Efficiency overkill

Working on efficiency

We’ve been working a lot on efficiency aspects lately, so I got to thinking about the boundaries of efficiency quite a lot in recent days and weeks. Efficiency is very important, especially in a public sector environment. We are using taxpayers’ money, so it is essential that we make the best possible use of that money. Best possible use means producing quality output. And quality, in turn, can be defined as an result reached effectively and efficiently. Quality output means we are doing the right things the right way. And as with a lot of processes in public and private environments, there is a lot of room for improvement.

Going too far

But can we go too far? Can a relentless push for efficiency lead us to a place where we have lost the essence of what we were trying to achieve? I think this is a real possibility, probably one that was experienced by many private sector organisations in that first wave of reengineering in the 1980’s and beginning of the 1990’s. A too relentless push for efficiency can destroy the identity of the team and the organisation.

So what now? Is there a certain threshold where we need to let go of trying to achieve efficiency in our approaches? And where would that threshold be? Is it not a quite individual appreciation? Or are there other means? Other ways of looking at this problem.

The meta-nature of the Japanese tea ceremony

I like to look at the Japanese tea ceremony as a wonderful example. Deeply rooted in Zen Buddhism, the tea ceremony is a practice that has a set of clear objectives and follows a strict set of practices. It is both effective and efficient as a process in its own right. But it forces the participants to focus on the moment, to be really there, deeply attentive and immersed in the experience. It is a practice that obeys the rules of the game (i.e. it needs to reflect quality) but, by its nature, it forces the participants to consider not just the process but also the entire circumstances of the process. It brings the participants back to the essential aspects of what they are doing, in this case, making and consuming tea.

Retaining our identity

Why that example? Because in our relentless search for efficiency, we need to keep in mind why we are doing that and whom we are doing it with. We need to ensure that identity is maintained throughout the exercise. We need to respect certain traditions that makes us reflect on who we are and why we are doing what we are doing.

Any initiative aimed at improving efficiency and effectiveness needs to reserve a spot, be it a place in time or a physical location, where we can reflect on why we are doing what we are doing, and how it relates to the wider whole of the organisational objectives. If we fail to do that, the ultimate efficient and effective process or organisation we will build will be but a husk, a mere reflection in troubled waters of what we were ultimately trying to achieve: build a process that understood humans are humans.