Efficiency Overload

Is there such a thing as too much efficiency? The short answer is “yes,” but let me explain.

The goal of efficiency is to cut out waste and try to do more with less; the end result being that the organization and the individuals in it are more effective (doing the right things – “quality”) by being more efficient (doing things right – “productivity”). In order to achieve this goal, balancing efficiency with available organizational resources is necessary to ensure that the correct amount of efficiency is implemented. It’s really about getting the right balance.

If an organization does not have the precise balance of efficiency in its administrative and operational systems and processes, the resulting ineffectiveness may be worse than if efficiency measures weren’t implemented in the first place. For instance, asking employees to be efficient by measuring everything they do can cause operational paralysis. Not everything can (or should) be reduced to numbers (e.g., how many emails did you answer today? is your inbox at zero by the end of each day?). Instead, quality needs to be built into each task so that efficiency is enabled through the resulting effectiveness. Instead of how many emails did you answer today, the question may be “How many emails did you answer today that needed to be answered today?”

Organizations and employees may disagree on whether there can ever be too much efficiency. The fact is that organizations need to continue to increase efficiencies in order to improve their competitiveness in the marketplace (or in the case of non-profit or government organizations, to improve their service levels). Sometimes this means layoffs and no raises – something that is not favourable to employees. Without competitive advantage, however, organizations disappear and in the process, all (not just some) of their employees lose their jobs. This is why it is important that the right balance of efficiency and effectiveness be implemented in all administrative and operational tasks.

While efficiency may be easy to implement in an industrial or mechanical operation, effectiveness is more important than efficiency for knowledge workers. Each individual needs to become as efficient as possible using good time and process management principles. Applying efficiency techniques to tasks such as managing one’s inbox, email, telephone calls, interruptions, etc., in a way that produces appropriate and quality results will enable knowledge workers to become more efficient and effective.

Implementing efficiency measures from the bottom up will ensure that each individual applies the appropriate balance for the type of work they are doing. This approach may help reduce the organization’s zeal to implement “mass” efficiency measures that may not be appropriate to every employee.