow suit and vary rarely will someone sit up and ask whether all this paperwork is necessary. Similarly just because one particular area of business has a regulator who requires excessive documentation, doesn't mean that the unregulated business activities have to endure a similar level of documentation.
- Out of touch management
Metrics, paperwork and/or operational steps which exist solely to illustrate to management what a department is up to is highly likely to be BS, and runs the risk of causing the relevant part to evolve to get good at beating management targets but not good at actually delivering a quality product or service to customers. A metric or some paperwork is a very poor substitute for a manager who really understands how a department functions because of good communication or prior experience there. Getting out and about, chatting to the front-line regularly and getting your head around how the front-line operates gives managers a much richer understanding.
- Technological drag
This is where there is an advance in technology which can deliver appreciable benefit, but the business keeps using older systems despite having the capital to upgrade and retrain users. The business is stuck using systems that can produce less product per hour, or deliver a lower quality of service, or are just more costly to run. A good example is the NHS's reliance on paper and fax for communication, or the computer server market. Causes are usually lack of awareness of new technology, technophobia among staff and management, and the lack of a pioneer in the company to push through the upgrade. However, upgrades should only ever be made where the cost of upgrading (time, cost of equipment, cost of retraining, cost of downtime) is outweighed by the benefit.
- Regulatory drag
This is where regulation of a business (imposed by governments and laws) changes, but the business fails to keep pace. Regulatory drag is common in sectors undergoing deregulation or relaxation of rules (such as telecommunications and broadcasting in the UK). Often businesses still collect and analyse the data which was required by the regulators but is no longer required, for many months after the change. Whole job roles which exist to comply with regulation may become unnecessary. Businesses may also continue to evoke operational steps which were mandated by the regulator, have no other benefit and now are no longer required.
- Expenses culture
This is where employees get used to their company or organisation picking up the tab for luxuries which are unnecessary for the course of business. The envelope of what is acceptable constantly gets pushed, with expenses costs mounting and more employees charging for lavish expenses as they see their colleagues doing the same. A recent example is the UK House of Commons where MPs abused expenses to furnish their own homes which were never used for business, to house other non-public-servant family members, and to purchase luxury products for personal non-governmental use. A further example is the record company, EMI, spending $22,000 per annum on candles and floral decorations for their offices despite a crashing music market. Spending money on lavish parties to entertain clients may actually be appropriate provided those kind of gestures are necessary to secure future business with the client, however such expenditure must be proportional to the benefit attained from these clients. The same can be said for staff morale: expenses can be justified if they are a major boost to morale, provided such a boost cannot be achieved in a cheaper, more sustainable way, and provided the costs do not run away.
- Bad Recruitment Processes
Inadequate or inappropriate assessment of new employee candidates can cause immense damage. Assessment should be tailored to probe for the skills required for the job, and also to examine the candidate's personality to see if they will fit in with the organisation's culture. Relying too much on weak selection criteria or weak selection methods can reject good candidates and let bad ones in. Bad employees can then themselves be BS or be responsible for future BS in the company. Examples include lexicography (analysing handwriting which has strong evidence that it is ineffective), scanning CVs for buzzwords or ignoring extracurricular interests. Never let an HR department dictate recruitment processes beyond ensuring legal compliance.
External causes of Bullshit:
A certain degree of business regulation is necessary to ensure competition, sustainability and fairness to consumers. The sub-prime credit market of 2008 serves as a painful reminder of this. However, regulation can be excessive in some areas (such as UK employment law), or be conducted in a fashion where companies need to jump through unnecessary hoops to demonstrate compliance (such as that mandated by the UK Health and Safety Executive).
- Litigation Culture or Litigation Fear
In areas where competitors are regularly getting sued (such as the current Google / Apple / Microsoft patent-trolling surrounding Smartphones), or the regulator is behaving in an oppressive manner and taking many companies to court (EU monopoly investigations) can breed an environment of BS. A company may try to protect themselves by employing diligent documentation, creating paperwork to disclaim liabilities and adding costly operational steps to try to avoid incurring large legal costs. They may purchase costly legal insurance plans or spend millions acquiring IP protection such as patents. Some of these steps are necessary in such an environment, however often companies will overshoot and do things to excess out of fear. Instead, lobbying for more proportional use of corporate litigation and lobbying to clip corporate legal firms' wings may be a better approach.
- Shareholder Pressure
Shareholders may demand that a business collects certain data to quell uncertainties, or may try to mandate certain steps in product development or service delivery. Evoking these suggestions blindly to placate shareholders may add cost and deliver very little benefit. The demands may be entirely rational, or may be made without the deeper knowledge of the business that executives have. Good communication with shareholders will help divide demands into good and bad suggestions and illustrate them accordingly.
