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Umberto Tunesi

Quality Insider

The Real Problem With Understaffing

Limited resources also limit quality

Published: Monday, March 24, 2014 - 15:53

If we were extraterrestrials or even just earthly kids, we’d be hard-pressed to understand the many lamentations about understaffing made at all organizational levels. The world’s seven billion inhabitants continually increase despite birth control policies and practices, thus making warm bodies at least readily available.

Italy alone has an official 60 million residents plus almost 10 million unofficial migrants, most of them from North Africa or the Middle East, all needing to work, and willing to do any work, just to survive.

Italy bemoans an unemployment rate higher than 12 percent, and that jumps to more than 40 percent for people under 30 years of age. Should we believe Italian managers who export their companies to Eastern European countries because—they say—they can’t find adequate staffing at home? Italy currently serves as the G8’s “understaffing benchmark,” even as it maintains its top-rate status on the unemployment rosters.

Here, politicians haven’t enough time to answer questions, let alone tackle social issues; the police are understaffed, thus making checks ineffective; airport employees complain they must work long hours, but you see them quietly and happily walking up and down the airport corridors while you’re waiting for your flight; hospital corridors look just the same.

And so on and so on.

Italy’s understaffing and unemployment figures are impressive, but regardless of the country, at hospitals, public offices, and private companies, one has to wait uselessly due to “understaffing.” It’s the same thing with call centers.

But is this truly understaffing?

I would say, generally speaking, organizations’ operational departments are heavily understaffed while their service departments—e.g., accounting, human resources, IT, and engineering—are largely overstaffed. Such an imbalance creates demotivated people and internal conflicts.

An Irish budget airline touted how it reduced waiting times by accepting only online check-ins—or did it really want to reduce the cost of personnel, instead? Certainly this profit-oriented agenda seems to motivate many “understaffing” issues.

Let’s face it: Quality comes at a cost. I can’t buy a real Swiss watch for the same price as its Asian counterfeit. So, too, with quality. The real problem with understaffing is that it negatively affects quality and creates a vicious cycle: The less companies invest in people, the less they will get, ultimately, from their products or services.

So it’s important that companies honestly analyze their staffing needs, and managers do the same for their departments. If we don’t, it’s arguably our worst mistake. If we neglect this or do a poor job of it, we should ask ourselves if we’re fit for our jobs.

Therefore I don’t personally see problems with under- or overstaffing, but rather of right staffing. Companies must take responsibility for their personnel—both in terms of quantity and quality. They must provide the human resources necessary to maintain the promises they make to their customers. Simply put, staffing requirements must be identified and evaluated against customer requirements.

But I’m not finished yet. The more observant among us have surely noticed that where there’s under- or overstaffing, there’s often under- and overpayment, that is, salaries lower or higher than average. This phenomenon, according to which understaffed units are also underpaid, seems to contradict the accepted market law that states the fewer the available goods, the higher their price. It doesn’t seem to work that way for human resources, at least according to organizations I’m familiar with or have heard about. This is not only true of public organizations but private, too.

The best description of an organization I’ve found is “people joining together to respect tribal rites and sacrifice to tribal gods.” In a post titled “Tribal Knowledge,” Mark Moore warns that a company culture that encourages this type of undocumented expertise is also creating a real risk for itself.

Typically, long-time “tribal” members don't need much training, and they’ve become accustomed to low salaries, both positive characteristics in management’s view. But these tribal elders aren’t very innovative, either; they tend to do things the way they’ve always done them. If given the right jobs and roles, they’re a useful ballast for the young and help to stabilize the culture. However, if there are too many of them, the company will progress slowly, even unprofitably.

Eventually, the tribe will become divided. You can see it in the company’s canteen or around the coffee dispensers: people hardly speaking to each other, even if they work in the same room or are members of the same project team. They don’t belong to the same tribe, so how can we expect them to exchange knowledge and information?

If we add to this the natural rivalry from unjustifiable and imbalanced workloads and salaries, then discord is inevitable.

Here’s a practical example: Italy’s healthcare system, which is under the European Union’s investigation for corruption and bribery. It’s run at a worryingly inefficient rate by untrained, nonspecialized, and of course underpaid personnel. And there’s not many of them, either: The waiting time for even quick or urgent checks is several months—except for the privileged few who can pay their way to the top of the list.

Of course, neither the tribal chief nor his friend and accomplice the witch doctor will admit their misdemeanors and misdeeds. They insist they’ve applied the law, or at least obeyed orders coming from “above.”

It’s no wonder the World Health Organization cut the Italian healthcare system’s throat by classifying it as more or less the 10th best in the world, when in 2000 it was second only to the system in France.

The principle can be worded in many ways, but I like Aldous Huxley’s: “God cannot be cheated.”


About The Author

Umberto Tunesi’s picture

Umberto Tunesi

Umberto Tunesi is a management system auditor for the quality, automotive, environment, social responsibility, and health and safety fields. He brings his natural and educational background to audit companies based on a continual process approach that confutes many-faced value management systems. He lives and works in northern Italy.