Every status update since the dawn of Thomas


Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Over-used words #4: Efficiency

What it’s ‘sposed to mean: something that is running as lean and mean as it can be, working at optimum, doing its job as simply and directly as possible, with zero faff and zero wastage.

How it’s used: Nothing more than "making savings" rather than actually "making something work better". Excuse me. Before I go on, I should say this one is a little more serious than mild annoyance or pedantry, and as such I am about to lose my sense of humour and get polemical, even political (although, if you notice, all of these "over-used words" posts thus far have been about the [ab]use of language for power purposes).


I am really talking about how the term "efficiency" is often misused in the workplace, or by government (central or local) - all too often as a by-word for cuts, whether funding or staff. Doing more with less. Getting added value out of the bare minimum. Working smart. Rationalising. And all that good businessman’s horse-sense stuff.

Here’s the thing: Efficiency does not just mean saving money or scaling something down. There is something absolutely key here – to be efficient, something STILL HAS TO WORK. If your service or product is worse after “efficiency” savings, then the word “efficiency” is a misnomer.

An overloaded system is not an efficient one. If you have more coming down that conveyor belt than you can deal with then stuff will back up and fall off, or pass by without being properly processed, or processed at all – and that is wastage, and wastage is not efficient.

Worse, if you’re asked to be in two or three places, doing two or three different things, at once (which you wouldn’t think you'd have to point out was impossible, but people do surprise you) then the system is simply just not working.

And if your new system is a constant stretch and struggle to keep going, it is not efficient either – true efficiency, once up and running, should involve less effort, not more.

Vorsprung Durch Technik

The word “efficient” used to bring to mind (stereotypically) German engineering or the Roman army – something strict, precise, reliable, meticulous, infinitely functional, impeccably trained and relentlessly performing time after time, like the fabled well-oiled machine – it absolutely does not mean over-stretched and under-resourced, running on a combination of corner cutting, a skeleton crew close to burn-out or collapse, and petrol fumes.

Of course, one shouldn’t automatically sneer at the term – it can mean what it’s supposed to: Re-organising something in a way that makes more sense; simplifying needlessly complicated systems; smoothing out blockages; dividing the workload in a more rational, straightforward and targeted way, so every drop of energy reliably achieves something valuable; making sure everyone and everything is placed where most useful, to get the best out of each... Good. If that’s the case.

But that’s not always possible – it still takes a certain investment of time and resources to get there. Yes, austere times can drive a push towards true efficiency, but it’s not a one way-street. Austerity can just as easily screw up things that once worked just fine - by over-stretching them and sending them limping into a slow, sad decline.

Cheery old Nietzsche said “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” a nice observation on the character-building effects of struggle and suffering, not to mention the “thrive or die” efficiency of nature (though not true in every case – a frontal lobotomy doesn't do either) - but then some struggle and suffering does just kill us, even if it takes a bit of time. Cheery old me.

More Business-Speak

When the word “efficiency” is bandied about, I find it useful to think of two other terms and ask if, actually, these are what’s really going on/going to happen. The following are clunky business-speak terms, yes - not the most poetic parlance to slide silkily off the tongue - but I like them, if only as very - yes - efficient fire-power for a business-speak counter-attack:

False Economy: something that may seem like a saving or simplification on paper, but which ends up generating more cost and complexity in the real world – usually because it ignores the fine details or wider/long-term repercussions. The unforeseen cost is usually a result of sorting out the mess made by the original “saving” – like pushing down a lump in one place only for it to pop up elsewhere.

Opportunity Cost: a term known by every A Level business student, yet constantly overlooked in practice. Where your focus on one aspect of your workforce's activity is actually costing them the opportunity to be doing other things - often things that are taken for granted, and hence overlooked - that are actually important to the health and success of the organisation/business. For example an extreme focus on productivity at the expense of the opportunity to think and reflect - ie. show intelligence, solve problems and come up with new and better ideas; or heaping more and more duties on fewer and fewer staff, which may seem value for money, but costs them the opportunity to spend time, effort, care and attention on what they were doing before – which in turn can cost the organisation dearly in terms of the quality of work and good communication, not to mention morale.

Body Pump

The over-use of “efficiency” is a hangover from better, more voluptuous times. It may have been valid when the first cuts were being made and workplaces were bloated with unproductive, unnecessary and unwieldy practices and appendages. Maybe. But for many services and businesses today, at shop floor level, the enemy is no longer waste and sloth, it is paucity and exhaustion. Insisting on greater “efficiency” in an already critically over-stretched system, after the nth round of belt-tightening and redundancies, is like telling an emaciated, starving family they need to stop snacking so much and get down Body Pump. It beggars belief, makes the tears stand out in the eyes - and is not helpful to anyone. At all.

We are not fighting the flab here anymore, we are fighting malnourishment – and unless “efficiency” refers to reducing the workload and not the workforce, it’s just an insult - and a lie.

Ok, that’s more than enough seriousness for one night. Look at this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29MJySO7PGg

1 comment:

  1. A fair point made by Seb, which I should include here: "The task or process doesn't have to be as good as before to be more efficient. Eg if you cut costs by sacking half of the delivery staff at parcel force (50% saving) but the customers think the service is now 25% worse, those 50% are now one and a half times as efficient as before, even though the overall standard has gone down."

    True-che. But you get my gist.