Meetings: the plaque of an organization.


Ed Whitacre Jr., the CEO of GM, is struggling to get the company moving faster. The ossified bureaucracy at GM renders rapid decision-making nearly impossible, and nowhere is that more evident than in the plague of meetings that prevent people from actually making decisions. How bad is it? The Wall Street Journal reported that in the past,

even minor decisions had to be mulled over by committee after committee. Once several years ago, the company tried to stamp out bureaucracy—and ended up appointing a committee to oversee how many committee meetings should be held.

Whitacre is trying hard to push authority and decision-making responsibility deeper into the organization, rather than requiring everything to be approved by the CEO. The Journal describes a recent meeting designed to get his approval for a new generation of cars and trucks:

Before the executives could present the pictures, charts and financial projections they had prepared, Whitacre stopped them to ask why they were having the meeting in the first place.

"Y'all have checked all this out pretty thoroughly," Mr. Whitacre said in his Texas drawl, according to a participant. "I imagine you're not going to approve something that's bad or unprofitable, so why don't you make the final decisions?"

Mr. Whitacre then let the team's plans stand—and suggested that the group end its regular Friday sessions.

I don't know if Whitacre has spent much time reading Peter Drucker, but Drucker was bluntly eloquent about the dangers of meetings. As a recent article in Human Resources IQ explains, Drucker went so far as to say that meetings are by definition a concession to deficient organization, because you can either work or meet -- you can't do both at the same time. And although meetings are a necessary evil, they should be rare:

But above all, meetings have to be the exception rather than the rule. An organization which everybody meets all the time is an organization in which no one gets anything done.

Too many meetings always bespeak poor structure of jobs and the wrong organizational components. . . if people in an organization find themselves in meetings a quarter of their time or more -- there is time-wasting malorganization.

Too many meetings signify that work that should be in one job or in one component is spread over several jobs or several components. They signify that responsibility is diffused and information is not addressed to the people that need it.

How does your organization compare to Drucker's 25% benchmark? My guess is that you're way over that. Most executives I see are spending over 40% of their time in meetings (and most of those are poorly run, poorly focused, and don't result in clear direction for the participants).

Meetings are like plaque, clogging the arteries of the business -- and of the value stream. Companies become immobile from these unproductive, pointless time sucks. Compare GM's sclerotic meeting culture with the stripped down, focused, problem solving meetings at Lantech, where decisions are made at the point of the problem, and at lowest possible level. (Read more about how those meetings are folded into standard work here.) No committees, no fluffy agendas, no long-winded Powerpoint presentations: all the information and all the necessary people are at the location of the problem ready to make a decision. Quickly.

Get rid of the meetings. Go to the gemba. Start flossing.

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