The title "Less is More" has several hits on your favorite book list website these days - weight loss, simplifying your life, etc. But Jason Jennings version of Less Is More takes this line of reasoning into business. What are the things that super-productive companies do that help them stand above the rest? (Are there any such companies? Do they last?) Of course, this kind of question is fraught with problems - mainly, there better not be non-productive companies that do the same things.
The main idea: focus. Focus on one thing - one thing for the long term, not one thing this quarter. And that one thing is the big idea of the organization - why is the organization on the planet? That big idea sets the direction and the yardstick by which everything is measured.
Of course, it would be a short business book if it didn't have a list or a set of principles below this idea of focus. Jennings has a chapter on each of these topics, some with even more lists, but I'll leave those for your own reading pleasure. These items all seem to either relate directly to the idea of focus, or they create the conditions in which focus can happen:
Trust / Openness: "People only trust someone to lead them if (they believe) everything they say is true." This extends out to customers, suppliers and partners - they won't come back to an organization they don't trust, or the working relationship will be gummed up with bureaucracy.
Destroy bureaucracy (simplify): This sounds a familiar theme to the Four Principles of Flow - specifically, eliminate those local measures so that the work can flow.
Get rid of the wrong people (executives and managers) fast and No Layoffs. I like this pairing, as it says the people in leadership positions need to be on board, and if they can't they should go. But the people in the organization who do the work should stay through thick and thin. This also links back to the long-term vision implied by the BIG idea.
What's the good business reason for doing this (WTGBRFDT)? This question and variations on it link to that BIG idea. In my consulting work, one of the questions we ask is "What is the significant limitation to be overcome" by taking some action. If that can't be answered in a useful way, what is the point of the action?
Understand the real financial drivers. For many people, financial statements are gibberish. I don't think Jennings is suggesting that everyone needs to become an accountant - he's saying that everyone needs to understand how the company makes money, and where money goes within the company.
Systematize everything. This is a classic: if you don't know how it works, you can't change or improve it. And Jennings makes another point that if the system isn't defined, then anyone can monkey with it and the results will be similarly undefined.
Continuous improvement. Just as you can't improve what you don't understand, if you don't have an object (that BIG idea), you don't know in what direction to change.
Compensation should be directly linked to productivity. This is an interesting topic, as it requires many of the topics above to be working well: Trust/Openness, reduced bureaucracy, understandable systems. And of course, this creates an impressive drive to improve the systems in which people work to enhance productivity.
The plug-in myth: Technology doesn't create a competitive edge - neither does knowledge(!). These can be copied. It is more important to understand the flow of value and how the technology (or other change) are going to significantly change that flow - and the change had better offset the required investment and additional operating expenses.
Motivate: Keep everyone on the same page. Keep people aligned to that familiar objective - the BIG idea. This section also talks about the motivational effect of setting up an us-against-them environment, which I've mentally linked to the idea of tribes.
A lean spirit. The book references Lean obliquely - it seems that Jennings' example companies all use many ideas that embody the spirit of Lean. This closing chapter lists 11 traits of leaders of highly productive companies - many of which reflect back on the preceding chapters. Many of which are good traits of any leader. The idea here is that they come together around their BIG idea.
Some quotes and topics that stood out for me:
"Expensive solutions to any kind of problem are usually the work of mediocrity." (from Ingvar Kamprad of IKEA)
Unfortunately, most corporate leaders act as though they suffer from ADD when it comes to keeping their companies focused on mastering a simple BIG objective.
Closed-door conversations are a sign that something needs to be hidden, and people jump to the conclusion that its bad. Even if it is just a personal call to your doctor. Closed management structures are even worse.
If you trust people to do the right thing, you will largely discover that they do.
All bureaucracies are a case of "mine is bigger than yours."
Employees (of highly productive companies) play as much a role as management in deciding what the systems will be. That's real empowerment.
The real challenge (to motivation) is to spend less time trying to design motivational programs and more time figuring how to get out of the way of people trying to do good things.
"The danger is when the financial objectives of an organization are placed in front of its mission or purpose." quoting Frederick Taylor - a man who is oft-maligned for creating Taylorism and turning people into robots.
As I listen to people in the weeks since reading the book - and particularly listening to the speakers at the recent TOCICO conference, I hear the ideas expressed in this book over and over again. Interesting how that happens.