Fewer, Better People

The first time I heard the concept of “fewer, better people” was in an executive education session taught by my colleague and mentor Earl Sasser several years ago.  I have been captivated by the idea ever since, the idea of building an organization that cultivates and rewards excellence in its employees — and makes it sustainable by minimizing the size of the team.  I have rarely seen the fewer/better HR strategy in practice, however.  In a recent NYT interview, Kip Tindall, CEO of the Container Store described his version of it:

…one great person could easily be as productive as three good people. One great is equal to three good. If you really believe that, a lot of things happen. We try to pay 50 to 100 percent above industry average. That’s good for the employee, and that’s good for the customer, but it’s good for the company, too, because you get three times the productivity at only two times the labor cost.

A significant obstacle to enacting this strategy is that you need a great deal of confidence in your ability to tell the difference between good and great employees. And then you need the discipline to say no to the good ones, which can be particularly difficult in a growth context.  But the merely good can destroy a culture of great.  Finally, you need to design an environment where great people can work effectively.

None of these steps is easy.  Take the average fast food restaurant as an example. Now try to redesign the restaurant to require a third of the people, each making twice the current wage.  The current selection and training processes would have to be scratched.  Jobs and incentives would have to be thoughtfully reconsidered.  Where to begin?  Start with this workforce in mind, and pull out a clean sheet of paper. How could their work be done differently?

The answers aren’t obvious, but what’s the potential payoff?  Employees, customers and owners who all love interacting with your business.

3 Responses to Fewer, Better People

  1. Hi Francis,

    I like the idea of working with great people only… I enjoy giving 100% to whatever I do, collaborating, creating and motivating… but I have a big concern with employing fewer people…

    As the planet goes through exponential growth of the human population, we already have the rise of violence, drugs and terrorism due to not having enough work for all and sustainable villages. This is causing drug trafficking, gangs and global migration… what will we do with all the people without work?

    I am calling for the creation of sustainable villages and recently wrote this to Monika Mitchell of Good Business International, Inc.,

    “That was a great article on For the Love of Business in Good Business International News… it reminded me that with global population in exponential growth, adding a billion people each decade to Earth, we need a new economic system where all goods and services derive from “love and care for the self, love and care for each other, and love and care for the Earth,” supported by a World Love Bank (see attached) encouraging the wealthy to invest in 7 people and sustainable communities. These sustainable villages will be made up of community gardens, orchards, permaculture, organic farming, community supported agriculture, cooperative farms, food co-ops, downtown green markets, health care, nutrition education, and community celebrations of arts and crafts. Together, we can all create a loving life with others and care for our beloved Earth. Thank you!!! ”

    I look forward to the possibility of exchanging ideas with you … My work is in personal, interpersonal, family, community and global transformation. You can see some references on my website. http://www.7keystolove.net

    Best regards,
    Sandy Hinden

  2. Sandy, I think Frances’ point is counter-intuitive. Fewer, better people could potentially create better organizations, which in turn, could create a better world. There certainly are challenges to structuring an organization around this idea, but I think it would create more passion, excellence and customer satisfaction, while modeling what high performance looks like.



  3. Mike Toffel says:

    My son’s elementary school principle Michael Sabin has made a similar point with respect to hiring teachers. When facing a choice between hiring an outstanding teacher who might only stay two years, or a good teacher who might stay for two decades, I’ve heard (admittedly secondhand) that he said that it’s far better to hire the outstanding teacher. Despite the lack of continuity, the excellent teacher not only gives her students a huge boost, but has major spillover effects improving teachers in other classrooms. Neat idea, certainly worthy of empirical testing.

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