For decades now, the accepted wisdom has been the same for both nutrition and management: cut the fat. Just as emerging science has come to show the health benefits of nutritional fat, it is time to reexamine the managerial obsession with eliminating “fat” and organizational waste.
Food For Thought
In the late 1970’s, the federal government launched a task force of experts to develop a national guide to healthy nutrition. The result of this effort was the USDA’s first Dietary Guidelines Statement, issued as a 20-page booklet in 1980, and as a result, the message to consumers was clear: eat foods like oils and butter sparingly. The theory was well-intentioned, based on the connection between those foods and cholesterol as understood at the time. In 1992, these recommendations were graphically represented with the USDA’s Food Pyramid, in which carbohydrate-heavy breads and grains formed the large foundation of a healthy diet, while the fats were placed in the tiny portion at the top with such things as sugary sweets.
As has been noted in many places (here is but one), this “cut the fat” mantra not only correlated to changes in America’s eating behaviors; it also correlated with a much more concerning trend. After slowly growing in the years before the landmark USDA guidance, rates of obesity among Americans zoomed upwards beginning in the same time frame of the late 1970’s. Even as more and more Americans substituted high-carb, low-fat foods (most often heavily processed) for high-fat foods (but mostly natural), American waistlines grew rather than shrank. More perplexing was the so-called “French Paradox”: the French maintained lower rates of coronary heart disease even as they kept to their traditional diet full of saturated fats.
As those trends continued over time in the wrong direction, researchers began digging deeper into the data and questioning the conventional wisdom. Scholarly studies were published, news articles were written, and books were produced all questioning the decades-long dogma of “fat = bad.” Butter even became a TIME magazine coverboy, with a giant swirl of yellowy goodness positioned beneath a simple headline: “Eat Butter.”
Finally, in 2015, the USDA issued its latest version of their five-year Dietary Guidelines, and a seismic change had occurred. As noted by Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian and Dr. David Ludwig in the Journal of the American Medical Association:
In the new DGAC report, one widely noticed revision was the elimination of dietary cholesterol as a “nutrient of concern.” … A less noticed, but more important, change was the absence of an upper limit on total fat consumption. The DGAC report neither listed total fat as a nutrient of concern nor proposed restricting its consumption. Rather, it concluded, “Reducing total fat (replacing total fat with overall carbohydrates) does not lower CVD [cardiovascular disease] risk … Dietary advice should put the emphasis on optimizing types of dietary fat and not reducing total fat.” Limiting total fat was also not recommended for obesity prevention … With these quiet statements, the DGAC report reversed nearly 4 decades of nutrition policy that placed priority on reducing total fat consumption throughout the population. … a global limit on total fat inevitably lowers intake of unsaturated fats, among which nuts, vegetable oils, and fish are particularly healthful. Most importantly, the policy focus on fat reduction did not account for the harms of highly processed carbohydrate (eg, refined grains, potato products, and added sugar)–consumption of which is inversely related to that of dietary fat.
Now, butter is back, and a whole new trend has emerged: fatty coffee, which combines a large measure of fat-rich butter and coconut oil with freshly ground black coffee. This concoction combines the increased metabolic effects of caffeine with the hunger-satisfying properties of fat. When paired with a diet low on insulin-triggering carbohydrates, proponents aim to put their body chemistry into a state of ketosis, in which stored fat becomes the body’s main source of fuel.
In short: we have gone from cutting fat from our diets and growing collectively more obese, to now putting butter in our coffee and bringing the sour cream back in order to burn the fat instead. If you’re wondering how you ended up in the “Food and Drink” section of Forbes, let me explain why all this butter talk matters as it relates to leadership and organizational management.
From Lean Eating To Lean Management
Ever since Frederick Winslow Taylor first brought his stopwatch to the foundry floor at Midvale Steel Works and published the results of his work, the principle of eliminating inefficient waste from the operation of an organization has been a dominant theme in business management. From the days of Henry Ford’s mass production revolution to Toyota’s “just in time” manufacturing model of the Sixties and Seventies to Motorola’s Six-Sigma process improvement methodology of the Eighties, “scientific management” has been the way to win by making things faster, cheaper, and better.
Over the last two decades or so, this paradigm of efficient operation has leaped outside its original manufacturing origins and into the white-collar world of the Knowledge Economy. It isn’t just the automotive factory floor that gets its organizational fat cut; now, as Lean.org assures us, any organization regardless of sector or work-type can be made “lean”:
The core idea is to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. Simply, lean means creating more value for customers with fewer resources.
