The cost of being too efficient

There’s a conundrum in the modern-day business world that is worthy of delving into and exploring further. It’s a complicated area, definitely not a black and white issue.

It’s the tension that exists between the drive to be more efficient and the drive to be flexible and able to deal with the unexpected.

In our efforts to be more efficient with our policies, procedures, manufacturing, ordering, customer service etc.. we are, in fact, creating organisations that are inflexible, brittle and unable to easily deviate from the norm.

With Christmas approaching, we recently tried to buy something online; an Australian made product by a local business. They were doing everything right, investing in a compelling advertising campaign that we came across a number of times online until we thought, let’s get this, it’s a great product! Of course there was no shop front so to speak, and the online order did not go through successfully due to a glitch on their payment portal, so we pursued the online contact method (which was email, no phone line to speak of) and didn’t hear back for 24 hours, and when I did it was with a standardised email offering irrelevant ‘helpful tips’ on how to successfully place the order. An actual person could only get back to me within 48 hours to help and then they were not able to help in the way we wanted, which was to see if we could pick the item up and pay onsite, seeming it was local to me – a short ten-minute drive away.

Due to the fact they were offshore and this query fell outside the remit of their training, (they couldn’t give the exact address and there was no manager onsite) so we were left with no option but to walk away from completing the purchase and supporting a local small business, despite a lot of perseverance on our end. And all because their business model was geared so far towards efficiency at the expense of having any flexibility. 

This is a common theme, amongst both small and large organisations today. The more certain we try to make our businesses and build all our systems around the expected way of things unfolding, the more likely we are to become a victim to the unpredictable. Efficiency can become a trap. It can work against us. 

Striving to become more efficient has been a goal for industries and businesses for the past 200 years, kicked off in large, by the huge advances in industry of the Industrial Revolution. In fact, it left a profound impact on the way we do business. The invention of the steam engine and the development of factories in the period had a huge impact on the ability to produce things quickly, on mass for the first time in our history. We have been in a race to become bigger and better and be more productive and more efficient ever since. 

But it comes at a great cost. I’m sure you can think of similar examples yourself where your experience with a business or a brand has felt like you are being funnelled down a rigid process without any ability to deviate from their usual processes. Think of the options you have when you call a company with an ‘out of the box’ query or problem you need to fix. It can be incredibly frustrating to not have your query fall into one of their ‘normal’ categories; pay a bill, upgrade or the ever-increasing push to move you away from any person-to-person contact to do everything you need via their online systems, which can be just as inflexible and unhelpful. 

Efficiency is the thief of innovation

In our efforts to be more efficient and productive, we have stifled the capacity, time and space to be imaginative. There is such a badge of honour in our business, there is an implication that if you are not being productive every minute of your time at work, then you are inefficient and wasting your time. But we need to be imaginative in order to stay relevant in a constantly changing world. We need to be imaginative to be resilient and adapt and change as needed. And in order to allow for creative thinking, we need to allow people space and time to think, to reflect and to create new ideas.

Instead we fill people’s diaries with meeting after meeting, we pile their workloads and we push to make them more productive. They have no spare time in their day, work related stress and burnout is at an all time high, and we wonder why we are not sparking more innovation from all layers of our organisations. It’s one thing for leadership to say they encourage new ideas and innovation, but when a culture exists that frowns upon time spent not being productive, then innovation will not thrive.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you would like to see innovation thrive in your team get in touch today.

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