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Yash Gupta
Business School Dean

Yash Gupta

Yash Gupta is Professor and Dean of The Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.

The 'focused factory'

Q: This week's Washington Post investigative series on the government's burgeoning intelligence network prompts the question: Can an organization get so big and so complex that it just can't be managed effectively? Or is "too-big-to-manage" just a cop-out for flawed structure and lack of leadership?

In 1974, Wickham Skinner published an article in the Harvard Business Review in which he introduced his concept of "the focused factory." To increase productivity, Skinner suggested, organizations should focus on a specific task and not allow themselves to become distracted by an array of goals and missions that could conflict with one another.

Skinner's concept has as much validity today as it did 36 years ago, perhaps even more so now as enhanced technology and other developments have greatly increased the complexity of organizational life. The nature of organizations is to grow; indeed, that's generally how they measure success. Still, growth must be controlled, and organizations must take steps to guard against the excesses that often result from expansion.

One such measure that's used in private industry is to create divisions and give each one a large amount of autonomy, all under the general supervision of a corporate authority. GE is a prominent example of a huge corporation that has divided itself into numerous autonomous divisions - appliances, entertainment, energy, health care, software, and so on.

This model is not so easily followed in the government sector, where information tends to be far more integrated and hierarchical. The government is already divided into various agencies, but perhaps each should be given more autonomy, with general supervision from the departmental leaders under whom they work. To ensure improved efficiency, these agencies could be required to be more transparent in how they operate and make decisions. They could be made more accountable.

I realize that's a tall order because the government, particularly in Washington, includes entrenched bureaucracies that don't change even when a new administration comes into power. In private industry, it's a bit simpler; the market will tell you whether you're doing something the right way or the wrong way. Your customers will let you know in a hurry if your organization has become bloated, secretive, or unfocused.


By Yash Gupta

 |  July 19, 2010; 4:06 PM ET
Category:  Government leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I totally agree with the opinion in this article. But I don't see how to improve the transparency could help the government organizations to focus more on what they do.

Posted by: joynobel | July 20, 2010 11:18 AM
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