Corporate Clutter

11/03/2011 12:32 pm ET | Updated Jan 03, 2012

In the same way that a clean desk seems to attract clutter, so a corporation can have lots of bits here, there and everywhere that, at best, don't contribute to efficient operation, keeping some people very busy doing things that are harmless but useless; at worst they get in the way of making crisp decisions. The problem is not that this happens, we all know it happens. The problem is figuring out which parts of our process are essential, and which parts is clutter.

In the early 1990s when Bob Horton came back to the UK from the U.S., and became chairman of BP, he immediately eliminated more than 200 corporate committees. Were they all clutter? No, but Bob (living up to his Hatchet Horton nickname) thought this was a good method for figuring out which were needed and which were not. Sure enough, within a couple of years about 10 of them had reappeared. Whew. What a savings of time. I recall one of the managing directors saying, before this had happened, that before the year started he had meetings booked in already on 125 days. How could he possibly function effectively for the corporation in a situation like that? I would say this is a pretty good test for any corporate director to take during a Christmas holiday: look over your calendar for the year and ask, "When am I going to get out to see operations? Do I have enough time to work with people individually? At which of these meetings am I adding value?" Be rigorous.

But clutter is not just about committees and meetings. One of the biggest issues in corporations is internal charging. The R&D department, or IT, or advertising, is required to get business unit support for its projects. In turn the business units start to break down these projects into smaller and smaller units. Management of them is delegated by the business unit leader to lower and lower levels (probably indicating that there are too many levels anyway). Time sheets are used to book time of each individual to the projects. Sound familiar? Good system?

Up to a point. But when you find, and you will find this, that someplace there is a building with hundreds of people just running the internal company charging system, taking a charge for three telephone calls and moving it from internal account A to internal account B, you might ask yourself, isn't there a better way?

The leader's job is not to challenge every process, rather, it is certainly to be sure that the culture in the company is one of management challenging processes to be sure they are efficient. With internal charge out systems, someone has to be stepping back and asking 'What are we trying to accomplish here?' and then, 'How can we accomplish this most efficiently?'

Clutter is thus another word for excessive corporate overhead. Clutter is demoralizing to everyone, or it should be. Unless the leadership of the company is ruthless in rooting it out, clutter is a drag on competitiveness.

About Leadership: About Leadership is a series of 52 columns on corporate leadership - essential skills, leading teams, managing your career, the strategic and business practices to make a company and its leader distinctive from competitors. These columns will be of interest to people leading small and medium sized companies today, many of whom have not had much formal training in management skills and techniques; for the many people in big companies who aspire to senior management; and for anyone who thinks: Give me a hint, how can I do this better?

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