Addition by Subtraction

Murugan S.

Can you have increased value by subtracting something?

The management coach asked us.

I tucked myself away, trying to hide behind a book, to avoid the coach pointing and asking me to give the answer. I could feel most of the other attendees were also attempting to hide themselves like me.

“How can a value increase if we subtract?” my friend sitting beside me whispered into my ears. In reply I gave him a ‘How do I know’-look.

After a brief silence, we all could hear a voice from the backbench.  “Sir? If we subtract negative number, we can get added value sir!”

“Well said! You are right” said the coach with an appreciating tone. “So, 5-(-2) is 7. Do you all agree?” he asked.

We all nodded our heads. I felt ashamed for forgetting this simple mathematics.

“Now, can you think how to apply this equation in our work and personal lives?” the coach asked again.

‘Oh, man! He is only asking questions!’ I murmured to myself.

“Sir! With the reduction, that is subtraction, of dress size, nowadays the girls are more beautiful,” came a reply from a naughty backbencher.

Everybody laughed.

“He is correct. We can apply addition by subtraction in this case. Anyhow, we may still have better examples,” the coach said.

An incident that happened in my work life flashed briefly in my mind and I got up and explained.

“Sir, when I was assigned to bail out a BIFR referred mill, I suggested the management to sell 6000 spindle capacity of old ring frames and recommended to use that amount to modernise the remaining capacity. Though, initially, management was hesitant, they finally accepted. Now, that mill has come out of BIFR and is working well.”

Good example. We not only subtract machines that are less efficient, but we can subtract our people. Jack Welch, the greatest CEO of GE had it right: You should continually subtract out the bottom 10% of your team. Subpar performers drag down an organisation. Setting the expectation with your employee base that you will be regularly evaluating and taking out weaker folks and promoting stronger ones is the foundation for a performance-driven organisation and strong people culture. Remember, your team can get better not by adding more talent, but by shedding some people or practices that are interfering with or inhibiting your success,” the coach explained.

“Does dropping a bad and unhealthy habit come under addition by subtraction, sir?” my friend sitting besides me asked with a hesitating tone.

“Yes, sure! Why not? It will certainly improve your health and other resources.” The acknowledgement from the coach made my friend happy. He grinned from ear to ear.

The coach continued, “You know, the 80/20 principle, which suggests focusing your time and effort on the 20% of things that typically determine 80% of your results is another way to apply the “Addition by Subtraction” principle. Evaluate how you use your time and be sure to delegate or eliminate those things that aren’t significantly moving your program forward.”

“Sir, what about customers? Should we keep on adding them or do we have any reason to subtract some of them?” one attendee asked.

“Good question. This can be applied to customers too. Having good customers is a strength to any firm. I have seen some customers who put their efforts to grow together with the supplier, by giving feedbacks, introducing new items, helping in forecasting, etc. Be willing to fire the laggards, regularly subtracting out the least valuable 5% of your customers who buy small volumes and require allotment of more resources, time, and energy unnecessarily. I have seen many mills who sell their yarn case to case by adding many customers without analysing their worthiness ultimately failed.”

“I think, we need another CEO besides existing CEO”, one of the attendees suggested.

“Who is that?” I asked him.

“Chief Eliminating Officer!”, he replied.

All of us laughed.

Math was never this fun in my school days, nor this productive for me.


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