- Media Pressure (and Public Pressure)
The media may create a public pressure by representing your company or sector inaccurately and over-emphasising certain acts or omissions out of proportion of their importance. Print journalists who operate in an entirely unregulated medium are able to distort facts considerably (unlike broadcast journalists in the UK who are bound by rules on balance and political impartiality). Partially informed or misinformed members of the public then add momentum to any causes. An example is the demise of a major UK supermarket chain's range of children's food: the range was developed to provide foods which were free in artificial additives, a particular concern of parents at the time. However, a BBC programme seized upon the marginally higher fat content in this children's foods compared to equivalents from other ranges. Although the fat content was deemed to be harmless by doctors, the ensuing pressure from journalists and public with a poor understanding of dietary science caused the range to be pulled. The waste of introducing, then pulling the range, dealing with inaccurate press, then instituting a special fat content monitoring system constituted BS.
- Exposed Company Mistakes / Scandals / Disasters
Previous bad behaviour or mistakes by a company can cause significant BS by the company creating (or being told to create) processes, paperwork and departments to ensure that a repeat of the situation does not happen. Unethical behaviour is always unacceptable, and companies have a duty to eliminate unethical behaviour and make amends for damage caused. However, mistakes can leave deep scars which burden the company with BS from years to come. 25 years on, Nestle is still spending significantly on PR to explain their corrective actions for the baby-milk scandal of the 1980s. The fallout from BP's Deep Water Horizon oil rig accident (22/04/2010) and oil spillage will limit the company's future scope to explore undersea oil fields for years; this however will be considered as a small price to pay by those dealing with the extensive environmental damage.
From the examples and explanations given, internal causes of BS are far easier to eliminate than external causes. The majority of BS in organisations is still from internal sources. Therefore, a good approach is to look inwards and spend the most time eliminating internal BS, then simply mitigate against external causes of BS rather than trying to eradicate them.
What are the Effects of Bullshit?
By definition, BS is something in a company that yields no benefit in the short or long term (or hardly any benefit in comparison to the resources it consumes). True BS adversely affects companies by driving up production/delivery costs, increasing staff costs and consuming staff time, consuming resources such as space, and draining morale. An organisation awash with BS will typically find it hard to innovate, and difficult to change strategy. BS makes an organisation cumbersome and inefficient.
However, some elements which may appear to be BS at a cursory glance may in fact yield benefit. Some bureaucracy is necessary to ensure regulatory compliance (which is usually not optional!). Some metrics are important measures of how a company is doing and can inform the next move. Some processes reduce the risk of litigation. Some assets and expenditures improve staff morale (such as good company facilities) which is returned by staff loyalty and productivity. If it yields a significant benefit, it is therefore not BS.
By the above reasoning, BS can never be beneficial to an organisation.
How to Eliminate Bullshit?
The first step to removing costly BS is to identify it. As stated before, most causes of BS are internal, and fortunately these fall within the power of an organisation's executives. Start by looking internally, and create a list of every strategy, department, person, metric, document collection, marketing campaign, expenses category, asset and operational step that the company employs. If sheer company size and complexity makes this a daunting task, then just focus on the top 20% of each category which consumes the most in resources.
For each item, find its relevant category below, and ask yourself the corresponding questions. If the answer to all of the questions in the category is a 'no', it is highly likely that the item being considered is a piece of bullshit and should be eliminated:
Strategic (your organisation's choice of products, services and activities)
- Does this product / service / activity contribute appreciably to your company's profits?
- Does this product / service / activity have potential to become significantly profitable?
- Is this product / service / activity in significant demand from potential customers?
- Are you required by law or public remit to offer this product or service?
- Is this service / expenditure for a charitable purpose which has demonstrable staff morale or PR benefit?
- Does this product / service / activity promote the sale or development of another product / service which itself satisfies at least on of the above 5 questions?
People and Departments
- Is this person or department responsible for any non-bullshit people or departments beneath them?
- Is this person or department responsible for co-ordinating a non-bullshit product or service?
- Is this person or department responsible for ensuring compliance with a piece of current applicable regulation that cannot be met without their input?
- Does this person or department positively and significantly contribute to medium-term or long-term staff morale?
- Is this person or department particularly good for organisation PR, which would be materially worse without them?
- Does this person materially and significantly reduce the workload of those beneath them?
- Is it true that: this metric cannot be replaced by management understanding the operational aspects of their organisation better?
- Does this metric significantly assist the development of a non-bullshit product or service?
- Does this metric significantly assist the sales of a non-bullshit product or service?
- Is this metric collected and analysed automatically (without spending any person-hours)?
- Does this metric contribute to good PR significantly enough to justify the resources in collecting it?
- Is the collection of this metric required by law or a regulation?
- Does this metric have any staff morale or staff healthcare benefit outside of management?
- If this document is on paper, is paper the only medium this can be provided on?
- If this document is on paper, is paper the most efficient method for collecting this data?
- Does the information in this document actually contribute to a non-bullshit metric?
- Does the information in this document actually contribute to complying with relevant regulation?
- Is this document as clear and concise as it possibly can be?
- If this document is an organisation policy, is the policy logical and non-trivial in subject?
- If this document is an organisation policy, is the policy actually needed to influence your workforce behaviour given their level of ability? (i.e. is it a necessary addition to common-sense?)
