I recently recounted a personal story to a bank's management team that I've shared frequently over the years. I tell it to drive home the point about the importance of eliminating "clutter" that accumulates in our organizations over time. As the group laughed, I assured them that, sadly, this was a true story.
About a month after being hired to manage a bank's branch network, I was informed that I would be meeting with several of the CFO's staff. They wanted to educate me on the reports they prepared.
As I sat there with three well-meaning folks, I felt the urge to look around the room for the hidden camera. Surely, I was being set up for a "gotcha" moment. These folks placed no less than eight very thick reports on the table. One guy literally rolled his reports in on a small dolly.
As they began to explain what was in each, a smile crossed my face. About 2 minutes into our conversation, my smile became a light chuckle.
I asked them, "Which of these reports is the most important?" The question left them perplexed. I continued, "Which of these reports tells me if we're making money? Which one shows me if my job is in trouble?"
The synopsis of their answers was, "Huh?"
As I smiled and looked at the small mountains of folders in front of me, I told them, "Come on guys, some of these have to be redundant. You tell me which two of these reports you want me to crawl through each week, and I'll do it. But I'm only going to read two. If I have to digest all of these stacks, I'll never leave my desk!"
When they sensed that I was serious, they began stressing that those reports were what management had always relied upon to monitor the branches and make decisions.
Not knowing when to shut up, I asked, "Did the guy they fired who had this job before read all of these?"
I soon learned (okay, relearned) a lesson about internal politics. And when I received a call the next morning from my boss wanting to know what I had done to make the accounting department hate me, I figured I needed a new approach.
In my quickly-scheduled follow-up meeting, I asked these folks if they could create a new report for me. I simply wanted a report that showed some very basic new account and simple revenue and expense figures. I also asked if they could throw in a couple of columns with that information from the previous month and year for each branch.
My only stipulation was that everything had to fit on one page. (We weren't pulling up figures electronically in those days.)
The same people who had been mad at me were practically joyful about producing a new report. I had to laugh. Telling folks you wanted to get rid of work that didn't seem useful caused uproar. But asking for a new report, thus requiring even more resources, was welcomed enthusiastically.
One of the biggest compliments I've ever gotten was when the guy who now has that job (a decade later) recently told me that he still only reads the "new" report. He also told me that the reports I ignored were still being produced, and being ignored.
They're electronic now, so they aren't killing as many trees. But they're still killing lots of time.
When I tell that story to bankers, I'm quick to point out that I’m not slamming my accounting buddies. I don’t even consider it an "accounting" story, per se. But it helps illustrate something I've seen time and again over the years.
Organizations and managers are far more willing to add things requiring their teams' time and attention (a new sales contest, a new report to generate, a new standing meeting, etc.) than to ever eliminate entrenched practices of dubious value. I find myself time and again reminding folks that changing or eliminating old practices isn't an indictment of anyone or anything. It’s simply what smart, evolving organizations and managers do.
Legend has it that when asked how he was able to carve something as magnificent as his sculpture of David, Michelangelo stated, "I carve away everything that isn't David." That sounds like pretty sound management practice to me.
Our teams have a finite amount of time, energy, attention, and talent at their disposal to generate whatever results we ask of them. We owe it to them to give clear directives and expectations. We also owe it to them to strive to eliminate the operational "clutter" that tends to accumulate over time.
I'd suggest that it takes more conviction and yes, creativity, to eliminate unnecessary practices and programs than to add new items to our teams' "to-do" lists. But as our branch teams get smaller while simultaneously being asked to be even more productive, carving away the non-essential is more important than ever.
Dave Martin is an executive vice president and chief training consultant at NCBS, a SunTrust Banks Inc. subsidiary that offers consulting, training, design and construction services for retail banking programs. He can be reached at Dave.Martin@ncbs.com