Monday, August 25, 2014

Perhaps Not a Pendulum Swing

As we observe change that occurs throughout our lives and attempt to give ourselves some context, we often refer to the pendulum.  The back and forth movements give us some sense of normalcy as one phase comes to an end and, as we presume, the arc toward the opposite extreme begins.

One alternate to the pendulum metaphor to consider is the myth of Sisyphus.  While it is the very metaphor of futility it may also be a more apt illustration of the feedback loop that opposes us collectively when we basically try to push things too far.

Granted, the crux of the Sisyphus myth was that the onus of stone and mountain was his punishment for greed and deceit rather than striving helplessly toward an aspiration that was just out of reach. No matter how determined he may have been with each attempt to ascend the mountain with his burden, gravity set brought him back to square one.  In a modern context, when ambitions or grand plans get too ambitious they become more likely to fail -- not because of hubris, but because of the imbalances that are created, especially when significant amounts of technology are injected to achieve these goals.

Despite the belief that an ideal or the top of the hill are attainable, reversals keep them out of reach. The larger the endeavour, the more likely it is to generate negative feedback loops that gradually increase the resistance to progress.  The 1960's space race may have avoided feedback loops because the destination and the goal were so remote from everyday lives.  For all of the confidence espoused with the old "we can put a man on the moon" chestnut there may have been a convenient or blissful oversight of the challenges that would have been proposed if that much capital and technology were put into an endeavour that was entirely directed at an earthbound project.

If capital or technology are introduced in a manner that skews the balance between elements of production or stakeholders in a project or process, the consequent imbalance will eventually generate opposition that contributes to the gradually decay or complete arrest of the project.

The fast food industry may have believed it found the formula to continue to increase profits as it mechanized more and more of its processes and reduced the significance of the human element in the production processes.  There was a confidence that staff could be put in place with a minimum of training and that they would consequently have the opportunity to increase production while bringing labour costs down as well.  There was, however, still the matter of maintaining employee satisfaction. Without that satisfaction there were more problems with quality control and satisfaction.

The problem in many situations is that when technology is introduced for the sake of improving efficiency it merely amplifies components of the process without heeding the needs or contributions of other inputs.  The harshest thing about this increase of technology is that the human factor often gets left behind.  When new technologies are introduced and the new organization of stakeholders tends to cluster more closely around the technology and other inputs such as capital rather than the people that are supposed to benefit from the technology or perhaps work with it.

The increased consciousness surrounding the connections between community, environment and health and the consequent movement of people from the suburbs to the inner city is one more example.  After 60 years of suburbanization there has been a movement toward the vibrancy and sense of community that accompanies inner city living.  This transition is the consequence of a feedback loop that has included increased occurrences of obesity, a strong desire for a rekindled sense of community, and the desire to spend more time with friends and family rather than in a gridlocked commute.

If it is apparent that "progress" has generated an imbalance that undermines the quality of life for people, there is a high probability that negative feedback loops will eventually claw back that quality of life.  The rock will move back down the mountain and reach stasis in the valley once again.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Yahoo: Efficiency and Possibility

About a year and a half ago, Marissa Mayer was going through the public hazing that accompanied her start at Yahoo and her decision to curtail telecommuting to bring more Yahoo staff under the company roof.  The critics cited, among other things, the impact on fellow working mothers who would not have the option of building an onsite nursery at their own expense.  Others went so far as to argue about the expenses that would be incurred by providing onsite space to all of those employees who had been offsite under telecommuting arrangements.  This bean-counting argument goes through the math on the cost per square foot or unit of productivity per worker that Yahoo would be saddled with by the decision to bring everyone back together rather than dispersed to their respective homes or neighbourhood cafes.

Going by the measure of Yahoo's share price, the progress that has occurred since she joined the company has continued with the share price as of today standing at $37.50, a significant leap from the withering $15 it stood at when she joined.  The advantages of everyone working in proximity to one another is the possibilities that are generated from having people together to accelerate projects and contribute to the types of innovation that can occur when people are working together closely and continuously rather than more disparately.  The company is still facing challenges that need to be addressed but the decision to cultivate or encourage innovation by bringing people together rather than looking to cut costs and strive for apparent improvements to efficiency by cutting costs and consequently contracting the possibilities that are available to the organization.

