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The following article
was written by Coleman Patterson and
appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.
A lesson in diminishing marginal productivity, February 3, 2006, 2D.
If you are a fan of Bugs Bunny, you might
remember the Baseball Bugs cartoon where Bugs Bunny heckled the Gashouse
Gorillas from his rabbit hole in the outfield of a baseball stadium. After bragging that he could beat the Gorillas
all by himself, he was yanked from his hole and made to live up to his words. Bugs played every positionhe pitched,
caught, and fielded balls by himself. He
eventually beat the team of behemoths on a glove-tossing catch from the flagpole of the
Empire State Building.
The notion of the episode was absurd (and
not because it involved a rabbit playing baseball) because it would be impossible for an
individual to defeat a team in a team sport. A
team with fewer than nine players is disadvantaged because positions are left
vacantand that weakness can be exploited. Would
a team with nine players be at a disadvantage to a team with more than nine players? Probably so.
Ten, eleven, or twelve players would
probably provide considerable extra field coverage for a team. However, fielding 100, 500, or 1,000 defensive
players would probably complicate things so much that the extra costs required to recruit,
train, compensate, and manage the players would not be worth the benefits that they would
add to the team.
It is natural to imagine that a bigger
group of people can accomplish more than a smaller group.
If you have ever moved a piano, you probably appreciated having others aid
in the effort. The more people who add their
strength to such a task decreases the average load that each individual has to carry. However, after a certain point, adding more people
to the task actually becomes a hindrance to the performance of the group. People begin to get in the way of each other and
to make the collective work of the group more difficult to coordinate.
Each additional person added to a task
will reduce the burden of the workers in the group, but the benefit gained from each new
worker will be less than from the previous worker. For
example, a third piano lifter will reduce the burden of each lifter from 50% to 33% of the
weight of the piano (a 17% reduction). Adding
a fourth lifter will reduce the burden from 33% down to 25% (a 8% reduction). Economists refer to this concept as
diminishing marginal productivity.
After a certain point, the added benefit
of another person will not be worth the cost of adding another person. Nine eager piano lifters may choose go on and
move the piano themselves rather than wasting time waiting on a tenth, extremely late
helper. The point to stop bringing on new
workers is when the cost of a new worker exceeds the added benefit of the worker.
Just as with baseball and piano moving,
some work in organizations requires collective action.
It is important for managers to identify the optimal sizes of their work
groups. Too big, and the organization will
waste human and organizational resources, too small, and the organization will lose out on
performanceunless they have a secret rabbit they can call in from the outfield.
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