Monday, December 10, 2012

About minimizing costs and transferring costs

 In general, minimizing costs is seen as a virtue: Who in the process of producing goods and services seeks to keep costs as low as possible avoids the unnecessary squandering of often valuable resources, which could otherwise be put to good use. Who would oppose this? Unfortunately, one soon discovers that the word ‘minimizing costs’ is not always used in this positive sense, but often with far less noble intentions.

When I call my insurance company, as a rule I’m told that all the employees are busy at the moment, that my call is however welcomed and I will be connected as soon as possible with an available representative. Then without being requested, an overview of the products and services of the company are transmitted, framed by a catchy melody by Mozart or Louis Armstrong. In the meantime, without having asked for it, my waiting time has increased and with it the cost. After a certain time the whole welcome ritual is repeated – all at my expense! The reason for this is that the insurance company has reduced the number of its employees in order to cut costs, which by virtue of my waiting time has in essence been transferred to me. This is not cost minimization but rather cost transferral.

Something similar takes place when I’m at the train ticket-window of the Zurich Main Station to get a train ticket not available from the automat. Of the 11 available windows, only 3-4 are open; of which one is served by someone in training and another Korean tourists are trying to put together their trip through Switzerland. At the 2-3 well functioning windows a queue of maybe 10 or 15 people are waiting. Again the company is minimizing its costs at the expense of their customers. How the cost transferral of the Swiss train service takes place can be witnessed at the above location, daily for hours and especially at rush hour. It would be interesting to calculate how many man-years the economy loses or to estimate how much is lost in human wellbeing, including that of the persons at the windows, who are subject to constant pressure and the cantankerous reactions of customers. In no way does this correspond to the concept of “people for people”, as we understand up-to-date value creation in firms.

The most crass examples of unreal cost minimization are those promoted by some politicians. They tell the public for example how the cost for health or educational institutions can be kept low or that one can save money on infrastructure. However they fail to say that this very often involves a tangible reduction in benefits. This has less to do with the virtues of minimizing costs than with a net loss in the quality of life.

Edwin Rühli

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