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削减成本等于偷工减料?

(2010-06-30 17:16:42)
标签:

预防成本

it

分类: 采购文摘
作者:英国《金融时报》专栏作家 约翰·凯
 

我记得与一位刚刚完成私有化的水务公司高管进行过一次颇具启发性的谈话。当时我很困惑,为何有那么多公司似乎能够不容置辩地命令管理人员削减成本或裁员,并看着这些命令得到贯彻执行。难道真的是因为手下的人效率太过低下,为了摆脱这个问题,除了命令他们解决问题,还有必要插手做点什么?

那位高管解释道,供水基本上是自动化程序。下雨后,雨水顺流而下,经过处理,沿着供水管流入千家万户,人类完全不必插手。公司大多数员工的任务就是防止出现问题,或是在出现问题后加以解决。

整个系统总是可以用更少的人来维持运转。实际上,如果你开掉所有员工,只留下查水表的,短时间内,利润会突飞猛增,一切也都井然有序。不过,随着时间的流逝,问题首先会逐渐积累,接着暴露出来。这位高管预言,与对手一样,他的公司会一轮接着一轮地节省开支,由此受到分析人士和监管部门的赞扬。但最终会出现一个或几个大问题。接着,政客们会争先恐后地予以谴责。公司会砸钱来解决问题。他希望,在发生这一切前自己已经退休了。

他的预言是正确的,只不过他说错了行业。英国铁路一系列备受关注的事故,导致私有的英国铁路线路公司(Railtrack)惊慌失措,反应过火。该公司最终倒闭了,此后,无数纳税人的钱投入了英国铁路系统。在英国石油(BP)泄漏的原油继续吞噬着墨西哥湾时,我再一次想起了那次谈话。

 

相对于事后的紧急应对,花在预防性维护上的钱以多少为宜呢?那位水务公司高管认为,不存在客观的答案。他表示,这取决于管理层的判断:有时会失之于走向一个极端,有时是另一个。在他效力的公司仍归国有时,其首要目标是不做任何会招来公众批评的事情。变成私人企业后,目标则变成抢在竞争对手之前削减成本。

那么,BP仅仅是不走运吗?抑或是该公司美国业务过去5年发生的种种灾难——得克萨斯城炼油厂爆炸事故、阿拉斯加普拉德霍湾(Prudhoe Bay)泄露事故、墨西哥湾漏油事故——都是由于重视削减成本而导致偷工减料?我真的不知道,美国国会、总统巴拉克•奥巴马(Barack Obama)、甚至BP自己也都不清楚。

在这样的时刻,说安全和环境必须高于一切,不仅容易,也是必要的。但这不过是用来安慰人的陈词滥调。如果永远将安全和环境摆在第一位,那么经济活动将陷于瘫痪。管理人员必须在支出和效率、预防成本和维修成本之间谋求平衡。他们有时会做错,就像BP管理层可能做的那样。即使他们做对了,事故也会时有发生,而事后诸葛亮的评论人士,会将他们批驳得体无完肤。

安全并不是唯一需要管理人员平衡不兼容和不可比因素的领域。任何长期生存能力有赖于声誉的公司,都面临着一个相似的困境——BP声誉所受的损害可能远远超过墨西哥湾漏油事件的直接成本。一家银行或零售商是否曾为了短期利益而牺牲客户的信任?制药公司是否曾为了削减成本和市场营销,而忽视新药的研制?只有时间会告诉我们答案,甚至可能到时候我们也不知道。正如希腊哲学家梭伦(Solon)所言:“只有在一个人逝去后,我们才会判断他是否成功。”但古代哲学家只需接受后人的裁定。当今的管理人员成了季度收益报告的牺牲者。而这正是昨日的成本节约常常会演变为今日的企业危机的原因所在。

 

 

CUTTING COSTS SO OFTEN LEADS TO CUTTING CORNERS
By John Kay
 
I remember an illuminating conversation with a senior executive of a recently privatised water company. I was puzzled that so many companies seemed to be able to issue peremptory edicts to their managers to reduce costs, or headcount, and see these edicts fulfilled. Could it really be that there was so much inefficiency and, to get rid of it, little more was necessary than to tell people to sort it out?

The person I was talking to explained that water supply was largely automatic. Rain fell, and flowed downhill, the water went through treatment works and along supply pipes, all untouched by human hand. Most people were at the company to stop things going wrong, or to fix them when they did.

The system could always operate with fewer people. In fact, if you sacked the whole workforce, except for the billing staff, profits would soar and everything would be fine – for a bit. Over time, however, problems would first accumulate, then emerge. My informant predicted that his company, in common with its rivals, would engage in successive rounds of efficiency savings, and be congratulated by analysts and regulators. Eventually, he predicted, there would be a big problem – or several. Then politicians would compete in the vigour of their denunciations. Money would be thrown at the problems. He hoped he would have retired before this.

His prediction was right, but he got the industry wrong. A series of publicised accidents on Britain's railways led to a panic overreaction by the privatised track operator, Railtrack. The company collapsed and public money has flooded the rail system since. As oil from BP's well continues to flood the Gulf of Mexico, I am again reminded of that old conversation.

What is the right amount to spend on preventive maintenance as opposed to responding urgently after the event? The water company executive did not think there was an objective answer. It was, he said, a matter of managerial judgment: sometimes you erred too far in one direction, sometimes the other. When the business he worked for was a nationalised industry, the main aim was to do nothing to incur public criticism. In a private company, the imperative was to cut costs a little faster than your competitors.

So has BP just been unlucky? Or do the disasters that have occurred in its US business over the past five years – the Texaco City explosion, the Prudhoe Bay leaks, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill – result from an emphasis on cutting costs that led to cutting corners? I don't really know – and nor does the US Congress, or President Barack Obama, or even the company itself.

At moments like this, it is not just easy, but obligatory, to say that safety and the environment must be overriding priorities. But this is just a reassuring platitude. If safety and the environment always did come first, economic activity would be paralysed. Managers have to strike a balance between expenditure and efficiency and between the cost of anticipation and that of repair. Sometimes they will get this wrong – as they probably did at BP. Even if they get it right, accidents will happen occasionally and commentators, with the benefit of hindsight, will hang them out to dry.

Safety is not the only area in which managers are required to balance incompatible and incommensurable factors. Any business whose long-run viability depends on its reputation faces a similar dilemma – the damage to BP's reputation may well exceed the direct cost of the Gulf of Mexico spill. Has a bank, or a retailer, sacrificed the trust of its customers for short-term profitability? Have pharmaceutical companies neglected their pipeline of new drugs in favour of cost-cutting and marketing? Only time will tell, and perhaps we won't know even then. As the Greek philosopher Solon put it: “We don't consider any man successful until he has died well.” But ancient philosophers were subject only to the verdict of posterity. Today's managers are victims of the tyranny of the quarterly earnings report. And that is why yesterday's cost-savings are so often today's corporate crisis.

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