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Industryweek 7728 5 Ways Develop More Efficient Factory

The (Occasional) Wisdom of Inefficiency

Dec. 12, 2018
There are times when maximizing efficiency is a complete waste of resources.

Many leaders think they know the Magic Bullet for Maximum Success: Efficiency! If only we could do everything in our lives with superior efficiency, they believe, all sorts of wonderfulness would be sure to follow. Profits would surge! Competition from China and elsewhere would dwindle! Our standard of living would soar!

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, actually … quite a lot.

The Theory of Constraints, described by Eliyahu Goldratt in The Goal — one of the best business books I’ve ever read — makes it clear that maximizing efficiency is often a complete waste of resources.


Let’s step outside of business to explain. In the sport of rowing, for example, the shell (boat, for non-rowers) can go only as fast as the slowest crew member can row; boosting the speed of the others does nothing to change that. Similarly, because a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, any effort to strengthen the chain must be focused entirely on improving that weakest link.

How does this affect you? It means that for you to increase the output of a production line, or to get your kids off to school faster in the morning, you need to concentrate on the bottleneck in the process — what Goldratt calls the “constraint.” Doubling efficiency for parts of an operation already running faster than the constraint will only lead to increased delays and misery. Similarly, pushing the kid who’s always ten minutes ahead of her brother to be twenty minutes ahead won’t get you out the door any sooner, and is certain to lead to family discord.

But wait: it gets even more complicated.

Even more important than focusing effort on resolving constraints is taking time to understand the role of the target process in the overall scheme of things. My daughter works for the V Foundation, which funds cancer research. She recruits amateur athletes to raise money by training for and running marathons in honor of loved ones who have battled cancer. She develops training programs for them; coaches their fund-raising efforts; communicates with each of them throughout their several months of training and fund-raising; and manages the complex logistics of race day.

The result? Last month she shepherded 75 runners through the New York City Marathon — raising over $380,000 in the process. It’s a tremendous accomplishment by the volunteers, one which my daughter recognized by hand-writing 75 detailed notes, congratulating and thanking each participant and acknowledging his or her own particular motivation and struggle. For some, it was their first marathon; for others, a personal best time. Some have participated before, but this time they joined in raising a record amount of money. Almost all are honoring family members or friends who died of cancer. Each has a story about why they undertook this challenge; those stories were acknowledged individually in each of my daughter’s personal notes.

But wait again: Composing 75 handwritten notes is most definitely not efficient! My daughter is a single mother leading a busy life, with many ways she could have efficiently used the hours this calligraphy project consumed. She could have thanked these runners more efficiently with a newsletter, or a fill-in-the-blank letter, maybe sending along a bit of swag, such as a shirt or a ball cap.

But she didn’t.

She understands that the connection she makes with each of them is not only human, but vital to the V Foundation’s mission. She knows that her work is best done not by being efficient, but by being personal. These individual notes are the last step in a process of building relationships with each runner, which are rewarding for my daughter and the runners alike — both interpersonally and in supporting their joint mission to fund cancer research. Her deliberate inefficiency is a critical part of her overall effectiveness.

This is critical: Understanding the difference between efficiency and effectiveness and knowing the proper time and place for each.

How efficient are you? More importantly, how effective and connected are you — at work and at home?

Early in his career, Alec Pendleton took control of a small, struggling manufacturing company in Akron, Ohio, and sold off the unprofitable divisions and rebuilt the factory, quadrupling sales in seven years. He has been CEO of Summit Tool Company for 34 years, and is the author of the blog Big Ideas for Small Companies, powered by the MPI Group. This article originally appeared in the MPI Group's blog.

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