February promises to be an inspiring month in the sports world. The 2010 Winter Olympics, scheduled for Vancouver, BC, will feature world-class athletes risking injury, and in some cases their lives, during competition.

February promises to be an inspiring month in the sports world. The 2010 Winter Olympics, scheduled for Vancouver, BC, will feature world-class athletes risking injury, and in some cases their lives, during competition. And while it seems cliché, even those who fail to win a medal, are far and above more competent in skills than their peers who did not make it to the Games. They are the elite of the elite and the fact that they made it to Vancouver means they already have achieved a great degree of success.

According to a recent Washington Post article by Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto (views.washingtonpost.com/leadership/panelists/2010/01/fewer-followers-better-results.html), managers faced with fewer employees have the opportunity to turn those who remain into an “elite team.” Martin acknowledges the pain of those who have lost their job during this economic downturn, especially that felt by the primary breadwinners in the family. However, for the company who must “do more with less,” he sees fewer employees as an opportunity rather than a problem.

“In my experience, managers vastly overestimate the incremental value of an additional person and underestimate the cost,” says Martin. He says that companies tend to measure cost in terms of salary and benefits, neglecting the cost of “coordination”-meeting with that employee to give instructions, reviewing work, building consensus, evaluating performance, etc. Instead of creating memos, holding meetings and the like, smaller teams of employees are free to produce output and thereby create a more effective company.

Martin is not some ivory-tower scholar. He has real-world experience in running a strategic consulting firm and experienced, firsthand, the dichotomy of more workers not equating to more output. As the head of the Rotman School, he reduced staff and experienced greater productivity with his communications staff even winning some awards.

Of course, not everyone agrees with Martin’s position. In the comments section following his Post article, many readers question his effectiveness, and Martin responds with quantifiable data. Others spew assumptions about Martin’s aim in the article, intent to harm employees or even his morality in contributing toward higher unemployment. Martin responds adeptly and I encourage you to follow the discussion.

Martin is correct in saying that shrinking workforces are a reality of today’s environment, and manufacturers have known this for a long time. December 2009 unemployment numbers were more than 10%, and the actual number is even more as almost 1 million people have stopped looking for work because they believe no job exists for them and an uncounted number are underemployed. December’s biggest losses were in manufacturing and construction. The January 8 edition of The Kiplinger Letter estimates that unemployment will rise to 10.5% during 2010, and that more than 125,000 new jobs per month must be created to hold that already high rate steady.

Even if manufacturers are able to hire, the pool of qualified workers continues to be “shallow.” Many applicants lack prerequisite skills. In the December 18 edition of The Kiplinger Letter, their editors report on the difficulty of finding qualified workers. “Despite the loss of about 8 million jobs since the recession began, manufacturers as a whole have continued to seek qualified machinists and machine operators, welders, laser die cutters and other highly skilled laborers,” says the report.

Manufacturers have found ways to remain successful, increase their business and improve their quality. This trend can continue, despite the dearth of available talent and shrinking numbers of employees.

Martin has some advice. “Don’t think you have a motivation challenge. Think that your people have been freed up to be more effective. Encourage them, pat them on the back and congratulate them when they produce more output with fewer people.”

When the Olympic athletes gather in Canada this month, you will have more in common with them than you may realize. Your remaining employees are your elite team. They are the core of what is an Olympic challenge to remain and increase your competitiveness.

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