The alternative to ensuring innovation may be best demonstrated by the cost-cutting decisions that Philips made in the mid to late 1990's that had long-term consequences on Philips' profitability and their ability to compete as well as they would have liked with the Research and Development team reduced in by 37% and less robust than it needed to meet their requirements to renew growth and support the technological development they were pinning their hopes to.

The innovation option may not be the most popular one, but a longer term view that ensures that the organization retains its assets and mission or be is far healthier and motivating than the demoralizing retreat that cuts and layoffs may often signal.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Striving for an Inclusive Efficiency

There is probably a sense that efficiency always ought to be pursued and that there are always benefits to finding more efficiency or applying more technology to problems that we -- whether as individuals, a society or a civilization -- may encounter.  There are regular instances where the pursuit of efficiency has unwelcome circumstances, however.  Anyone who has had the sense that they or their loved ones have fallen through the cracks when dealing with customer service or something more substantial such as social services or health care.

All too often efficiency has been narrowly defined by a handful of measurements; old chestnuts such as cost per unit, miles per gallon, units produced per hour and other simple divisions.  Another issue narrowing the application is the small number of people who lead in the determination of what is efficient.  These two factors make measuring efficiency far more subjective than one ought to assume.

Recently increased interest in collaboration and design thinking approaches to problem solving, change management or decision-making have allowed more data, anecdote and passion to be brought into the pipeline than had been the case in more single-minded approaches.  Some of this may be nothing more than the swing of the pendulum away from a positivistic slant toward more holistic, organic or integrated approaches but there is a sense that these approaches are not all candles and kumbayah but have generated innovative approaches that would not have been generated by smaller groups with narrower visions.  The majority, if not all, of the participants in these large group approaches see satisfying results, if only because a larger number of what ifs are taken into account and addressed in advance rather than from a disadvantaged, reactive position.

Much of emerging expertise surrounding the topics of designing thinking and other approaches to innovation are either putting efficiency metrics on the back-burner or coming up with newer formulae or measures that take a longer term view or an approach to efficiency measurement that is still subjective but takes a longer look at all of the perspectives that need to be examined.

Within these more collaborative approaches is a stronger recognition of the human element and the intangibles that get short shrift in the more narrowly defined pursuit of efficiency.  In those broader, more participatory approaches, there is an infusion of passion and possibility that is often the domain of the arts.  These approaches to change do not begin with a pursuit of efficiency that panders to bean counters, but with an empathy and a creativity that redefines the possible.

The redefinition of possibility comes with a more creative, holistic and comprehensive approaches that are broader in ambition and consequence than merely refining processes to wring that much more efficiency, cost effectiveness or time-savings out of a process that may be passed its shelf-life.  Such refinements of narrowly defined may only accelerate an organization's decline while providing comforting data the may provide some comfort but may only be covering the asses of the tunnel-visioned.  The body strives to conserve more energy but at the risk of sacrificing extremities.  An organization may find increased labour efficiency in the aftermath of layoffs but this may only stave off or delay failure rather than lead to a renaissance.

One example of an approach that achieves a more accurate sense of efficiency because more participants are contributing to the discussion or data collection as it were, is Dr. Paul Uhlig's concept of collaborative rounds.  I came across Dr. Uhlig in the recent writings of Peter Block, who described the rounds as an approach where all people involved in patient care, medical staff, other professional and family and contribute their insights on a patient's progress or needs.  The outcomes of this care model have shown that all measures of the patient's care improve when there is this more comprehensive approach to care rather than a more traditional, dare I say monolithic, model where input comes from a much smaller group of experts.

