On doing more with less

More of what? Less of what? 90 years ago, Bucky Fuller had a very different answer.

On doing more with less
Photo by Brian Kerr.

2023 is the year of headwinds: of the “soft macro.” You may have started hearing once again—I sure as heck did—an old, wet noodle of a rallying cry:

“We have to do more with less!”

This particular cliché keeps coming back. I heard it at my first job after college, where it was issued as a resource for bravery, an utterance that utterly backfired. In the decades since, I keep hearing it.

Each time, something about the phrase makes me want to fill in the blanks—“Do more (of what?) with less (of what?).”

As far as I can tell, the general usage seems to be:

  • Doing more of this Making money for the company
  • With less of this → People

OK, that sucks! But first, wanna know where the slogan came from?

Bucky Fuller’s “ephemeralization”

Yep, Bucky Fuller. Back in the 1930s, he wrote about ephemeralization—a particular Fullerism he defined as the capability of technological advancement to do “more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing.”

Here it is, on page 279 of Fuller’s Nine Chains to the Moon (1938):

A paragraph excerpted from "Nine Chains to the Moon": "A corollary to the ephemeralizing-toward-pure-energy progression that is taking place throughout all science, and, ensuingly, throughout industry—which simply translates science into bread and butter for people—is that the more abstract the means of accomplishment the more specific the results: Efficiency == doing more with less. Therefore EFFICIENCY EPHEMERALIZES."

If you are not versed in Fullerese and would like to save yourself hundreds of pages of extremely turgid reading, just know that in his framework “doing more with less” entailed:

  • Doing more of this → Curing disease; eliminating infant mortality; providing housing and food for every family on Earth; and increasing the standard of living—and the freedom available for science, for art, for play, for leisure—forever
  • With less of this → Time, space, and energy

What I wonder is… how’d we get from all that—from the translation of “science into bread and butter for people”—to the current jargonic usage, where it means nothing other than “please continue to do the work of five people but with 3, even though our company already sheds cash like a housecat made out of money.”

In the 2023 “soft macro” condition of “doing more with less,” the mechanism by which people are meant to actually accomplish this is deliberately undefined. It’s the same old management-by-objective horseshit: “more with less,” but with no material or managerial support, an effort totally unlinked from the value chain.

From five to three—but what of the two?

In lean management, there’s an answer for what to do when people come up with improvements—even improvements so effective that they take the work of five people and turn it into the work of 3. There has to be an answer, because as soon as an organization starts a serious practice of continuous improvement, it will find improvements like that. Always. They’re just lying around, and the lean methods will uncover them.

Anyways, the lean management answer is this: OK, 3 people will now do that work previously done by five, in a way that is safer, faster, more reliable. This frees up the remaining 2 people to go do something else within the organization. Maybe it’s helping another group get ahead, or helping peers learn continuous improvement. Maybe it’s starting a new project. Nobody loses their job. Nobody is “catapulted” (read: laid off) to the next stage of their career. And all this gets accomplished in a way that everybody can see the improvement, the increased value created for customers, and that the work has now become less harmful and annoying, etc.

It’s critical that management believe in this answer, communicate it effectively, and stick to it over time.

Why? Because that’s what moves an organization:

  • from the (bad) condition where people worry about working themselves out of a job, or observe that they will be punished and/or ignored for noticing problems at the workplace…
  • to the (good) condition where people become deeply engaged in noticing problems and designing improvements to their own work.

It may not be Bucky’s Utopian, humanist vision of translating “science into bread and butter for people,” but it does mean helping people get the work done on time, with less hassle, and respecting the wisdom and capabilities of everybody involved. And… at least for now, you know, I’ll take it.