5 steps to start your journey to becoming manpower-lean


Picture by Straits Times

“If businesses don’t become manpower lean, they might have great difficulty in finding enough manpower – whether local or foreign - in running their operations.”

This is what Manpower minister Tan Chuan-Jin spoke in parliament last week. If this does not wake up the business leader, nothing will!

Singapore SMEs, who have grown on the back of cheap labour, will no doubt find this quite disconcerting. After all, Mr Tan reported that with more older workers retiring and a smaller younger population entering the workforce, the growth of Singaporean workers would only be in the region of 20,000 per year over the next 5 years, compared to 95,000 last year. This is a drastic drop in the number of local talent that forces SMEs to take a serious look at how they do business. The following are 5 key areas that all SMEs will need to look into immediately:

1. Do more with less

I was speaking with the CEO of a local SME last week and he shared with me his manpower policy based on what he read from Jim Collins’ Good To Great, “Hire five people to do ten people’s jobs, and pay them the salary of eight people.” Sounds about right to me.

2. Question the status quo

While I may sound like a broken record on this point, the fact is that if we don’t question what’s working – and what’s not – asking ourselves if there is a better way of doing things, we will constantly get stuck in the past, even if it is still working.

3. Break it NOW!

Don’t wait for the problem to fester and get disproportionately worse before you do something about it. The writing is already on the wall and it would be foolhardy to think that it would not hit you, or that you had more time that you thought. Break your processes now, especially if things are going well for you. The earlier you get more productive, the earlier you will reap its compounding effects!

4. Change your mindset

It used to be that we judged how well a business is doing by the size of its workforce. These days, it is not. How well a business is doing is by the size of its margins! For example, which is a better business: a company with 200 headcount turning over $40M, with a profit of $1M; or a company with 25 people turning over $20M, with a profit of $4M? The answer is obvious, isn’t it? Perhaps it is time to scale down our mindset – and our operations – in order to grow it!

5. Don’t get side-tracked by nay-sayers

If a company has been in operation for a couple of decades, it would probably have several decade-old employees. They may be locked in on the past, recounting the “good old days”. Unfortunately, those days are gone, and the way we did things then are no longer valid. SMEs need to be focused on the future and not be swayed by nay-sayers who use the past to keep you in the past! (“When I was running things, we used to do this-and-that, and we made a huge pile!”) You might need to move them to greener, and better, pastures. That would be better for you and for them.


The future for SMEs in Singapore is bright. What we need to do is embrace the idea of working lean, working smart. We don’t have the luxury of putting warm bodies on the ground simply because we can. Sure we can do it now, but for how long? And someone else who comes along and does it better than us will take away our business. Let’s start with these 5 steps! And if you have any questions on making it happen, why not join our Advanced Management Program specially designed for SMEs with WDA funding and industry collaborations? Check out the information here: www.tvi-amp.com (This is the early-bird promotion. You will kick yourself if you missed it!)

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