In praise of inefficiency

I am reminded of a famous magazine editor’s remark that creativity in his business demanded “wastage.” Here’s a welcomed assault on the misguided notion of efficiency, pressure, and overtime in the workplace. Great managers incorporate “slack” – an incredibly potent stance that yields more resources that it uses. More slack, better business. Down with efficiency.

-- KK 03/16/04


The best predictor of how much work a knowledge worker will accomplish is not the hours that he or she spends, but the days. The twelve-hour days don't accomplish any more than the eight-hour days. Overtime is a wash.

Since companies don't typically pay knowledge workers for overtime, any net advantage gained by extraction of overtime would be a cost-free benefit. That violates the ages-old adage that there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. And sure enough, there ain't.


The Legacy of the nineties has been a dangerous corporate delusion; the idea that organizations are effective only to the extent that all their workers are totally and eternally busy. Anyone who's not overworked (sweating, staying late, racing from one task to the next, working Saturdays, unable to squeeze time for even the briefest meeting till two weeks after next) is looked on with suspicion. People with a little idle time on their hands may not even be safe.


But now into this happy scenario drop a consultant with a charter to reduce cost, the "corporate restructuring agent." Whoa, he says, what's this? A secretary? And what's she up to this very minute? He parks himself beside Sylvia's desk with his trusty stopwatch in hand. To no one's surprise, he finds that Sylvia is really only busy 43 percent of the time. The rest of the time she is...available. She's available to do stuff that you or your people find you need to have done. That's part of what's so great about Sylvia: When something comes up, she can usually get cracking on it right away.

A look of triumph now comes over the consultant's face. If Sylvia is only busy 43 percent of the time, 57 percent of her cost is potentially savable. Why, all we have to do is dump Sylvia into a "pool" and allocate 43 percent of her time to you and the rest to other people. Or have you share her with some other manager who needs only 57 percent of a full person. Or even get rid of Sylvia entirely and hire a temp for that 43 percent of the time that you really need someone. (You can be sure that the consultant will be checking back later to find out if you really need that much help.)

What an improvement. Sylvia's gone or gone 57 percent of the time, and 57 percent of what she was costing the organization goes directly down to the bottom line. Wow. In place of a person who was idle 57 percent of the time, we now have someone who is busy 100 percent of the time. Talk about efficiency!

The problem of course, is that the now-slackless secretary or portion thereof is simply not as responsive as Sylvia was. This highly efficient person doesn't get cracking right away on anything new that comes up, because this highly efficient person is too busy.


Managers who inspire extraordinary loyalty from their people tend to be highly charismatic, humorous, good-looking, and tall. So, by all means, strive to be those things. If you don't feel able to improve any of those factors very much, you might consider holding on to your people by designing a little slack into their lives.


Sprinting. There is a useful distinction to make here between infrequent short bursts of overtime --what I call sprinting - and extended overtime. Sprinting can make perfectly good sense in the right circumstances. Imagine yourself encouraging everyone to come in for a gargantuan workathon weekend to bring a project to completion for delivery Monday morning. You all stay up through the night, or catch catnaps on the carpet or on the sofa in the big boss's office. You keep each other going, check each other's work (after all, people do get tired), and keep everybody's spirits up. You guzzle coffee. You share order-in pizza or sandwiches from the all-night deli or you slip our for noodles at the Chinese place that keeps late hours. Most of all, you succeed on Monday morning, and when the crazy weekend is over, you go back to normal hours.

This is the stuff of which corporate legends are made. When you've all been through it together, and shared an important success, there is something profoundly changed about the culture of the organization. The energy is still there after the workathon weekend is long past.

The manager who makes effective use of the occasional sprint is a hero. He/She needs impeccable timing, a flawless sense of what can and can't be accomplished over a short period (there is no benefit if the delivery doesn't take place on Monday or if it gets rejected), and enough raw leadership talent to pull the whole affair together. Finally, such a manager also needs to have a huge reserve of trust to dip into, the clear sense shared by all that the call or extraordinary effort is truly extraordinary, not likely to be wasted and not likely to become a regular fixture.


In Region I, workers are responding to increased pressure by trimming any remaining waste, by concentrating on the critical path, and by staying late. In Region II, workers are getting tired, feeling pressure from home, and starting to put in a little "undertime" (taking the kid to the dentist during work hours, since the company owes them so much time anyway.) In Region III, workers are polishing up their resumes and beginning to look for work elsewhere.

"What would you do," I asked him, "if overtime were forbidden and you still had to make the schedule?" "Well, I'll tell you one thing," he answered promptly, "we'd sure have to do something about all these meetings." I paused for a moment, hoping that the words that had come so readily out of his mouth would make their way back in through an ear. But no. He couldn't hear what he'd just said. He missed it entirely.

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