Being efficient vs. being effective

Why would this be a vs. article? Wouldn’t you want to be both when it comes to work? Well, yes you would but unfortunately many of our workflows and processes pursue one at the sacrifice of the other.

Building business processes requires not only an understanding of what needs to be done when, but also what qualifies as something done well. So can you truly be efficient and effective? Is that the holy grail of business processes? Is one better than the other?

Defining the difference

Search for effectiveness vs. efficiency and you’ll find definitions such as:

Being effective is about doing the right things, while being efficient is about doing things right


Effectiveness is the level of results from the actions of employees and managers. Efficiency in the workplace is the time it takes to do something.

Let’s look at the problem this way: measurement. How is success being measured? Is it measured by how much you get done or how well you do it? Unfortunately it is easier to count the number of tasks completed than it is how well those tasks were completed. “We finished on time and under budget.” Neither of those statements goes to the quality or effectiveness of the completed efforts. If we set out measures of success around the level of effort rather than the quality of that effort then that is all we will get better at…doing more.

Some of the other enemies of the effectively efficient process:

Artificial deadlines

We’ve all seen this in the workplace. Discussions and planning on projects occur and deadlines around milestones are established and measured. This is a normal expectation and helpful in measuring effectiveness and efficiency. What is not helpful is the artificial deadline; the subjective review without direct reason or the arbitrary “get it done by then” without rhyme or reason.

Changing scope while executing

The proverbial moving target prevents the effective execution of business processes. The efficiency is also lost due to the need for changing and adapting plans for unexpected alterations in scope. While this is unpreventable at times, in many cases changes are occurring without a clear rationale to their impact on execution and quality.

Starting before finishing

Unfortunately it has become acceptable to say that if you’re not “busy” you’re not being effective. That’s a misunderstanding of the concept and the ruin of effectiveness as well as efficiency. Taking the time to complete work effectively before moving forward for the sake of “efficiency” is part of delivering quality work.

Mistaking flexibility for poor planning

There is a concept in some circles that flexibility can counter a lack of planning and that effective projects can deal with dynamic change by being “flexible.” The Boy Scouts of America have an answer to this thinking: “Be Prepared.” Flexibility comes from preparation not from making it up as you go along. If you remember the old TV show MacGuyver, you may make the argument that being able to adapt and “flex” to any situation is a highly valuable skill. It is, but it is only possible through planning, education, and understanding of capabilities. Spending time preparing to deal with the unexpected is a perfect marriage of efficient work and effective results.

Being efficient and effective

When working to improve efficiency and effectiveness there are some keys regardless of your methodology:

  1. Understand limitations.
  2. Design your procedures to be repeatable.
  3. Build for a successful outcome and then deconstruct to find out what would prevent it from being done again.
  4. Test your edge cases before beginning and make adjustments.
  5. Remember that time spent at the beginning preparing is time not wasted later redoing work.
  6. Examine and refine. Almost every process can be improved in some way.
  7. Involve others. You are not going to be the only one working in most cases. What may make sense for you might be a mess for someone else.
  8. Understand the reasons for your metrics. If metrics exist to help insure quality delivery then they can be your friend. If they’re there for accountability that does nothing to improve your efficiency and effectiveness, it’s time to have some hard conversations.
  9. Efficient, poor quality work is no better than inefficient high quality work. Focus on the balance when evaluating your processes and procedures.
  10. If you don’t understand a process well enough to explain it to someone else, you don’t understand it well enough to improve it.

Efficiency vs. effectiveness isn’t an either-or proposition. It is an opportunity to apply two critical evaluating factors to your processes to improve the end results…something we should all strive to accomplish.

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