Editorial: Administrate this

In praise of the people who help everyone do a better job.
Patrick Flannery
April 17, 2018
By
There was a member of provincial parliament (as we call them here in Ontario) being interviewed on the radio today talking up the Progressive Conservative’s plans ahead of the election we have coming in May. He said the Tories are going save the government a boatload of money by finding efficiencies. Sounds good.
When asked just where they might find such efficiencies, he went to healthcare and said money should be directed to frontline staff and cuts could be made in administration.

“Administrators” are always a nice soft target for deficit-hawk politicians and bean-counting CFOs. Even if they’re unionized (which they usually aren’t in the private sector), they don’t tend to have the same organizational unity as other professions. Announce you’re going to lay off 100,000 nurses or teachers and watch the Queen’s Park protests unfold. Say the same thing about administrators and collect approving nods from budget-trimmers with little or no blowback. But the question that popped into my mind was, is it really true that cutting administration is a good way to improve efficiency?

I started my working life in the mid-’90s when restructuring and downsizing were all the rage. Part of this was a reaction to the digital technologies entering the workplace – did you really need a secretary when email and voicemail were available? I think a lot of the ideas were imported from Lean manufacturing concepts that had worked so well in the automotive industry. I’d say the implementation in other industries, especially non-manufacturing industries, had only mixed success. What a lot of managers seemed to miss was the amount of upfront investment in analysis and reorganization that is supposed to go into a Lean process. The approach, all too often, has been to simply take away resources and challenge employees to find ways to get the job done anyway. Sometimes that works. More often it doesn’t.

Let’s assume for the moment that non-administrative employees (call them core employees), with some creativity and re-jigging of processes, can find the time in a day to perform just enough administrative tasks to keep the lights on. You now have a person doing two very different work functions – the much-vaunted multitasking. At various times throughout their day they will have to stop acting in one capacity, with its attendant train of thought, mental approach, physical demands and job processes, and transition to act in another capacity, with a different set of same. It’s easy to hand-wave at this and say a good worker should be able to do this. Most can, but I would argue that it comes at an inevitable cost to focus and effectiveness. There’s a period of time when you start a new task where you’re thinking, gathering yourself and just getting prepared to do that next thing. That’s lost time every time you ask an employee to switch tasks.

When you have a core employee doing core tasks and support staff doing administrative things, both can be happening at once. Invoicing doesn’t sit idle until the salesperson can enter it into the system. Engine X doesn’t sit unrepaired while the mechanic orders parts for Engine Y. Having multiple functions happening at once was the central insight of the assembly line, one of the greatest innovations in efficiency of all time.

Finally, your core employees are not administrators. They didn’t apply for that kind of a job because that’s not what they are good at and not what they want to do. I can install a ceiling fan if I have instructions. But you’d have a heck of a lot better chance of having a working fan at the end of the day if you got an electrician to do it. And it would be done in half the time with a lot less cursing, too.  

I think it might be time for organizations to take another look at whether they should tolerate a slightly higher body count and a bit of redundancy in order to achieve true efficiency.

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