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Efficiency or Deficiency?

“What was efficient yesterday is deficient today.”

This phrase struck me recently. I heard it from Christy Wimber, who was speaking in the context of healing ministry in churches, but it caught my attention because it described exactly what I’ve been noticing in the world of productivity – and 21st Century living in general.

Take bread making for example. As a friend recently educated me, in the industrialisation of bread-making:

  • We swapped traditional farming methods and crops for intensive mass farming – favouring monoculture and less diverse wheat crops which rely heavily on fertilisers and pesticides. The lack of diversity and addition of chemicals compromise the nutritional value of the soil. And intensively grown modern wheat is unable to grow deep roots to access the nutrient richest part of the soil.
  • Millers exchanged stoneground mills for steel rollers, which are very efficient at separating the component parts of the grain, but also strips out most of the micronutrients concentrated in the outer layers of the germ. A bunch of the main nutrients that get lost get added back in later, but there’s a whole load that doesn’t. The rollers also get hot in the process, which significantly reduces the wild yeast or lactic acid bacteria that might be present in the flour.
  • Bakers who always used good ingredients and slow fermentation methods (which allow good bacteria cultures to develop) were replaced by large scale industrial factories where bread is made using roller milled flour and fast-acting industrialised yeast which enables bread to be produced at a rapid rate. At this rate, bread isn’t able to develop the wealth of lactic acid bacteria found in real bread, making it less nutritious and nourishing, and also harder on people with digestive problems. It’s also here where a bunch of additives are also put in in order to extend the shelf life of the bread.

At each stage of the process – from crop selection, to agricultural methods, manufacturing and baking – the drive for efficiency has stripped bread of its nutritional value.

The same thing happens with our obsession with efficiency at work.

In focusing solely on doing more for less and getting stuff done faster…

We stop thinking. We get so focused on the doing, we don’t give ourselves time to think.

We stop discerning. As Peter Drucker put it, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all” I wonder, how much work do we create for ourselves and each other because we were so focused on getting stuff done, that we didn’t stop to ask if it should be done at all.

We stop listening. We tell, we shout, we send another email and schedule yet another meeting. We create noise, trying to get our message through – and when something does reach our ears we jump straight into either defensive or problem-solving mode, forgetting to just listen first.

We stop stopping. We value motion over progress. We fill in all the blank spaces. Working through lunch. Tweeting on the loo. Emailing on our commute. Frenetic pace becomes the norm and stopping becomes unusual, uncomfortable, feared or even derided.

We stop caring. Either because we’re burnt out – or in some cases, we’ve streamlined the work so much that all we do is follow a series of tick boxes and scripts. Work becomes completely devoid of meaning and dangerously lacking in care, compassion or humanity.

We stop trusting. In optimising performance, we add in measures that take away autonomy and ownership, replacing them with bureaucracy, data and targets that result in people spending more time servicing the system than serving the clients, patients or community.

We stop questioning. When everyone’s frantically busy meeting deadlines, questions are disruptive and frowned upon. “Because I said so” and “just get on with it” becomes the default answer – whether spoken or not. What’s more, we surround ourselves with people who are just like us – likeminded people are less likely to debate, differ or disagree, so less time is ‘wasted’. Our echo chambers get louder and our blind spots get larger when we sacrifice diversity for the sake of uniformity.

We stop learning. When there’s no time to think, we stick with what we know – or asking who we know. Those with expertise get inundated with interruptions, and those without never learn, because it’s always quicker to ask than to risk the time it takes to actually learn it for yourself.

We stop innovating. Efficiency is about doing the familiar faster. Streamlining, smoothing, ordering. Innovation is about stepping into the unfamiliar. Taking risks. Breaking things. Disrupting the status quo. Getting things wrong. Going back. Going sideways. Going round in circles. Often the steps that lead to innovation look incredibly inefficient.

We stop laughing. I remember a client telling me the change she’d notice in her company as workload and schedules got more demanding “People used to laugh more. Now when I walk through the office, there’s a lot less laughter.” When we fill every gap in the diary and fly from one meeting to another with military precision – it’s often the human experience that gets squeezed out. The laughter, the connection, the unplanned conversations and the relationship building. As a result our whole work-life experience becomes deficient.

The crazy thing is, efficiency is what robots do really well. Us humans? It’s the care, the compassion, the collaboration and the creativity that we have a unique handle on.

Isn’t it time we started redefining productivity on more human terms?

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