(credit: Sara Hasard)

Don’t be lean

Efficiency is important, but should it rule everything?

When you look back, many of the changes we make (and have been making over the years) in our lives, whether at work or at home, have to do with efficiency. Our kitchens are full of gadgets that help us peel carrots or juice apples more quickly. Washing machines and dishwashers mean we need to spend a lot less time getting clothes, crockery and cutlery clean than if we had to do it all by hand.

At work, it’s not only about equipment and software that is supposed to make us more efficient. Even if we’ve not been subjected to formal programmes, the thinking behind concepts like Business Process Reengineering and more recently Lean are percolating the way we do our jobs. We must reduce non-value added activities, and focus on delivering outcomes as quickly as possible and with as little effort as possible. (We could even trace this quest for efficiency back to the time and motion studies of Frederick Taylor nearly 100 years ago.)

It’s easy to see the attraction. When you regard an activity as a necessary but unwanted ‘cost’ to achieve a desired outcome, then minimizing the time and effort it takes looks like an obvious thing to do. So we use a potato peeler rather than a knife, and put it in the dishwasher when we’re finished. Sometimes, though, an activity delivers pleasure in itself and efficiency is secondary, or even irrelevant. We would have little interest in a machine that would allow us to compress a leisurely walk along the canal and through the nature reserve from a couple of hours to a few seconds. Even if the outcome matters, getting there may bring its own enjoyment. We shower to get clean, but have you ever wondered why nobody has come up with a super-efficient showerhead that does the cleaning job with a minimum of water and in just a few seconds? Precisely: we revel in the water jet (or if we’re really lucky, multiple jets) tickling our skin. Stuff the efficiency.

It’s not just about getting clean, is it?

But in the workplace, being productive is usually a priority. And this doesn’t even have to involve things like timing people when they take a toilet break. For when an organization’s stated mission is to give customers or service users what they want, as efficiently as possible, that determines its structure and its internal processes, and guides individual decision-making. And that weighs on how we interact with each other.

The problem is that measuring efficiency may overlook certain aspects that are highly valued. Francesca Gino relates how, some time ago, the then Disney VP of Research, Joe Marks, discovered that visitors to Disneyland Tokyo were queueing up for hours on end to buy a $10 leather bracelet, painted or embossed with their name. Why was there just the one single stall in the whole park selling these, if they were so much in demand? Wouldn’t it be much more efficient to offer these cheap gadgets all over the place so people wouldn’t have to wait?

Well, no. It was precisely the waiting time that was so valuable. Exchanging bracelets is a symbol of a mutual bond in Japan. The people standing in line were there with their loved one, and their willingness to wait their turn is a signal of their commitment to each other. The apparent inefficiency was valuable, not a waste.

If we let lean thinking colour our relationships at work, we follow the mistaken intuition of the Disney VP looking at the long line of waiting customers, the intuition that a narrowly defined efficiency always rules. We risk losing the ability to make the right trade-offs, or indeed to find a polarity win-win, if all we are concerned about is eliminating waste and being productive. The five principles of Lean Thinking, applied single-mindedly and without nuance, will just make efficiency automatons of us all.

Relationships between people are not about efficiency. They are about support, helpfulness, respect and generosity. That doesn’t mean we should lose sight of the mission of our organization– to serve the customer as best we can — or become wasteful with our time and effort. But it means simplistic efficiency is not the only thing that counts.

Supporting our colleagues and helping them, being respectful and generous to them… none of that really undermines efficiency. On the contrary, by making that — and not ‘efficiency’ — what really matters to us, we reinforce efficiency at a higher level, by bringing about deeper cooperation and richer mutual understanding. So by disregarding efficiency in our workplace relationships we can, paradoxically, make the workplace leaner.

That is why there is not a hint of hesitation in our New Year’s wish to you all.

This story was written together with Paul Thoresen.

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