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October 03, 2005
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 The H.R. Doctor Is In

Organizational Liposuction

Deep down in our hearts as public administrators we know that organizations have some employees or some functions which are not necessary. We know that if some of these functions were simply to disappear tomorrow, citizens or organizational leaders might not even notice.

We know that for various reasons there may be unnecessary positions "loitering" in the halls of government as they have been for many years.

We may have a manager in charge of managing a manager who manages other people. We may have layers of organizational supervision which could have simply built up over the years in the same way sedimentary rock is formed.

We may have some employees who use bullying behavior or are marginal performers, but are not quite bad enough for disciplinary actions. For that matter, we may have supervisors who have not bothered to document properly or made any effort at all over many years to counsel, train or discipline these employees.

In our heart of bureaucratic hearts, we all recognize that this can be a fact of life. It is more likely to be prevalent in a larger organization since there are more programs, facilities, staff and complexity. But even small cities and counties are not immune from being bureaucratically overweight.

On the campaign trail, elected officials and candidates systematically urge that we "get the fat out of government." In fact, it is very much a part of American history to run for office on a platform that includes ample doses of throwing out rascals, shrinking government, eliminating bureaucracy, cutting budgets and reforming "the system." Whether you sat next to candidate George W. in 18th century America or George W. in the 21st century, you would find similar language in similar rhetoric.

Yet, getting bureaucracies to trim their own has proven as difficult as getting Americans to lose weight.

In a world where we crave instant impacts and gratification, we as Americans and we as public administrators find it difficult to sustain long-term programs that produce gradual change. It is easier, more dramatic, and certainly more expensive to treat problems radically after they’ve developed rather than to work on prevention and early intervention.

Like many Americans seeking to drop some pounds, organizations often to turn to a kind of bureaucratic liposuction in an effort to trim the fat. How does organizational liposuction work? Some of the fast results are achieved through the layoff of dozens or hundreds of people, closing of facilities, elimination of services and putting off things like building maintenance or fleet management scheduling. Capital investments in new technology or better ways of doing business may be scrapped. These result in quick apparent change that may, however, extract a very unhealthy toll over the long-term.

Old model civil service rules or union contracts bind and gag public sector flexibility and responsiveness to poor performance. Such restrictions abound in the public sector while they are declining in the private sector.

Layoffs, for example, are a very terrible thing to do and may be a testimonial as much to poor leadership and planning as they are to an immediate crisis response.

However, by being required to use a seniority uber alles system, we may be deluding ourselves that the unproductive or poorly behaving employee who has been in the organization taking up space for years may at last be cast out. However, at the end of the process, the real outcome may well be the elimination of more recently hired, often more energetic, excited, and skilled staff. We think we’ve solved the problem by deleting a social service program, but the already underserved client group may well end up appearing elsewhere in more expensive parts of the local government, such as law enforcement or in a government subsidized healthcare system.

We may save money by not repairing a bridge or strengthening a levee only to find that a subsequent serious collapse might have been avoided if the maintenance had occurred. Now we face a hugely more expensive repair or replacement, well beyond what our budget cutting colleagues ever imagined.

Not investing in employee training and development may save some money in the short-term, but it may really be the shortsighted term. The harm done by preventable errors or accidents which can occur due to outdated or poor training in the sheriff’s or police department, for example, could cost a lot more than to "repair" when the lawyer fees are finally tallied up than the entire training budget.

An overwhelmed, under-resourced HR staff will likely be forced to focus on transaction management rather than being proactive in identifying liabilities and managing them assertively. The result may well be that our reductions create expenditures rather than reducing them.

Organizational liposuction - the radical treatment to show immediate results Ñ may occasionally be necessary. It may be the only method available in very unusual circumstances to break through the inertia that prevents and discourages improvements from happening in the normal course of business. In general, however the radical surgical approach may very well not be cost-effective and can be dangerous to an organization’s overall health.

As appointed and elected officials, we have the opportunity to look beyond the obvious quick "look good on TV" solutions in favor of less glamorous approaches that are healthier for the organization in the long run.

We have a duty to bring about changes in long-term leadership mindsets, and prevent, rather than provoke, trips to "organizational emergency rooms" later. Perhaps the best answers can be derived from the knowledge of the employees themselves through cost savings and cost avoidance strategies with substantial incentives to help overcome the real cause of organizational troubles Ñ inertia.

The HR Doctor wishes you the best in your own personal efforts to control unnecessary weight around your midsection and around your organization.

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor

P.S. - Don’t forget that you can order the HR Doctor’s new book, Don’t Walk by Something Wrong! at, or from bookstores near you! Repeatedly lifting its 400 pages of tips and management advice can even be part of an organizational exercise routine.


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