Efficiency and Expertise

John D Cook links to a couple of zingers on efficiency in the workplace.

I've been thinking about these sorts of things a lot recently, but I really like it when somebody pokes holes in Malcolm Gladwell's foolishness. Yes, for God's sake, 10,000 hours of effort cannot make anyone into a genius. It sure can help you get better, but talent and luck matter as much, if not more.

The other is a bit more meaty. I've begun to suspect that American business has got much of the easy gains from efficiency improvements already. James Kwak apparently agrees. To be fair, once someone figured how to analyze work tasks formally, we discovered there was a lot that could be improved upon. And we did so. It is understandable that people think you can just keep on doing that ad infinitum. But it is probably wrong. There is definitely a point of diminishing returns, and the potential return is probably a lot less on creative knowledge work than it is on manufacturing processes. And even on manufacturing processes, sometimes you can't get any more efficient because it starts to get inhumane to work people that hard.

Kwak is right on in his description of how productivity works for knowledge workers like myself. I have a Blackberry, and I really like it, but I am glad that it is not linked to my work email because it would be really annoying. I pay for my own Blackberry, and I use it primarily for personal things. GPS, maps, Facebook, searching for words when I am in random places, and such. I do have my work appointments on it, because I need to be in a lot of places all day long, and it is a God-send for that. It is also handy for tracking down wayward team members via text message [Where are you? We are ready to start the experiment and you said you wanted to be here.] I use it for Pandora when I am working in strange places too. My Blackberry is completely useless for actual work tasks, because it is simply not powerful enough. I cannot run SolidWorks on it, and that is fine. As long as you know how to use your tools correctly, this should not be a problem.

Well, the efficiency expert may counter, all I need to assume is that a fixed percentage of your desk time is productive. But that’s still a big assumption. Maybe the real constraint on your daily productivity is mental energy, and you only have enough mental energy to do four hours of real work a day. Then your extra two minutes will all go to looking at pictures of cats with ungrammatical captions. Even more likely, maybe the real constraint is your internal sense of what a reasonable day’s work is. Many of us have either left early because we got a lot done or stayed late because we got little done. Maybe the real constraint is how much work your supervisor expects you to do. Maybe the real constraint is how much your colleagues get done, either for process reasons or simply because workplace norms are set by group as a whole. Maybe the real constraint is your motivation level. Maybe the real constraint is customer demand. (Another of LeBlanc’s examples is a cafe where the barista only spends half his time actually making a drink; the most plausible explanation is that you need to staff for potential demand, but actual demand fluctuates and is generally below potential demand.)

I am all for the idea that the real way to increase productivity is to not do things that don't matter. I think this idea is lurking in the background of most productivity improvements, but you should just say it out loud. The problem is that the tool set of efficiency studies comes from Operations Research, so you are forced to do silly things like estimate the proportion of time spent at your desk that is "productive" and try to maximize that. The problem here is trying to quantify something that not really quantifiable. Some unproductive time with Aristotle might clear that up.