The Productivity of Inefficiency

Addiction is insidious. It creeps up on us, starting benignly and developing to a point where we can no longer do without whatever it is that started innocently enough.

We have allowed and enabled efficiency to become addictive. It started in a burst of excitement with Adam Smith and his observations on a pin factory, and was so productive it really got into its stride with Frederick W. Taylor and scientific management. By the late twentieth century we had an an effective network of pushers in a thriving body of consultancy, who refined it into the early twentieth century with clever packaging in a range of attractive presentations from Business Process Re-engineering and Lean Six Sigma, and then legitimised it with a mantra of the primacy of shareholder value.

Addiction, unchecked, eventually consumes its host, and here we are. Instead of bottles and syringes scattered about in dark corners, we see different evidence. Working lunches as standard. Hollow eyed commuters at 5:30 am and 10:00pm. Fleeting relationships with children in their formative years.

The pandemic has called it out. It is no longer a hidden or respectable affliction. We have seen the price we have paid for critical services run on a shoestring with almost no capacity to deal with spikes and relying on the self sacrifice of those who do what they do from a sense of deep commitment whilst the pushers find new packaging to sell to gullible managers.

The price we pay for efficiency are external to the organisation, and I think we’ve had enough. Addiction kills creativity, spontaneity, and craft. We end up producing chronically mediocre outputs from exhausted inputs.

Like all routes out of addiction, there is a low point when we hit bottom, and realise we have a choice. Now is such a time.

In the northern hemisphere, we have passed Imbolc, the traditional first day of spring, on the first of February and we’re a little over a month away from the Spring Equinox, when it really gets going. We’re heading for longer days and warmer weather as the work of scientists and the dedication of front line staff offer us a way out of the pandemic. They didn’t do that by being efficient, they did it by being effective. Vast amounts of money has been “wasted” on poor procurement of PPE, on drugs trials, and the building of “surge” capacity for hospitals because we have over the years removed it because bean counters want quantified evidence of what is otherwise obvious but difficult to forecast or quantify precisely. Inefficient, but that inefficiency saved lives (albeit at a cost we could have perhaps avoided had we not been so obsessed with efficiency)

Perhaps as we mitigate the pandemic here, and both the weather and our national mood improves, we can turn our minds away from an obsession with efficiency and to being effective:

  • Taking what we have learned about vaccine roll out and sharing it, together with surplus stocks of vaccine stocks and production capacity with those who need it now.
  • Moving the “wellness” agenda away from a methadone mindset to something more substantive featuring real time away from work to what it is supposed to enable – time with family, friends and for personal renewal (I shared this link on Sunday, but will repeat it here – John Gardner on the topic from thirty years ago – beautiful, inspiring and timeless)
  • Making time for the important conversations about what we’re noticing, what’s emerging and what’s important rather than “nose to the grindstone” peripheral and temporary obsession.
  • A drive to limit the amount of time anybody spends in meetings to eight hours a week.
  • Measuring outcomes but not process. if you want to measure process, hire an algorithm.

Winter is leaving, both the weather and the mood. Summer is coming.

This is no time to go back to normal. We can do better.

Time for leaders to lead towards what matters. That would be each one of us.

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