Innovations that draw on more of the available information, insight and perhaps even instincts available have the potential to generate similar redefinitions of efficiency and raising the bar for what can be achieved.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Found, Wasted and Mismeasured Efficiencies

Apart from a few sacred activities or preoccupations that are isolated from measures of efficiency, whether out of a commitment to maintain tradition or because of the emphasis on the relationship or bonds that are formed, efficiency has been sought in countless aspects and realities of life.  We
would not, for example, want to measure the efficiency with which a parent tends to a child's knee scrapes or other matters that are best treated with a reassuring kiss to pass the few moments until that first sting of pain subsides.  In such cases, applying technology or pursuing efficiency would be disquieting.

We keep hoping that improvements in efficiency will help us protect what is left of the environment or what's left of it or that time-saving efficiencies will help us find more time for the things we really want to be doing.  With energy efficiency there is a need to cite the efficiency questions posed by Jevons Paradox, which suggests that improvements in efficiency result in higher amounts of a resource being used rather than less.  In terms of driving think of an instance where a car with better gas mileage induces a driver to use their vehicle more than they would a less efficient car to the point where they actually use more gas in that car than they would in that less efficient car.  Beyond that, think of the new-found time that we actually waste rather than use the way we promise ourselves when new time-saving devices come into our lives.

The advances in the kitchen over the last century mark the turning points in a long narrative about improvements in efficiency but this story is punctuated by a chorus that there still never seems to be enough time and that our days have gotten busier or we are less able to accomplish what we claim we want to do.  The transformation of the domestic work day has redirected it into the workforce and the lament on the domestic front may seem to be that there is - still - never enough time.

I tiptoe into the minefield of assessing women's participation in the workforce versus their contributions in the home to suggest that there is far more bias to the measurement of efficiency than we would presume.  There is not an inherent neutrality to efficiency that is grounded in formulas that would indicate that families or society benefit from the time-savings that have been generated by introducing washing machines or sliced bread to the home.  One possibility is the time saved doing laundry may end up being equal to the time sitting still during the commute to work and the praise lavished on sliced bread entirely overlooks the substantial difference in quality between homemade bread and store-bought sliced bread.  Things get overlooked or excluded from the calculations when "improvements" in efficiency are lauded.

We need to look carefully at what type of efficiency is being sought at any one time and also whether we are looking at efficiency from a short or long-term perspective.  Time efficiency and energy efficiency more often than not are mutually exclusive. If you are using a private jet to get somewhere, you're using up much more energy to get directly to a destination, not to mention avoid much of the pacing and waiting in the airport.  If you are riding a bicycle to work rather than driving a car... well actually that may be one case of achieving both time and energy efficiency, given typical rush-hour gridlock.

It is also misleading to apply a shorter-term perspective when measuring efficiency as well.  In a closed system where the impacts of an efficiency are examined over the course of a short period of time without examining the potential impacts of a newly-found efficiency over the long term.  Claims of improved efficiency are often made (or adopted before the claim is made) without accounting for the long-term consequences in a real life use or application of the efficiency.  The best examples of this oversight (whether deliberate or incidental) stem from the use of chemicals, whether in food, medicine or pesticides that have frequently turned up unfortunate and costly results that did not make it on to the efficiency ledger at the introduction of a discovery and result in the assessment being tossed into the trash.

A further bias beyond that long-term versus short-term perspective is simply the ability or inability to take into account the less tangible factors that are more challenging to measure in terms of the compromises to quality of relationship or preservation of heritage that may be undermined in pursuit of efficiency as well.  Those qualities which are less likely to be quantified are mostly likely to be eroded by degrees and the consequences of such erosion felt in an existential sense but those endangered intangibles are far more important than the efficiencies that we have found and squandered.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Outsourcing Versus Innovation

For many businesses, innovation has been the key to growth and a prime vein for competitive advantage.  For one example, IBM’s range of inventions — including the magnetic stripe that is hard to remember living without, UPC price codes and laser eye surgery — all generated competitive advantages that allowed them to stay ahead of international competition that had the advantage of lower-priced labour.  IBM’s inventions, granted, generated efficiencies, but these innovations have been through the pursuit of creative problem-solving or throwing as many ideas out for consideration and development.

