“Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.” — Peter Drucker, Austrian-American management guru.
“The highest type of efficiency is that which can utilize existing material to the best advantage.” — Jawaharlal Nehru, former Indian Prime Minister.
What comprises true efficiency, at least in a useful business sense?
That’s a question worth pursuing, because the answer isn’t necessarily what you might expect. Business “efficiency” has evolved beyond its classic dictionary definition, which is essentially minimizing the resources required to do something. That’s fine as far as it goes—but what if the thing done right isn’t the right thing? If your mechanic changes the wrong tire on your car, it doesn’t matter how efficiently he does the job; you’ve still got a flat.
In the business arena, what we call efficiency also includes effectiveness, ala Drucker’s “doing the right thing right.” I love this quote by Drucker so much, it’s in my email signature: “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” What we really want, then, is effective efficiency. As former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli pointed out in the late 1800s, “There can be economy only where there is efficiency.”
Disraeli realized this need for efficiency early in life, when at 13 years old, he converted to Judaism to Anglicanism to simplify the political life he expected to lead. He began his career as a writer of political novels rich in scandal (some generating minor scandals themselves) before entering politics, serving for decades in the House of Commons before his elevation to the House of Lords as Earl of Beaconsfield. Along the way he served as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Leader of the Opposition, and twice as Prime Minister. He also helped the Conservative Party rise to and remain in power in the Parliament, so he knew a thing or two about this newfangled form of efficiency.
Running a Tight Ship
You of course aspire to maximize your personal and team productivity, which requires notable efficiency in your organization. As you strive in your efforts, keep these things in mind:
1. Take advantage of technology. The technological leaps of the past century have made it easier and easier to complete more tasks in less time. So embrace and encourage new trends, devices, and software as they appear. Allow your workers to bring their own devices for business purposes. Why not use a productivity source you don’t have to pay for? If they want the ability to check work email while on personal time, not only let them, but enable them.
2. Provide instant “anywhere” access to workplace information. Team members have the ability to work from practically anywhere with wifi, so allow this when practical. When a member of my office manager’s family is ill, it’s easy enough to allow her to work from home for the day, so she can still be somewhat productive. You should also buy into your employees’ willingness to work from anywhere. With WiFi, Evernote, and all the snazzy apps we have access to now, workers can tap into work information no matter where they are: cubicle, hotel, conference, break room, or coffee shop. Give them a secure, reliable way to share ideas and communicate, allowing them more flexibility and change-responsiveness.
3. Measure everything. You can better influence when you can understand through data. Keep an eye on all the metrics that matter for your team, from hours worked and reports produced to productivity per hour. Use an accountability system, project management software, SharePoint, a common spreadsheet on Google Docs, Outlook Task Assignments, or a scoreboarding system that tracks important team metrics. You can use off-the-shelf technology, or have someone create a proprietary system.
4. Brainstorm regularly. Meet with your team periodically to exchange ideas on how best to achieve your strategic priorities and improve processes and procedures. Look for areas of overlap and eliminate redundancy. Constantly discuss what they’re doing that doesn’t provide value. Remove steps that no longer apply when a platform changes, and make sure each person documents everything, so a new person can step in quickly. Remove your thought-filters and allow your ideas to cross-fertilize to see what kinds of interesting hybrids result. Consider concepts from other fields, and how they might apply to yours; remember, drive-thru banking inspired McDonald’s to invent the drive-thru restaurant. What would you love to do if it were possible?
5. Set and track efficiency goals. Once you’ve pared your ideas down to size and set goals with your team, set specific schedules for achievement. As with any project, break those goals into manageable pieces, each with its own milestones and deadlines. Once you’ve achieved a goal, retune and set a new one.
Workplace efficiency is one of those subjects I could write a book about, and many others have. But these five pointers will at least provide a sufficient foundation for pursuing and supporting efficiency initiatives. Always remember: in business terms, efficiency is not just speediness. If it lacks effectiveness, it’s useless, no matter how fast you can accomplish it.