Get rid of useless work

Wasted time is not inevitable. Take labour off people’s hands.

When Jack Welch landed as chief executive of General Electric in 1980, the company had 411,000 employees. By 1985, the firm was down to 299,000 people, earning Welch the nickname Neutron Jack – because while the buildings were still standing, the people were all gone.

The business might have been leaner, but it was also meaner. Some of the very best people at GE started to decamp, crushed by heavy workloads and poor morale. Through a series of exit interviews, Welch learned that many employees regarded GE as an unbearable place to work. As one departee said: “The people are gone, but the work isn’t!”

Welch commissioned a study to determine how much of the work undertaken at GE added value to customers. The answer? Only 65%. Over a third of GE’s labour was essentially wasted. The study prompted GE’s Work Out initiative, one of the largest transformation projects of its kind in US history. Business schools were appointed to experiment with the 15 lines of business in which GE was operating, bringing academic rigour to the effort and enhancing Welch’s reputation as an innovative thinker to boot. The programme became a poster child for ridding organizations of useless work and bureaucracy.

Humans hate wasting time and love saving it, so taking labour off people’s hands is one of the most inspiring things any leader can do.

I was in my doctoral programme for part of the Work Out process. Our team worked on one of GE’s least sexy divisions: distribution. Nonetheless, the leadership proved creative and inspiring. Harry Stonecipher, the then head of the group, decided that nobody would take the change initiative seriously if leadership failed to demonstrate their own commitment to it. So, he took his team on a three-day retreat with the goal of tackling their own variant of useless work.

Day 1: Meetings
On the first day of the retreat, after being briefed on its purpose, every person in leadership was required to describe every meeting they had on a regular basis: who was there, what decisions were made and how the meeting materially resulted in positive momentum. The outcome of Day 1? A list of the many meetings that were useless and would be abolished.

Day 2: Approvals
On the second day, attendees outlined all the approvals that had to come to them. The approval process followed a common pattern. At some point in the day, an underling would hand over a stack of papers to be approved, which the more senior person flipped through and signed without looking at the contents. The outcome of Day 2? A commitment to move approvals to the level at which the decision was being made.

Day 3: Reports
The final day developed in a similar fashion. This time, everyone showed all the reports they received regularly and what information they gleaned. Reports took the form of a massive ream of computer printout. The section that highlighted the useful takeaways was tiny. The attendees resolved to eliminate many reports – and explore other ways in which necessary information could be shared.


When the executive group returned to the office, they held a town hall. They highlighted to the entire staff the commitments they had made, and said everyone needed to be prepared for similar pruning of useless work. And it worked – GE’s distribution division became a model for many of the practices that made the firm an iconic example of transformation during the Welch era.

Cutting red tape and eliminating waste might be an old lesson, yet it remains too rarely executed. I know of no organization that isn’t wrestling with the pain of meaningless work and excessive bureaucracy. Start by abolishing useless meetings, reports and approvals, and see how it improves your organization and inspires your people.

Rita Gunther McGrath is professor of management at Columbia Business School.