Over the last few decade, however, outsourcing seems to be a more prevalent strategy among larger firms instead than innovation. The immediate perception is that outsourcing is a matter than allows an organization to focus on its core products or services rather than preoccupying itself with functions that are less central to the organization's expertise or mission.  In many instances outsourcing occurred as jobs were created and added within the company due to innovation, but it has seemed over time that outsourcing has become a larger preoccupation in an effort to cut costs.

The perception is that such cost cutting measures will improve profit margins and satisfy one measure of efficiency, however, short-sighted that measure may be.  The cheap certitude that comes from achieving favourable financials for the current fiscal year or the next quarter, however, overlooks the advantages of investing regularly in terms of financial losses in risk and innovation.  The short-term variables that go into that measure of an organization's immediate success bears, however, little relation to the long-term success or health of that company.

A steady of infusion of new ideas to broaden a company's horizons and prospects is far more indicative of a company's future health than a current measure of profit and losses.  Choosing to measure a company's standing by this alone and making decisions based on achieving the temporal ideals is dangerous despite the perceived risk aversion that may motivate it.  Perhaps it is an argument that sounds familiar to those who are less than willing to laud CEOs for maximizing the bottom line for the benefit of stockholders instead of taking a longer-term view that contributes to the sustainability of the organizations beyond a relatively short period of time.  It seems that as a business grows, there is the risk of a stagnancy that occurs when bean-counting becomes a higher priority than entrepreneurship and innovation.  Those larger companies that look to cut costs by methods including outsourcing or more inclined to by a start-up after it has proven to be successful rather than cultivating a culture of risk and, consequently, innovation.  Such an approach to innovation -- one where new ideas or companies are bought for the successes they achieve rather than encouraging it within -- seems a lot like the thinking behind the assembling of a fantasy sports roster.  On paper it may look good, but the reality may be that the fit between the two organizations may not be as ideal as hoped.

Rather than reducing the exposure to risk (as they perceive it), businesses need to indulge in risk by supporting and nurturing innovation within the business.  Adopting a narrow view and over-specializing will ultimately truncate a business's vision, potential and ultimately its future. While Eastman Kodak sowed the seeds of its own demise by not properly valuing the innovations and patents it generated in the field of digital photography, other businesses make the mistake of not investing in the risk and failure cycle that comes with attempts at innovation but ultimately leads to discoveries that mesh with the goals, mission and infrastructure of the company.  Businesses need to maintain the appetite for risk and innovation that marked their launch rather than retreat to the false comfort of short-term measures of efficiency and striving to achieve standards that comply with those snap shots of a company's standing at a given moment and cutting costs as a means of achieving a false measure of health or efficiency instead of investing in innovation.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Human Scale and the Cog

Taken to its utmost extreme, efficiency has proven itself to be less than amenable to the human scale.  Frederick Taylor, a mechanical engineer cum management consultant, became famous in the late 19th century for introducing management methods that precisely pursued the maximization of efficiency.  His method, however, has become synonymous with the enmity for the human element in production processes.  Taylor's approach involved assessing procedures and processes to calibrate man, implement, workload and other inputs to determine the right combination to achieve the maximum efficiency.  The "success" of his management theories were bolstered in part by ensuring worker dissent was overlooked and ignoring other human elements that would normally get reasonable hearing in the workplace or other locale.  It concluded on the ideal workload a labourer could or ought to move with, say, each turn of the shovel, but it may not have taken into account repetitive movement injuries or other demands on the body and likely did not weigh boredom in the calculation either.

Charlie Chaplin in one of several iconic moments in 
Times, 1936
With the passing of the past 100 years, Taylorism has not aged well.  Taylorist calculations figured in determining the work efficiencies of the concentration camps during World War II and over time, Taylor's theories and methods met with the required checks and balances to ensure greater equity and fairness in the workplace rather than the assumption that the labourer was another inanimate variable in the production equation.

