The Efficiency Trap: Why More Isn’t Better

The industrial age was built on efficiency. Frederick Taylor, the father of process reengineering, figured out that by shaving a few seconds off of each step in a multi-step process you could save a lot of time, and therefore money.

For instance, Taylor taught workers at Bethlehem Steel how to shovel more efficiently by breaking the task down into component movements and improving each step. Taylor also sent collaborators into factories with stopwatches to time assembly line workers with the promise of creating faster moving lines.

While there’s some debate on how successful these efforts were (for more on this check out The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency) his theories, that came to be called Scientific Management, still dominate how most people think about improving output today.

One core innovation of this era was to separate the thinking from the doing, meaning workers would do physical labor while owners and managers did the strategic planning and management. Taken to an extreme, the efficiency mindset looks at human beings as cogs in a great machinery. In fact, in Taylor’s era it was common to use coercion sometimes to the point of employing the national guard to keep workers keep workers working. It’s not surprising that some of the background for Taylor’s work was done on slave plantations.

You can see this dependance on fear and coercion still operational in many if not most corporate cultures today. “Do what I say or get fired” is a common undertone to many interactions with people who hold position-based authority. But a different style of management and leadership is on the rise.

By the 70s and 80s a new mindset started to emerge around labor efficiency, effectiveness, and motivation. And a new style of management emerged, perhaps most famously, with the Toyota Production System (TPS). Rather than treating their workers as machine parts, Toyota started to treat employees as individuals, who probably wanted to do a better job and who also had good ideas about how to do so.

While the mathematical and process components of the TPS are famous they emerged from a key management insight. Managers realized that many workers often wanted to do better and because they were close to the work had good ideas about how to improve. By simply treating them with respect and asking what they needed to be successful, and then giving it to them, could dramatically improve performance.

The TPS revolutionized manufacturing around the world and the insights gained there have significantly influenced other methodologies, including lean manufacturing, agile software development and more esoteric management practices, such as giving customer service representatives wide latitude in what they can do to please customers (Zappos), allowing people to set their own salaries and work hours (Semco), or letting people go surfing when the waves are up (Patagonia).

“People are our greatest resource” has become a bit of an eye-rolling cliché we expect to find on motivational posters. This speaks both to the realization that it’s important and valuable to have people feel cared for and the challenge most organizations have putting worker-centric management and leadership practices into place.

This wide acknowledgement that worker engagement is important is partly due to the change in the shape of the work. It used to be that the vast majority of employees of any large enterprise were doing physical labor requiring almost no original thought. Management actively sought to remove “the burden of thought” from workers making their jobs more like machinery than humanity.

Today, the most valuable and the most common work requires at least some thought and creativity. And jobs like software engineer, marketer, analyst, or even customer service require almost continuous problem solving in a complex environment.

Now we need the brain not just the body and this changes things on a deep and fundamental level. For instance, several studies have shown that once a task requires even routine cognitive ability and not just physical repetition that performance-based incentives stop working and will even lead to worse performance.

Clearly we need to rethink how we approach motivation and engagement at work. Happier people make better stuff – and tend to do it faster, or at least with less friction and overhead. And, people who build good stuff in a productive environment tend to be happier.

This is a bit of a self-reinforcing, virtuous cycle, bringing us to understand that if you take care of your people, then your people will take care of your customer. So, where do we start? Organizations are by definition complex and this means that any intervention will have unintended consequences.

What we need is a new mindset and a deeper understanding of foundational principles. Only by thinking of our systems as interdependent and complex can we begin to anticipate how an intervention may help and or harm the organization as a whole.

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