How many managers do you need to change a light bulb?


Reylito A.H. Elbo

A SARCASTIC question is often asked to describe how private corporations are being paralyzed by its own bureaucratic fat, strangled by a layer of status quo-oriented managers. The follow-up question is this: Who says red tape is a monopoly of the government?

You tend to ask the same questions again and again to challenge the idiocy of excessive management command-and-control that defeats employee empowerment.

Let’s go back to answering our six-million bit coin question: How many managers do you need to change a light bulb? The Internet offers an ocean-full of answers for different professions, including lawyers, psychologists, economists and Harvard students. I’m offering an answer to how managers work in real life without them realizing an invisible problem.

The answer: At least seven—four managers and three ordinary workers. Let’s count the ways: One is the department manager who approves the purchase of a P100 bulb. He authorizes the purchasing manager who buys it. Next is the building administrator who gives instructions to a junior manager who passes on the job to a subordinate tasked to change it.

Since the subordinate is a university graduate who thinks the job is too demeaning, he calls three “endo” workers to actually change the bulb, with the one holding the bulb, the next one steadying the ladder, and another one climbing the ladder to actually change the bulb. If you will compute the total man hours spent on the entire process, you would come up with a staggering amount of P30,000 to P50,000, depending on length of service of the managers and the mark-up allowed in the manpower agency service contract.

The Stick Guy, a.k.a. Mark Ewbie—the man who describes himself as “an amateur graphic designer, failed occasional writer and ex-IT office worker” offers his short and long answers to our acerbic question: His short answer: “None. Because managers don’t actually DO anything. (The word “DO” is Ewbie’s emphasis).

Therefore, if you are lucky and can get the job done without involving management, you don’t need any (manager at all).” The trouble is that in most companies, you need at least three managers to purchase a ream of bond paper worth P250.

In our experience with a commercial bank last week, a lawyer from the legal department who holds the rank of assistant vice president, told us he can’t sign a purchase order on his own for a public seminar fee of P5,000. It needs the consent of the CEO, who must wait for the recommendation of at least two managers from the human resources—the HR group head and his training manager and another three from the finance department, composed of the budget manager, the cost accounting manager and the payables manager.

Because any disbursement worth P5,000 needs CEO approval, we have to wait for at least three days as he has a lot on his desk at that time. There goes again the clash between proponents of centralization and decentralization.

The long answer of Ewbie goes this way. He says “(m)any managers are required. A project the size of changing a light bulb will require approval, costing, planning, procurement, health and safety, technical support, post implementation care and the usual self-congratulatory celebration. Each skill set needs a manager, and this . . . needs managing. With extensive planning you might get away with no more than 10. Don’t forget the risk assessment process!”

And that’s assuming that the CEO ignores a Six Sigma Black Belter who is often requested to prepare a statistical analysis report to ensure that the bulb to be procured is not part of 3.4 allowable DPMO (defects per million opportunities).

So, what’s the best answer? My inner self suggests that we discover a light bulb that does not need any replacement. Yes, I’m saying there’s at least one in several millions. Take the case of the Centennial Light which was installed in 1901 in Livermore, California and is now certified as the world’s longest-lighting bulb by Ripley’s Believe or Not, The Guinness Book of World Records and General Electric.

Imagine the consequences of the Centennial Light when command-and-control managers don’t change their ways.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter for his random management thoughts.


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