I loathe the phrase “do more with less.” I abhor it. I loathe and abhor very, very few things in life, and I reserve those venomous verbs for rare occasions. Yet I both loathe and abhor the phrase and the idea behind the notion of “doing more with less” as a management tool or concept.
The idea that any organization – whether it be an entire institution, a school, a department, or even a single project team – should be expected to provide, say, 125% output with less than 100% resources is utterly absurd. When this is used during times of economic crisis – which is what we’re looking at right now in higher education – the philosophy can be something of a necessary evil. When budgets are tight then almost any project will have less than 100% of funding. When hiring freezes occur then existing staff are spread more thinly across projects. Resources – both dollars and staff – must be at less than 100% in such a situation. And at least for the short-term the same set of services must persist. There simply isn’t enough time to retool an entire department, help desk, or other operation in the face of a sudden budget crunch. Dollars per capita (DPC) goes down because it has to, at least for now.
But this cannot become standard, ongoing policy. Service portfolios must be reviewed, staff must be rearranged, and overall operations must be reorganized to accommodate the new monetary restrictions. Only those services that can be offered at the same, pre-crunch level should remain, and overall DPC should be restored. This has to happen, or everything and everyone suffers.
So “more with less” cannot work as a long-term response to budgetary constraints.
As a general inspirational philosophy, however, it can have some kind of meaning. “More” and “less” are relative terms. Provided that there is not the expectation that we somehow work 125% time (in the perhaps utopian world where everyone works to capacity and capability, no one can work more than 100% of what he or she is capable), doing “more” simply means to provide some additional quality with the work we do. For me, I use value to customer as the yardstick. How much value are we offering to our students/staff/faculty (or some subset – residential students? just the financial aid office?) with our services? How can we provide “more” value by doing X instead of Y? Or perhaps by doing a new version of X?
Similarly, “less” just means using a lower quantity of available resources. It does not and should not mean that there are fewer resources, in an absolute sense, with which to provide the same value. Just in a relative sense. In other words, using “less” is all about efficiency. How can we provide value in a manner that consume less time, less dollars, or both?
Ideally, how can we provide more value, more efficiently than we are doing now?
Taking the value concept further, it is quite possible that there are extremely high value products and/or services that are actually extremely costly in terms of resources. In a perfect world we offer huge value at a low cost – a major streamlining of workflows for a specific office using open source software that is easy to install and maintain. But if the value boost is high enough – providing a toolkit that makes Santa Clara Law students “twice” as useful to law firms than students from other schools – then cost becomes less of an issue. Maybe that toolkit involves building multiple web-based software tools and purchasing, installing, and maintaining a very expensive piece of software that provides practical training. Maybe it’s worth it. Maybe not. But it is a possibility one should consider. The “more” value part should be the first consideration, with the “less” resources – efficiency – part coming next. Hopefully if we offer this huge value, high cost solution, at least whatever resources we are expending are the absolute lowest amount required because we are very efficient.
Now – my preferred way of approaching this concept, the only way in which I am truly comfortable espousing anything along the lines of “more” and “less” is to:
“provide more value with more resources, using less resources and being more efficient, all within the same or less amount of time.”
Now, that’s awfully long-winded, but that’s also the history major in me. It is, however, important that all of these points be included.
Provide more value: covered above, but again the key thing is that we first want to provide value. If the customers don’t get the value then we shouldn’t offer it.
With more resources: if I’m asking you to find a way to provide more value, then I’m going to give you a bigger pool of resources – staff and money – to help shape things. To help form the project at the outset. Start with loose reins, then bring them in when you are underway and need control.
Using less resources and being more efficient: Of course, it is not acceptable long-term to add services to our portfolio that consume resources disproportionate to the value being provided. At the least, when pilot leads to production, the service should be streamlined and using fewer resources than all other alternatives.
All within the same or less amount of time: This is key. We all work 100%. For most people, that means 40 hours per week. So what I want is for my staff to do all of this, develop new projects that provide more value, etc, all still within those 40 hours per week.
Of course, if you’re being efficient, then what is really happening is that whereas you provided X amount of value during those 40 hours, you are now providing, say, 1.5X or even 2X in the same amount of time. The entire department is better at providing more value, and over time we do more with more while using less.