Still, the balance between human well-being and the pursuit of efficiency tilts too often away from human interests, especially as competition between countries increases and more industries or corporations take advantage of cheaper labour in less developed countries.

Whether it is a matter of created efficiencies that allow jobs to be completed by lower skilled employees or finding a location where legislation is more lenient the pursuit of efficiency does risk tilting away from the needs of human dignity and often well-being as well.  That was the case in the sweatshops of Bangladesh in April 2013, where the pursuit of cost effectiveness in clothing manufacturing was mediated enough middle men to distance the brands, corporations and consumers from the labour and working conditions.  That is just the most graphic instance of this and there are instances of sweatshop conditions, use of child labour and labour disputes against First World manufacturers simmering on the back pages to indicate that the pursuit of cost effectiveness, mislabelled as efficiency, often leads to strife or the most dire of inclusions on the ledger sheet.

There ought to be a suspicion that efficiency has been achieved at a high and hidden cost, but the conscience is often ignored in favour of the numbers when the results are, indeed, to good to be true. As the pressures inherent with the pursuit of profit margins, larger corporations pressure their suppliers and contractors to work within smaller and smaller profit margins while being audited as well for their labour standards.  The profit margins win out all too often and the basic threat to the human scale is to overlook the limit of not what a person or group of factory workers can or ought to be capable of, but rather what can reasonably and fairly asked of them on a day in and day out basis?  As with Taylorist efficiencies in the later 19th century, the glowing outcomes end up being the result of coercion rather than an arrangement the respects the limits of people are capable of and hide the circumstances of their "achievement."

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Where Two or More Are Gathered There Will Be No Agreement on Efficiency

When looking to address so many of the problems that we -- individually or collectively -- grapple with, efficiency is often on the short list of ways to make a tough situation better.  When we examine environmental problems, we look to various forms of efficiency to make better use of the resources that are dwindling away.  When looking at making a day more productive, with look for better strategies to manage time more efficiently.  In sports, teams are looking more refined and erudite statistics to determine the combinations of players or strategies that foster the optimum offensive and defensive efficiencies required to improve the chances of victory on a regular basis.

Efficiency probably has a unique and undue command over our imaginations and aspirations.  One problem with the word "efficiency" is the blind faith that achieving it is the vital stepping stone toward achievement, gaining a competitive advantage or benefiting ourselves or the common good in some way.  The biggest problem with our over-reliance on efficiency as a solution or point of discussion is that it is far more subjective a variable than we care to acknowledge.  It is not objective, simply because the resource people maybe striving to optimize use of - be it time, money, energy, water or any other factor - varies from one person to the next.

Apart from the variations in what we chose to use efficiently, there are too many occasions where we narrow the number of inputs that go into the operation of a system.  The time and energy that may go into achieving the perceived efficiency and the time period that it takes to replenish or recover from that period of efficiency.  If we are looking at a battery for instance do we calculated the time spent recharging the battery and the amount of direct current the recharger requires?  We probably look exclusively at the amount of time that we are able to use that battery and disregard other aspects or calculations that would go into a broader calculation of the efficiency that encompasses a broader range of efficiency.

Far too often, the definitions of efficiency that are used are too narrow and occasionally (frequently?) border on self-serving.  The efficiency various manufacturers may attribute to their products would be the most obvious instances of this, but there are instances where we ourselves may look at time efficiencies over energy efficiencies.  Such calculations would figure into the decision to drive 15 km to a discount outlet to buy products in bulk, rather than walking 750m to a nearby store to buy the same product though at a higher price.  One may choose to ignore the likelihood that part of the bulk purchase would be discarded and settle on the savings per unit as the true measure of the efficiency of the purchase.

A great deal of delusion can be hidden in the use of the word efficiency and much of it is willful, whether individuals use it as a rationalization or advertisers use it with their clients' interests foremost in mind.

Given the amount of significance we attribute to the word, we ought to apply it with a greater sense of precision rather than play shell games with it.