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Four Cheers for Inefficiency!

Jun 06, 2013

Four Cheers for Inefficiency!

Efficiency sucks. There, we said it.

Or, at least, the drive to increase efficiency at all costs does. The problem is that there’s too much focus on saving time doing what we’re already doing, rather than thinking there might be a better way to do it in the first place.

For example, most people have read Cheaper by the Dozen, where efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth timed himself doing things like buttoning his vest -- discovering it saved him four whole seconds to button it from the bottom up than the top down.

Yes, that saved him 24 whole minutes a year. Apparently he never considered how much time he might save by just not wearing a damn vest at all. (If he’d really wanted to make better use of his time, maybe he could have figured out a way to keep from dying at 56.)

Similarly, as employees are getting more mandates from the top down (and not the bottom up) to improve efficiency, there’s starting to be some pushback.

Okay, a lot of pushback.

“Why do we love process so much?” writes Lisa Bodell in her book Kill the Company: End the Status Quo, Start an Innovation Revolution. “It offers a way to measure progress and productivity, which makes people feel more efficient and accountable.”

Defining processes and looking for efficiencies is all well and good, people are saying, but we’re starting to go too far. Here’s what they’re saying.

Efficient systems are unadaptable to change. The whole point of business process management is to automate a process and look for ways to make it more efficient. That’s fine for normal cases, but doesn’t work so well for outliers. “The very goal of BPM is to smooth out the business process so that it happens the same way every time, but how does this affect its ability to respond when it needs to do something different?” writes Keith Swenson, chief architect at Fujitsu. If you’ve ever had a really frustrating experience with bureaucracy run rampant, chances are it’s from a process defined so tightly that it didn’t include your use case. Efficiency is measured on the assumption that everything is going right -- and how often does that actually happen?

Efficiency lowers morale. There are a number of examples of companies, such as Home Depot and 3M,  that have implemented various efficiency methodologies, only to find that employee satisfaction goes down.

Imagine. People don’t like being treated like cogs of a machine. Who knew?

Efficiency changes the company focus. With too much emphasis on efficiency, it can be way too easy for a company to forget what its business is. “Sometimes, when you put your focus on the “process of business” you take the focus off of the business itself,” writes Swenson.  “When you measure finely detailed metrics of production -- e.g. how many units per day, how many minutes of labor per unit of output -- then those metrics drive decisions,” because it’s so satisfying to reduce them.

“As soon as we implement a rigid cycle as a methodology we lose the ability to continually adapt and change,” writes Theo Priestley in his blog BPM Redux. “Sure, the measurement and management information stream of data allows us to monitor and react to the change, but we interpret that information according to the restrictions imposed as part of the methodology. At no point in these cycles is there a step that says, ‘stop hacking the process to death and just start over from scratch.’”

Plus, increasing efficiency is a lot of work -- and it has to come from somewhere. “When we shift such a huge amount of an organization’s focus onto standardizing everything, other areas inevitably suffer,” Swenson agrees.

Efficiency stifles innovation. Think about it. Innovation, by definition, is disruption. Disruption is inefficient. Books on innovation are full of examples of companies striving to make their process more efficient -- only to be passed by some upstart that figures out a way to eliminate the process completely.

Instead, writes Swenson, quoting a Price-Waterhouse study, “Those in middle management... found innovation disruptive to their day-to-day activities and felt it got in the way of running an efficient operation -- which is what they were paid to do.”  Is there a better example of shortsightedness than that?

When you think about it, too much efficiency can be as bad as too little. After all, friction is a sign of inefficiency, and yet friction is what allows us to hold a glass or walk.

Moreover, increasing efficiency can have unintended consequences. Making data centers more efficient can actually cost more than it saves. Distributing files became more efficient -- and now artists of all types have trouble getting paid fairly for their work. Email became more efficient, to the extent that sending it was almost free -- and now we have spam.

Let’s go out and waste some time.

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