Is there such a thing as “productive overhead”?  Or is that just an oxymoron?

I believe that such a thing exists, but is exceedingly rare.

Let’s imagine that each worker churns out 30 widgets an hour on average.  For a 40 hour week, that’s 1200 widgets per employee.  But if I take an hour out of each week for a meeting, that’s 1170 widgets.  If we spend half an hour every day for filling out reports (for how productive we are!) that is now down to 1095 widgets per week.

You’re no doubt very perceptive, noticing that I’m just subtracting here.  No addition – production never goes up when I add overhead.

But we all know that it’s not this simple.  If worker A is happily churning out widgets which don’t work with worker B’s widgets, my REAL production may well be zero, with massive amounts of waste.  So we’ll send both workers to a class which teaches them how to produce the RIGHT widgets.  Production skyrockets, and our “overhead” really is just an investment in our people.

That sounds like an off-the-wall example, but it’s not as uncommon as you might think.  I’ve seen cases where project teams split up work into pieces which were then given to different engineers, and nobody noticed for two months that there were design errors which doomed the effort from the start.  Any “overhead” which would have identified the errors would have taken effective production from zero to, well, much higher.

Creative people tend to avoid this kind of planning and checking, because it reduces the joy that comes from freely exercising their imagination.  But it’s where you as a leader need to step in and apply good business judgment.

Lots of time is wasted on worthless meetings, so we should be doing everything we can to stomp those out.  But how do you know if a meeting is improving productivity?

  • It’s as short as possible – no more filling up the hour just because that’s what’s on the calendar.
  • It has no more attendees than necessary to work the issues at hand.
  • It identifies issues that wouldn’t have been seen otherwise.  Often the issues aren’t actually resolved during the meeting, unless the issue is primarily differences in attendees’ points of view.
  • It drives alignment which helps everyone deliver maximum contribution for the team as a whole.
  • People come away enthusiastic and focused.

I’ve seen more companies making use of the concept of the “team huddle.”  This is a stand-up meeting, usually 5-15 minutes, which focuses just on the day’s issues.  The requirement to stand up is important, because it makes people uncomfortable when the discussion goes too long.  It focuses on top-of-mind issues, so people feel more rewarded for having made progress.

This doesn’t eliminate ALL other meetings, of course, because there’s still issues which are deeper, broader, and require more deliberation.  But it sure can replace those regular Dilbert-like meetings which most people regard as pontificating, boring, and eating donuts.