“For every action there is an equal yet opposite reaction.” is a favored summary of Newton’s Third Law of Motion. The actual wording is a bit more ‘wordy’. But the paraphrase makes it easier to understand when you try to apply the law to not just interaction physical objects, but also to interaction of human decisions. In short, every decision has consequence, and I’d further submit some consequences are positive and some can be very negative. Case in point, the desire to make one’s product or organization efficient.
On the face of it, being efficient does seem to be very favorable. To be efficient in product manufacturing is to use just the exact amount of resources needed to produce a flawless product, not too little, not too much. Having a functional product means you can sell it for a fair and reasonable profit and let the cycle repeat. Certainly then, taking such constructs and applying them to, let’s say, knowledge workers and organizations should yield similar results. “Product” being information yielded with just the right level of effort, not too little, not too much. In many government and corporate offices these past few years of fiscal austerity the push for efficiency has been magnified by multiple order of magnitude. Automation systems and information technology in lieu of paper, cutting bureaucracy by leaning the workforce, rethinking business processes have all been in vogue. And certainly in sufficiently complex or old organizations and systems, there is bound to be a build-up of inefficiency that can be eliminated thus driving down costs. And certainly this hunt for inefficiency should be a frequent though not necessarily continuous endeavor. My problem with the notion of “continuous process improvement” is that it seems to degrade into an overemphasis on doing the CPI process. To the point that CPI is the goal vice being efficient and effective. Many managers can be graded on their CPI efforts even if they already run a lean organization, will start making cuts to the bone simply to be seen by upper management as being a “good team player”. Let’s go back to our manufacturing example for a moment where it is much easier to judge quality of deliverable and thus much easier to change processes or tolling to improve efficiency. What is typically overlooked when extrapolating process improvement from the physical manufacturing world into the knowledge manufacturing world is the fact that machines are built with tolerances that tend to have a range of acceptable values. Electrical power to a milling machine must be +/- a certain voltage. Making the tool rely on an absolute perfect operating voltage would be asinine
Being efficient, or rather too efficient, opens you to being brittle. That is to say, you become hyper dependent on running your business or organization in absolute perfect conditions. If you keep absolutely no supplies on hand you need a perfect supply chain to your manufacturing plant. Likewise, if you keep zero warehouse space for finished good you become hyper dependent on product demand to match production schedule. Make yourself that efficient and then BAM! You get one good storm that severs a road to your plant and your over emphasis on efficiency now means production comes to a screeching halt. No machine is built to operate in an absolute perfect condition, they are guaranteed to operate over a range of say temperatures for example. Could pennies be saved if a product could be guaranteed to only be operated in much narrower conditions? Possibly. But you can’t predict the future. And you never know what challenges a product or an organization will face. And in an era of the 24-hour news cycle, you never get credit for the 364 great days of operations your organization has, but guaranteed you will spend weeks on the front page if you have even a single day of failure. Just look the flack a Google, Twitter or Facebook gets when they unexpectedly go down. Further complicating matters for engineers and scientists is that in S&T and R&D, it’s very hard to predict, if you can even do so at all, when you will have that next major breakthrough. It’s one thing to be lean in manufacturing of products where the requirements are known and the technology is mature. It just is impossible to apply to organizations inventing the future. Albert Einstein is attributed to having said “If I knew what I was doing it wouldn’t be called research.” Pretty hard to be efficient when you can’t judge yourself against a budget or schedule. But it is in the frontiers of science and technology where the big breakthroughs occur, slowly and unpredictably, and if you want to play in that world, I suggest that you throw any delusion of efficiency to the wind. Sure you can still hold people accountable for being thrifty and resourceful, but efficient? I wouldn’t even try to guess how I’d judge that.
So, being efficient is a noble goal that should be sought and re-evaluated from time to time. But you have to be able to balance that with need to be effective in a wide range of operating conditions. Whatever your business is, government or industry, knowledge worker or manufacturing, you should strive to be both efficient and effective under a range of operating conditions, if that is your goal then the opposing forces will keep you balanced as you go through your “leaning out” efforts.