Friday, February 10, 2012

"Natural attrition" or "salting the soil and pulling out the plants"

In thinking about the very unfortunate situation with Holden's Elizabeth I recall how Defence Science and Technology Organisation decided it would reduce the numbers of technical and manufacturing staff in late 1980s. I was winding up an apprenticeship in electronics and wondering what might lie next. Even did the first course of an engineering degree.
Back to GMH: if they're not selling the stuff then it's not their job to make cars they don't have sales for, and there's less need for workers. Bugger. 140 I hear.

As an aside it accords with some of my earlier rants about the sales and marketing people having a very solemn duty to generate the cash flow in, and provide livelihoods for the people in the business. It's a gladiator's role, it should not be about fluff and it deserves respect from around the business.

So businesses often have to cut numbers, but I've seen it done in some damaging ways. The scariest word (I would guess) to a line manager would be to hear the words "natural attrition". It's anything but natural.

Reducing staff numbers by natural attrition, to use a gardening metaphor is like salting the soil and pulling out your productive plants. I understand. Public opinion and union pressure means one needs to tread carefully.

But three things make a blithe "natural attrition" strategy a little silly:

Salting the soil
In many places I've seen morale go so low that there's a "why would anybody want to work here". Perhaps it's a method of change but surely that costs.

Pulling out your plants
Good people start looking around and leave. Under that type of situation, the good employees seem to develop an attitude reminiscent of Bruce Willis in "12 Monkeys" where he says "all I see are dead people". Let me explain.

Bruce is James Cole tough guy in the future. The world was wiped out by a plague and Cole is sent back in time to stop it happening. In one of his trips to the pre-apocalyptic world he gets into a fight. His female protagonist back there says "you killed him" but Cole, knowing the future, says "all I see are dead people"


Under the shadow of "natural attrition" the good people keep their resumes up to date, duck out on lunch hours to attend interviews and worse, back at work, might lose empathy for the team push. As when mowing down zombies in those movies "the poor guy, he was once a person".

Not tending the weeds
Some people will be prepared to tough it out. Some of them will be great people, close to retirement or constrained in some other way. They will be unhappy, but hopefully quiet, and will keep doing a good job. Other people may just choose to stay because they have few options outside. They are likely to be unhappy too, hopefully quiet and possibly ineffective. And so whatever production you need to do is now being done by unhappy people waiting out their time or unhappy people who might not be good at their job.

So when I hear the words "natural attrition" I imagine a downwards spiral in the quality of people on the floor, for a number of reasons. If you're looking for major structural change (like getting rid of all your technical and manufacturing staff, as with DSTO) it'll probably work. But often companies try to use "natural attrition" as a means to reduce their staff without changing the feel of the place. If your trying to do that on anything less than a five year time frame, you'll fail.

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