A lean organization understands customer value and focuses its key processes to continuously increase it. The ultimate goal is to provide perfect value to the customer through a perfect value creation process that has zero waste. …
A popular misconception is that lean is suited only for manufacturing. Not true. Lean applies in every business and every process. It is not a tactic or a cost reduction program, but a way of thinking and acting for an entire organization.
Businesses in all industries and services, including healthcare and governments, are using lean principles as the way they think and do.
But, as with the dietary dogma of the Eighties and Nineties, the question has to be asked: is this healthy in the world we live in now? As the drive to cut the fat from organizations has become the dominant managerial practice, the growth in the values of public companies has greatly outpaced the growth of their inventive output. Comparing the market capitalization of the world’s publicly traded companies with the numbers of patent applications filed with the US Patent and Trademark Office reveals a striking difference:
These trends are concerning if leadership thinkers as varied as Seth Godin, Google’s Eric Schmidt, and General Stanley McChrystal (ret.) are correct: that the confluence of the internet, mobile connectivity and cloud computing have fundamentally reshaped the topography of our working world. In this new world, winning requires —
• Creativity (Godin’s “Linchpins”) over Predictability,
• Talent (Schmidt’s “Smart Creatives”) over Process, and
• Resilience (McChrystal’s “Team of Teams”) over Efficiency.
This isn’t to say that the Taylorist values of predictability, process and efficiency are no longer important. Rather, they are simply no longer sufficient to win. What’s worse: if those impulses are left unchecked, they will choke out of existence the one thing most necessary in organizations for creativity, talent and resilience to flourish: empty space. (Think of the targeted free time made famous by companies like 3M and Google.)
Creativity happens in the margins of busyness, and Imagination flourishes in the dead zones of boredom. It is a messy process, with many fits and starts, all of which generate the kinds of “waste” (both in time and actual material) that the “lean” mindset seeks to reduce to the perfect number of zero. If, as Steve Jobs said, creativity is about connecting disparate dots, that process requires there to be idle dots just laying around not being used in the first place.
People with talent — not just technical aptitude but also the emotional engine to harness it — need the time free from measurable value-creation demands to do the value-creating work they are best suited to do. A perfect process that puts everyone to work on measurable activities 100% of the time with zero waste is like a boa constrictor that squeezes from the organization the spaces necessary for the real impacting efforts of “deep work,” as author Cal Newport calls it.
Finally, an organization with zero “fat” is one that is perfectly optimized for the environment as currently understood. Once that environment changes — and who would kid themselves into thinking that won’t happen sooner rather than later? — the hyper-lean organization finds itself efficient but fragile. Go to your kitchen and look around: if leaders ran their pantries like they run their organizations, a “just in time” food purchasing plan that results in zero waste would not be seen as a sign of wealth and success. Instead, that is the definition of subsistence, and efficiently being one unpredictable event away from hunger is the opposite of resilience.
Taking inspiration from the fatty coffee concept (I take mine with cinnamon!), let go of the decades-old dogma about organizational fat and try something new. Rather than trying to cut all of the fat out, find smarter ways to burn it, putting it to use as the fuel that drives your organization’s success. Here are a few suggestions:
• Don’t judge an employee or team’s “available bandwidth” to do more by mere activity metrics — while this method is efficient and easy for the decider (avoiding the harder and slower process of personally talking to an employee or team), it provides an incomplete picture of reality. More importantly, it also ignores the value of work-time spent beyond the reach of measurable metrics.
• Resist the urge to purge people and resources (they’re not the same thing!) as soon as their full capacity of work isn’t immediately necessary — this sacrifices good sense for the mirage that the current situation and needs will remain so for the foreseeable future, and any changes that come will be observed and recognized with enough time to adapt accordingly. A well stocked pantry of food is not a measure of food wasted, but of a plan to resiliently handle whatever unforeseen event may come.
• Overtly encourage people to devote time to do “deep work,” and protect their ability to do so — remember that the value of a painting is not judged by measuring the time spent on it, or the cost of the paints in it. It may take more time than you like for someone to finally “connect the dots” that unlocks the next great source of value and growth for your organization, but eliminating those spaces of time for thinking, tinkering, investigating, and imagining will forever leave those dots unconnected.