Meetings: the plaque of an organization.

Ed Whitacre Jr., the CEO of GM, is struggling to get the company moving faster. The ossified bureaucracy at GM renders rapid decision-making nearly impossible, and nowhere is that more evident than in the plague of meetings that prevent people from actually making decisions.

How bad is it? The Wall Street Journal reported that in the past,

even minor decisions had to be mulled over by committee after committee. Once several years ago, the company tried to stamp out bureaucracy—and ended up appointing a committee to oversee how many committee meetings should be held.

Whitacre is trying hard to push authority and decision-making responsibility deeper into the organization, rather than requiring everything to be approved by the CEO. The Journal describes a recent meeting designed to get his approval for a new generation of cars and trucks:

Before the executives could present the pictures, charts and financial projections they had prepared, Whitacre stopped them to ask why they were having the meeting in the first place.

“Y’all have checked all this out pretty thoroughly,” Mr. Whitacre said in his Texas drawl, according to a participant. “I imagine you’re not going to approve something that’s bad or unprofitable, so why don’t you make the final decisions?”

Mr. Whitacre then let the team’s plans stand—and suggested that the group end its regular Friday sessions.

I don’t know if Whitacre has spent much time reading Peter Drucker, but Drucker was bluntly eloquent about the dangers of meetings. As a recent article in Human Resources IQ explains, Drucker went so far as to say that meetings are by definition a concession to deficient organization, because you can either work or meet — you can’t do both at the same time. And although meetings are a necessary evil, they should be rare:

But above all, meetings have to be the exception rather than the rule. An organization which everybody meets all the time is an organization in which no one gets anything done.

Too many meetings always bespeak poor structure of jobs and the wrong organizational components. . . if people in an organization find themselves in meetings a quarter of their time or more — there is time-wasting malorganization.

Too many meetings signify that work that should be in one job or in one component is spread over several jobs or several components. They signify that responsibility is diffused and information is not addressed to the people that need it.

How does your organization compare to Drucker’s 25% benchmark? My guess is that you’re way over that. Most executives I see are spending over 40% of their time in meetings (and most of those are poorly run, poorly focused, and don’t result in clear direction for the participants).

Meetings are like plaque, clogging the arteries of the business — and of the value stream. Companies become immobile from these unproductive, pointless time sucks. Compare GM’s sclerotic meeting culture with the stripped down, focused, problem solving meetings at Lantech, where decisions are made at the point of the problem, and at lowest possible level. (Read more about how those meetings are folded into standard work here.) No committees, no fluffy agendas, no long-winded Powerpoint presentations: all the information and all the necessary people are at the location of the problem ready to make a decision. Quickly.

Get rid of the meetings. Go to the gemba. Start flossing.

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6 Responses

  1. John Hunter says:

    Well said. I would certainly not be very happy with 25% of my time in meetings. I don’t think meetings are innately bad. They just tend to be wastes of time. And if they are done right, it is hard to see how you could possibly spend that much time in them. to me the more time spent in meetings is an indication that meetings are ineffective which is a double problem. 1) your meetings are ineffective 2) you are spending lots of time in them.

    I am blissfully free of committee meetings. I do have a weekly meeting of our department which I could do with shortening. And I have a weekly meeting of our software developers that could be improved (by me :-( ) but it also does accomplish some useful things.

  2. Joe Ely says:

    Super post, Dan. It would be sweet if I could get to the 25% level. Seriously. I’ve read a lot of Drucker but have never seen that particular rule of thumb. Thanks for pulling it out.

    I told you we’re actively pursuing the Lantech example and adopting it locally. If those daily walkarounds truly replaced other meetings they would be awesome. I fear any organization’s ossification might cause it to simply add these on, rather than use it as a scalpel to carve other meetings out.

    Might an idea be to adapt how we view inventory and storage space? I.e. to say “We only have “shelf space” (i.e. time) for eight hours of meetings per person of manager level and up, each week. Use it wisely and get rid of the rest.”



  3. Dan says:


    I love your idea of imposing artificial constraints in order to lead to better performance. After all, organizations do that for many other things: money, space, headcount, etc. The constraints lead to creative thinking and innovation.

    How could we get people to try this?

  4. Joe Ely says:

    Could we get 2 or 3 organizations to try it? Do a “community A3″ on it and then share the results? It would seem we could do this w/o comprimising anything on the subject of the meeting….rather just the nature of meeting time usage, barriers to implementation.

    A collaborative experiment?? Then documenting what we find???

  5. [...] an earlier post, I talked about how Peter Drucker viewed an excess of meetings as a sign of a dysfunctional [...]

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