Though there were limited funds and always more problems to solve than money available, there was still visible waste. Like any other organization, a lot of it was driven by process more than necessity.
The Marine Corps’ fiscal year was from October 1st to September 30th, aligning with the federal budget cycle. Each summer, the amount of money we could spend was slowly reduced, approaching the September 30th deadline. By the last two weeks, you could make purchases up to $2500 each.
The process was an effort to ensure the last bills could be paid by the end of the fiscal year. What it did was drive less than optimal behavior.
During my first few years as a civilian leader, I would make trips to our local warehouse district every September. It was like going to Costco or Sam’s Club. You walked in with a flatbed cart and walked out with tons of pens, paper, coffee, and anything else your organization might need. For the next decade.
We were given clear instructions by our Colonel. If we didn’t spend the money, we wouldn’t get as much next year. Given how little we already received, he felt it was critical that we try to spend up to our allocated amount. Even if that meant a plethora of pens.
I didn’t think anything of it at the time. It was what I knew and was a common practice in other units. Until my Colonel went to a new duty station and a new Commanding Officer (CO) arrived. Life was immediately different.
This particular Colonel had just finished a tour with a tactical unit. We worked in technology, so I’m sure it was a shock for him to come to an office every day and hear about computers instead of mortars or tanks.
He spoke differently than my last CO. He provided insight to the lives of Marines outside our four walls. He related the work we did to the Marines driving tanks or climbing hills with 50lbs on their back. I thought I understood how my job fit into the overall scheme of the Marine Corps. I quickly realized how little I really knew.
As we approached the end of the fiscal year, my CO pulled those of us with purchasing authority aside to set expectations. From his perspective, our mission was secondary to the mission of the Marine Corps.
What he taught me was there were Marines without boots or flak jackets. There were tank units that could not get parts. Whatever I thought was a priority had to measure up against those deficiencies. After that day, few could.
The CO was very clear – “I want us to give back money to the Marine Corps. As much as we can. If we underspend and get less money next year, I will consider that a good thing. Then, if we can do it again, better still.”
Getting more done with less took on a whole new meaning.
A Plan and A Promise
In the years since, I have continued to operate at less than budget whenever possible.
If someone on my team transfers to another group, I’ll reevaluate whether I need to backfill and not assume I should. What will I do with that capacity? Is it more important than the broader needs of my company?
When it comes time to train my team, I look first at the expertise we have available internally. With internally developed and delivered content, I can train an entire organization in many topics at almost no cost. Even with a hefty training budget, I would have to prioritize which topics and individuals to train each year. Train everyone for less money than a select few? No brainer.
Those are two examples of many possible ways to deliver more with less. Just because you have a budget, doesn’t meant you have to spend it. Instead, realize that a budget represents a plan and a promise. You plan to spend x to deliver y. If you can still deliver, but for less than what was planned, you’ve kept your promise. But you’ve also over-delivered and put money back into the coffers of the business.
That’s a plan, a promise, and just plain awesome.