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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Efficiency, yes, but for how long

I heard a story the other day about a company which decided to donate efficiency experts to a charitable organization instead of just throwing money at them. This was hailed as a marvelous thing, and apparently it made quite a difference and found all kinds of places where they could get more done with the same resources. Much praise was passed around for this accomplishment.

I hear about a story like that and wonder if there's more to it. This isn't meant to diminish the contributions of the experts or the company which provided them, and certainly not the outcomes. It's more of a thought about how "sticky" these changes might be. It's about root causes and fundamental foundation type stuff.

Let's say the charitable organization is C, and they are managing to accomplish 10 units of awesomeness for every 5 units of donations. Then this efficiency expert comes along, and now C can deliver 20 units of awesomeness for the same 5 units of donations. Sure, that's a doubling of output, and that by itself is great, but I'm wondering what happened to make that necessary in the first place.

Obviously, something wasn't quite right in the original configuration of C. Some of their policies or techniques weren't delivering their full potential. What I want to know is why this deficiency existed in the first place. I'm not even assuming anything nefarious here. It's probably just as simple as ignorance -- someone in the system didn't know about a technique, and these outsiders taught it to them. With the skill acquired, now they can be more effective. Okay, that works.

But of course, I don't want to stop there. Now I want to know why this ignorance of those techniques existed. I wonder if they would have discovered them on their own if they had purposely gone out looking for fresh ways to do things. That leads to my next question: were they actually looking for those fresh ways, or were they just keeping things about the same from year to year?

Let's say they were just leaving things alone and weren't actively trying to improve efficiency. This would also make me ask some questions. Why were they sitting still? Did they think things were okay as-is? Or, more likely, were they just too busy to handle anything new? Remember that being busy can be a real thing, or it can be a state of mind caused by stress or any number of other problems. I'd want to know which of those might have been happening.

Why do I ask questions like this? Well, I wonder what happens when the efficiency experts are gone. They go back to doing whatever they did before they were donated, and the recipient organization just sort of coasts along on whatever procedures they may have changed or added plus whatever learning they may have picked up. In the short-term, all is well.

What happens in the long run, though? People change jobs and even move to other companies. They even retire sometimes (imagine that with this economy). When they go, they might "take knowledge with them" in the sense that nobody else might know about something that would help the organization be more effective. This probably gets worse with time.

Does the organization ultimately regress back to a less-effective state?

I assume that unless there's been some deliberate design change to make sure someone cares about that in general, it will eventually decay back to nothing.