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A merciless exposure of self-indulgent management
on 13 January 2003
It's about 100 years since Frederick Winslow Taylor introduced the philosophy of "scientific management", with its offspring such as the time-and-motion study and the mythical man-month. That's about how long it takes for a big idea to soak into the awareness of managers everywhere - especially those who are more committed to looking good than to managing well.
Tom DeMarco, co-author (with Tim Lister) of the magnificent "Peopleware", has done it again. Although "Slack" runs a little over 200 pages, you will probably read it in less than four hours because it is actually quite hard to put down. You will keep on thinking, "Yes, I've seen that!" and "Those words ring a bell".
In the course of his consultancy practice, which has taken him into many organizations including Apple, HP, Lucent and IBM, DeMarco has noticed a lot of counterproductive management behaviour. Many acts and policies that look good in the short term lead to corporate death in the longer term. More specifically, it is always possible to squeeze out a few more percentage points of "efficiency" - but only at the cost of damaging morale, precipitating burnout and losing the flexibility without which sensible decisions cannot be made.
Faster isn't always better. Effectiveness matters more than efficiency. People are not interchangeable "resources". Without challenge and growth, the best employees soon leave. Overheads are not necessarily bad. Consciously or subconsciously, we already know these things. DeMarco just hammers them home so we will never forget them again.
I really have only one quibble with "Slack". DeMarco has no business criticising Dilbert and his fellow engineers for "giving up" on their pointy-haired bosses. Sure, employees have a responsibility to make allowances and go the extra mile - but the PHBs systematically abuse every extra bit of slack that anyone cuts them. That's part of the joke, of course.
This is not just a book that will confirm your suspicions, and reassure you that you are not the one who is going mad. It's a simple, easily-understood message that everyone in business needs to hear. Most of all those right at the top - DeMarco says that many employees have told him, "I wish my boss could be here now to hear you say that".