- If this document is paperwork to fill, is it true that all the data it collects cannot otherwise be collected automatically?
- If this document is paperwork to fill, is it true that the time an employee spends on completing it cannot be better spent doing something else?
Marketing (press releases, mailshots, advertisements, social media activity, exhibitions, networking)
- Do the people who are receiving this marketing activity mostly constitute your target market?
- Does this marketing activity reach enough potential clients / customers to justify the time it takes and the monetary cost?
- Does this marketing activity fit well with your organisation's brand?
- Is this marketing activity beneficial to your company's image?
- Will omitting this marketing activity significantly impair your sales in relation to your competitors?
- Is this marketing activity for an actual product or service which is available at the time of marketing or in the immediate future?
- Is this type of expense actually necessary for securing further business or useful information?
- Is this type of expense actually necessary to help an employee develop or deliver a non-bullshit product or service?
- Does this type of expense carry a benefit in staff morale that justifies its amount?
Assets & Inventory
- Is this item required to develop a non-bullshit product or service?
- Is this item required to deliver a current or near-future non-bullshit product or service?
- If this item is part of a non-bullshit product, is each specific unit being held for longer than twice the manufacturing period of its relevant product?
- Is possession or use of this item required by law or relevant regulation?
- Does this item materially and significantly contribute to staff morale in the medium-term or long-term?
- Does this item materially increase organisation productivity to a degree that justifies any ongoing running costs?
- Is this a facility that is required by the customer or significantly improves customer experience?
Operation steps (the processes involved in developing or delivering a product or service)
- Is this step essential for the development of a product?
- Is this step essential for the delivery of a product or a service?
- Is this step required by law or relevant regulation?
- Does this step materially improve staff morale?
- Does this step materially protect staff health?
- Is this step materially beneficial to organisation PR?
- Is this step the most efficient it can be without sacrificing safety, quality, ethics, or reputation?
- Is this step the most cheapest it can be without sacrificing safety, quality, ethics, or reputation?
- Does this step significantly help to deliver an important non-bullshit metric?
- Does this step make development or delivery of a product / service more efficient overall?
- Is this step expected by your customer or clients?
- Is this meeting as short as it can be?
- Is this meeting the only way of getting done the benefits it achieves?
- Is the meeting relevant and beneficial to the majority of attendees?
- Does this meeting result in actions which lead to non-bullshit changes?
- If this meeting is regularly scheduled, do enough actions get completed between one meeting and the next?
- Is this meeting chaired, timed and run to an agenda which is distributed in advance?
- Does this meeting start on time and keep to time in most cases?
You may notice the potential for circular references in the questions above. For example: a metric which is only collected to inform about a certain operation step would be non-bullshit by the criteria above as it has a material use. If the relevant operational step exists purely to provide that metric and has no other reason, then that operational step is non-bullshit by the criteria above, but simple logic would suggest that they are both unnecessary. Therefore, in the rare case where a circular reference of elements exist, if all the elements in the circle relate only to each other, and every element in the circle would be BS if it otherwise wasn't for its relationship with the other items, then you can declare the whole circle of items bullshit and dismiss the lot!
The Burden of Meetings
Meetings have been promoted to their own category of potential BS. The reason for this is that meetings are an immensely common way organisations waste time and money. Every day, millions of person-hours are wasted in the UK sitting in meetings in which little gets achieved, yet each attendee is under the illusion that they are doing useful work while in these meetings.
In clients where Onley Group has been asked to assist with Blasting the Bullshit, the majority of internal meetings we encounter are simply BS. An hour long meeting containing twelve people doesn't waste an hour of time, it wastes twelve whole person-hours of productivity. That's the equivalent to letting one of your members of staff have a day and a half extra off, per useless meeting of this kind that gets held.
Excessive meetings can also have a non-quantifiable adverse affect on your company productivity. Excess meetings where little gets achieved from one minute to the next give staff an impression of slow movement and lack of innovation. Meetings which contain unnecessary attendees who don't contribute much drains the morale of those staff members. Meetings which consist of just the most senior executive talking all the time usually drains the morale of all the staff present and breeds a culture where staff feel that their input is not valid.
Meetings should be as short as possible, structured, run to an agenda, timed, well-chaired to minimise chatter, minuted and have the agendas distributed in advance and minutes available quickly afterwards. Each decision should result in an action, and each action should be allocated to a person present and carry a deadline. Actions should be specific and if relating to a much bigger or more complex issue, focus on a specific part of it. Meetings should only contain the people who they are relevant to and should be spaced far enough apart that most action items are completed by the next meeting.
Blasting Your Bullshit
BS causes companies damage and costs money. BS is highly likely to be lurking in your organisation. This guide serves as a wake up call to executives and managers who should start thinking about their organisation critically, identifying BS and removing it.
Of course, if your organisation is very complex, or you would like to eliminate your BS but are worried about gaining colleague and board support; Onley Group can help. We have extensive experience across all business sectors and public organisations in removing BS and saving money. To discuss how Onley Group can help you, ask for a free quote via our website (http://www.onleygroup.com).