The business press, whether print or on-line, is full of stories about lay-offsMotorola (chart here) to cut another 3,000 jobs in its flailing handset business (article here).  American Express (chart here) to cut 7,000 jobs (article here).  Over the last few weeks, other announcements included 3,200 job cuts at Goldman Sachs (chart here), 5,000 at Whirlpool (chart here) and 1,000 at Yahoo! (chart here). 

Given the regularity with which leaders have implemented layoffs since the 1980s, investors have come to expect these actions.  Many see it as the necessary action of tough managers making sure their costs don't unnecessarily balloon.  And political officials, as well as investors and employees, have started thinking that layoffs don't necessarily have much negative long-term meaning.  People assume these are just short-term actions to save a quarterly P&L by a highly bonused CEO.  The jobs will eventually come back.

Guess again.

Most layoffs indicate a serious problem with the company.  Long gone are the days when layoffs meant people went home for a major plant retooling.  Now, layoffs are a permanent end of the job.  For the employer and the employee.  Layoffs indicate the company is facing a market problem for which it has no fix.  Without a fix, management is laying off people because the revenues are not intended to come back.  Thus, the company is sliding into the Swamp – or possibly the Whirlpool – from which it is unlikely to ever again be a good place to work, a good place to supply as a vendor or a good place to invest for higher future cash flow.  Layoffs are one of the clearest indicators of a company implementing Defend & Extend Management attempting to protect an outdated Success Formula.  Future actions are likely to be asset sales, outsourcing functions, reduced marketing, advertising &  R&D, changes in accounting to accelerate write-offs in hopes of boosting future profits — and overall weak performance.

Layoffs are closely connected with growth stalls.  Growth stalls happen when year over year there are 2 successive quarters of lower revenues and/or profits, or 2 consecutive declines in revenues and/or profits.  And, as I detail in my book, when this happens, 55% of companies will have future growth of -2% or worse.  38% will have no growth, bouncing between -2% and +2%.  Only 7% will ever again consistently grow at 2% or more.  That's right, only 7%. 

When you hear about these layoffs, don't be fooled.  These aren't clever managers with a keen eye for how to keep companies growing.  Layoffs are the clearest indicator of a company in trouble.  It's growth is stalled, and management has no plan to regain that growth.  So it is retrenching.  And when retrenching, it will consume its cash in poorly designed programs to Defend & Extend its outdated Success Formula leaving nothing for investors, employees or suppliers.  The world becomes an ugly place for people working in companies unable to sustain growth.  People try to find foxholes, and stay near them, to avoid being the next laid off as conditions continue deteriorating.  Just look at what's happened to employment and cash flow at GM, Ford and Chrysler the last 40 years.  Ever since Japanese competitors stalled their growth, "there's been no joy in Mudville."

Given how many companies are now pushing layoffs, and how many more are projecting them, this has to be very, very concerning for Americans.  Clearly, many financial institutions, manufacturers, IT services and technology companies appear unlikely to survive.  Meanwhile, we see wave after wave of new employees being brought on in companies located in China, India, South America and Eastern Europe.  For every job lost in Detroit, Tata Motors is adding 2 in India.  For every technologist out of work in silicon valley, Lenovo adds 2 in China.  For every IT services person laid off at HP's EDS subsidiary, Infosys adds 2 in Bangalore.  It's no wonder these companies don't regain growth, they are losing to competitors who are more effective at meeting customer needs.  There really is no evidence these companies will start growing again – as long as they use layoffs and other D&E (Defend & Extend) actions to try propping up an old Success Formula.

Sure, times are tough.  But why die a long, lingering death?  Instead of layoffs, why not put these people to work in White Space projects designed to turn around the organization?  Instead of trying to save their way to prosperity – an oxymoron – why not take action?  In most of these companies, lack of scenario planning and competitor focus leaves them unprepared to rapidly adjust to these market changes.  But worse, Lock-in and an unwillingness to Disrupt means management simply finds it easier to lay off people than even try doing new things.  And that is unfortunate, because the historical record tells us that these companies will inevitably find themselves minimized in the market – and eventually gone.  Just think about Polaroid, Montgomery Wards, Brach's Candy company, DEC, Wang, Lanier, Allegheny Coal, Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers.