All right, engineers, I got your attention by using an equation in my title, didn't I? Since I know you're dying to know, P equals productivity and N equals the number of people involved. Before I defend my formula, let me provide some background.

As everyone is aware, there is tremendous pressure on our industry to decrease costs, increase productivity and improve customer service, all in the name of competition, deregulation or re-regulation. As an end result, compared to the past, the consumer-customer should receive electric service at a lower price and with better service.

Teams, Teams Everywhere

Why then have I seen a trend the past several years that inherently defeats these goals? It seems like no planning (related to new ways to decrease costs, increase productivity or improve customer service) can be done without designating a committee, team, task force or — my special favorite — a “diagonal slice of the organization” to work on the problem.

We all know that “two heads are better than one” because of the effects of synergy, different points of view and specialized knowledge of different aspects of the business processes. The trend, however, is that these committees typically have way too many members. Frankly, people are assigned to these task forces who bring absolutely nothing useful to the table.

I think this may be an outgrowth of the “political correctness” (PC) phenomenon, where there's a pervasive fear of offending someone somehow, or perhaps an outgrowth of “participative management,” where every employee is supposed to be knowledgeable about everything going on in the company. Both of these started out as a positive way to fix some sociological problems and ended up as the be-all and end-all. For example, why else would someone from human resources (HR) be selected to participate on a team studying improved business processes for installing new service for small commercial customers?

Admittedly, the field reps, the designers, the surveyors, the truck drivers who deliver materials and the construction crews are all humans — as is the customer who owns that corner convenience store — but HR just doesn't need to be in on this one.

Another problem is that two or more people are assigned to the team from the same area of the company. Is this to have more voting power when decisions are made? Is the second person someone with limited experience and the idea that being on the team will be good training?

If you've ever been on a large committee, you know my equation is accurate. Large committees just can't seem to accomplish anything but waste people's valuable time and increase profits for those who sell coffee and doughnuts. I assert it also is true for small committees. Synergy must be balanced with committee size and membership.

My Recommendations

A few simple solutions could make committees more effective:

  • Assign only one person from each area that absolutely has to be represented on the active committee, and send one of your best people.

  • Areas with a minor interest should not serve on the committee but be brought in for a review and comment session after the committee has drafted recommendations.

  • Carefully consider whether information technology (IT) needs to be a permanent team member. If you have adequate IT tools in place to support your processes, then probably not. If you may need new or revised IT tools, then IT membership may be appropriate.

  • If anyone uses the term “diagonal slice of the organization,” consider it a red flag. Company areas with no interest or no relevant expertise should be barred from the committee — PC or not.

  • Consider postponing the formation of the task force. Have your expert draft a white paper first. He can ask questions of other experts while drafting it. The draft white paper can be circulated — in parallel — to other business areas for comment prior to the first actual task force meeting. And certainly give the task force members the white paper in advance and emphasize that the chairman will assume everyone has studied it and not just read it.

  • Have the chairman announce at the beginning of each committee meeting, “This meeting is costing the company X hundred dollars per hour. Let's be productive.”

Productivity Matters

The ongoing goals of decreasing costs, increasing productivity and improving customer service are achievable. However, do not allow the formation of committees, teams and task forces to be insidious barriers to reaching your goals. Remember “N,” the number of people involved in my productivity formula? It's an exponent and it's in the denominator. That means smaller is better.

Matt Tani can be reached at (417) 455-1772 or via e-mail at