Management consultants face perennial questions about what value they add to companies. But management practices go a long way toward explaining why some businesses perform better than others, an important new analysis shows. Perhaps management consultants are onto something after all.
Surprisingly large and growing differences across businesses in wages, productivity, capital returns and worker mobility may influence income inequality and even macroeconomic growth, many recent studies show. Now it seems management practices play a big role in explaining the variations across businesses, at least in manufacturing.
The new study, by a group of well-respected researchers, is based on a Census Bureau survey of about 32,000 U.S. manufacturing plants. The survey asked such things as how frequently managers track performance indicators, how quickly underperforming employees are reassigned or dismissed, and whether managers are promoted based solely on performance and ability.
The researchers used the companies' answers to construct a management practices index, with higher ratings for plants that do such things as monitor performance, detail targets and tie management incentives to performance. Because the survey included multiple plants within individual firms, the economists were able to examine how practices vary both within companies and between them.
They found, first, that management techniques vary widely from plant to plant. Less than 20 percent use three-quarters or more of the performance-oriented management techniques, for example, while more than a quarter use less than half of them. Perhaps most surprisingly, the authors found that a little more than 40 percent of the variation in overall management practices occurs within the same firms.
They also found that the management techniques matter — a lot. The plants practicing more structured performance-oriented management are more productive, innovative and profitable. Every 10 percent increase in a plant's management index is associated with a 14 percent increase in labor productivity, for example. And the relationships hold over time: The more performance-oriented a plant becomes, the more productive it is. Companies with higher management scores are also more likely to expand and to survive.
The researchers were able to compare the management approaches with more traditional explanations of business performance — things such as research and development, information-technology expenditures and workers' skill levels. The authors lined up plants according to total productivity, and looked at differences between those ranking in the 90th percentile and those in the 10th percentile. Management techniques can explain 18 percent of that difference, they found, while R&D accounts for 17 percent; employee skills, 11 percent; and IT variation, 8 percent. In other words, management matters more than conventional explanations for performance.
Finally, the researchers looked into why management practices vary so much. They examined factors such as the competitiveness of the market in which a plant operates, the business environment (including state Right to Work laws), whether there is a college nearby, and learning spillovers from large multinational plants. All these other factors matter, but collectively they explain only about a third of the variation in management techniques.
Whatever the larger explanation, management practices vary substantially, even within manufacturing companies, and they cause big differences in performance. Those differences, in turn, have macroeconomic implications. Someone worried about why wage inequality has risen in the U.S., or why productivity growth has declined, may not immediately think to question why some companies are well managed and others aren’t. But increasingly, the evidence shows that those questions matter.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Peter R. Orszag is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a vice chairman of investment banking at Lazard. He was President Barack Obama’s director of the Office of Management and Budget from 2009 to 2010 and the director of the Congressional Budget Office from 2007 to 2008.