This website covers knowledge management, personal effectiveness, theory of constraints, amongst other topics. Opinions expressed here are strictly those of the owner, Jack Vinson, and those of the commenters.


One of the simple definitions I like in work is that effectiveness is doing the right things, while efficiency is doing things well. The best world has us doing the right things, and doing them well. (I have seen this attributed to Russell Ackoff and a number of other thinkers.) And yet, we somehow only seem to focus on the "doing it well" part - leaving whether we are doing the right things to chance.

The Ministry of Ideas podcast has a recent episode of the idea of (In)Efficiency. It was also excerpted in yesterday's Boston Globe, Long Before Uber, Efficiency Was Divine.  

It turns out the term efficiency goes all the way back to Aristotle. Over time, the term developed some religious connotations. But more recently, the engineering idea of efficiency (output / input) came from the "world's first civil engineer," John Smeaton, did detailed experiments on the waterwheel - the first big powersource of the industrial revolution. The experiments showed how to design and use waterwheels to prevent lost energy - how to be most efficient.

The discussion then jumps into the modern day version of efficiency: companies and people designing tools and services to help the world become more efficient. And this is most easily seen in the people themselves: busy people striving to be (individually) more efficient.  Of course, sometimes, there is a big assumption that just because we are busy, we must surely be producing useful results.  

Efficiency is a problematic concept though. This is touched on to some extent in the podcast: we all need personal downtime to decompress and let the juices flow. Organizations and business too need "space" - in particular, we need to be able to handle the normal ebb and flow of the demands on our time and attention. Variability exists, and it cannot be wished away.  If we plan every activity to within inches of its life, the first little hiccup will cause the entire network to fall apart.

I often see this in organizations where efficiency is applied to each sub-organization independently. There is an assumption that the organization is merely the sum of its parts. But these parts are interdependent. Changes in one area will have an impact on another - and often "efficiency" in one can create serious damage in another. A simple example is the idea of batch size: for one work center (or person), efficiency drives larger and larger batch sizes. (It's easier, less changes, etc.)  But those large batch sizes cause problems in the hand offs to the next work center. At the very least they have to wait for the entire batch. Even worse, problems are only discovered after the entire batch is processed.  In knowledge work this often translates to time and the people upstream having forgotten what they did a few weeks ago. Which leads to rework loops. Which leads to overall system inefficiency, even though each of the work areas might appear to be "efficient" - certainly they are always busy.

The podcast doesn't mention Frederick Taylor, but his work is discussed up and down the networks I follow, whether in knowledge management or process improvement.  He is credited with some of the first time-and-motion studies and the start of "scientific management." 

The biggest question I have on listening to the podcast and reading the summary article, is why efficiency is such a strong driver for EVERYTHING we do. Is it because, like Taylor, efficiency is something we can see and measure? Is it truly that difficult to think about the larger system and whether the whole system is being effective - doing the right thing AND doing it well?  

Whose success do I worry about?

Resistance - not so futile