I do not think that word means what you think it means…

As an Agile Coach I naturally talk about agile practices very frequently, and participate in a variety of discussions with people of varied levels of understanding of agile principles and practices.  But there are certain words that I notice are used with a disproportionate frequency, and used to describe different things. One word in particular gets used very frequently with emphasis and rarely in the right context, that word is Efficiency.  And just for the record, I have been know to misuse it and am making a concerted effort to find the right word for the context, to that end I will try to clarify some of the situations where a different word may be more appropriate.

Efficiency seems to be used to convey such things as. Utilization, Productivity, Effectiveness, Velocity, and sometimes even Efficiency. Naturally I am not suggesting that people are not using English correctly, or that they don’t know what ‘efficiency’ means, but when you look at the examples below you will see that whilst they use the word efficiency in a way that is syntactically correct, they are missing the depth of their question or statement, and often the context. The preoccupation with efficiency results in behaviour that reduces the effectiveness of the team.

For example:

  • Isn’t Pair Programming less efficient than working solo?
  • Isn’t it less efficient to have a developer testing software?
  • Isn’t it inefficient to have the whole team doing story writing (or backlog refining, or stand-up, etc)?
  • Isn’t it inefficient to attend all these meetings, we’d be more productive here?
  • Wouldn’t it be more efficient if I specialize in this one area and all tasks come to me?
  • Wouldn’t we be more efficient and increase our velocity if we ignored technical debt or skipped testing?

I previously covered an example where maximizing utilization of resources was seen as being efficient, but that efficiency was at the expense of the profitability of the business. I think you are missing the point…

In most cases these questions are simply missing the bigger picture, or the larger context.

In KanBan there is a saying that any efficiency improvement on anything other than your primary constraint (your bottleneck) is just an illusion.

If something isn’t on your critical path then it shouldn’t be your focus. Of course as you make improvements to flow and address one constraint the critical path may change, but you should stay focused on the critical path. Identify your constraint and put your efforts there.

Isn’t Pair Programming less efficient than working solo?

The Efficiency of Pair Programming is a recurring question, and one that I likely will not quash here, and that is not my goal. The issue is whether the question of efficiency is the right word, or the right focus for your efforts.

The definition of Efficiency is:  “achieving a goal with the least effort or least waste.” 

Pair Programming assumes two developers at one workstation, and the implication of the question is that more can be achieved with less waste by working independently in parallel.

The problem with Efficiency is understanding what’s it is that you are measuring – what is your goal, and identifying whether this particular activity is your constraint in achieving that goal.

Let us take a car journey as a very simple example: What is the most efficient journey?  Is it driving at 50mph so as to use less fuel? Is it to get to the destination in the shortest time to reduce utilization of the vehicle, or could it be driving in the middle of the night when the roads are clear and the vehicle is not needed by anyone else?

In all of those examples we are focused solely on the individual journey itself and even then we still have ambiguity of which efficiency we are concerned with.  But very likely the reality in that situation the destination is just a step towards the goal. That isolated Driving journey is unlikely to be entire goal in itself – unless maybe I am a taxi driver, and even then I suspect my constraint is maximizing fares rather than reducing costs, so likely maximizing the number of fares rather than driving efficiently is my goal. Driving efficiently only at 4 am may not be the ideal business model.

The road less travelled…

If for now we assume that we are driving efficiently to use less fuel, because fuel is expensive and money is more of a constraint than our time. Then possibly the most efficient journey would be to combine multiple journeys into one (car sharing, or batch delivery), or make a phone call, in this context a journey not taken(or shared), is far more efficient than the most efficient journey.

I glossed over that fairly quickly, so take a moment to think about it. Efficiently doing an unnecessary task is just waste.

Efficiently doing an unnecessary task is just waste.

Time = Money

But hold on, the most efficient journey for me could simply be one that gets me to my destination on time, regardless of cost or duration. My time and the appointment are more important than the cost efficiency of the journey.  Sure I would prefer the journey to be shorter and cost less if that can be achieved without impacting on my goal, but my priority is being there at a particular time. A super efficient journey that gets me to my destination 10 minutes early so I can sit idle for 10 minutes does not help me to my goal, the efficiency gain is just an illusion.

For a while I used to car share, and it saved me quite a lot of money, but I was tied to a schedule and my journey was much longer. After a while I realized my constraint was time and not money. The ability to be flexible over my schedule was a much bigger constraint. My journey became more expensive but I needed flexibility to reach my goal. In other words efficiency in one area may not just be an illusion it may actually cost you more elsewhere as a consequence.

This is a far too common situation in business, a business will often go on an efficiency drive and look to cut costs without any consideration to the larger impact that the efficiency savings are causing. The focus becomes narrow and they delude themselves and often others that they are being efficient, when actually the true constraint is ignored.  The cost cutting creates larger costs elsewhere.

Why? What is the goal?

I don’t mean to labour the point, but to be able to understand efficiency we must first understand the true goal, and it is very likely that the true efficiency we are interested in is related to a goal at a higher level.

Let us revisit the Pair Programming.  Our goal in programming is to deliver a software solution, likely a quality solution that meets the client’s needs, with minimal support requirements. It is likely that they are also interested in maximizing return on investment.  So where does the issue of efficiency for programmers come in?

Pair Programming as an activity shares and grows knowledge, it often enables more creative solutions, the quality is higher, there is an inherent in built code review and QA in to the process. So the question isn’t so much whether Pair Programming is more or less efficient in terms of number of lines of code written; or stories coded; or bugs found; but whether it is producing a better return on investment overall in the context of our true goal: in terms of quality, support and meeting the client’s needs.

I don’t plan on answering the question to the satisfaction of the skeptics but I suspect my opinion is fairly evident.  My point is not to directly answer the question, the point is that the real issue is not what it first appears to be when the question was broached.

If your team is dealing with support issues, bugs, deployment problems, getting features to customers quickly and so on. Then it is possible that ‘coding time’ is not your primary constraint.

In this case the response to the question of efficiency is:  What are you measuring to determine efficiency? Or…   Is efficiency of one singular part of the process our primary goal or is it just an illusion? Would being more efficient help you to be more effective at achieving your goal?

Summary

In this example the word efficiency is taken in a context to justify behaviour that possibly diminishes the effectiveness of the team.  Lean principles do look to minimize waste and to be more efficient, but lean looks at the end to end flow and is only concerned with efficiencies when it is applied to the critical path or a bottleneck and ONLY when those efficiencies are removing waste in the context of our overall goal, not simply a small part of the flow.

If we improve efficiency at a point before a bottleneck all we do is pile up work faster, if we improve efficiency after a bottleneck or anywhere not on the critical path we fail to see the benefit because the flow is already limited by an earlier bottleneck, there is no net gain to our efforts. Our efforts are just an illusion.

As a very generalised statement we as individuals find it inconceivable! (Had to include it somewhere) to view our work as part of a larger scope, our desire to be efficient in our own little bubble often leads us to behaviour that is inefficient for the larger scope that we are part of.  We should be less concerned with being efficient in our roles and more concerned with doing what is effective for the larger system or team we are part of.

Efficiency is not the same as being Effective

Prefer being Effective over being Efficient. Make sure you are effective at achieving the goal first and foremost before even looking at efficiency, and then only if increasing efficiency does not come at the expense of being effective.

Visualising our work in that larger scope is one of the best ways of understanding where we are struggling to be effective and to highlight where the true efficiencies can be gained.  But try to see the whole process not just your part of it.

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “I do not think that word means what you think it means…

  1. Excellent points, John!
    I appreciated the following 3 messages:
    “Efficiently doing an unnecessary task is just waste.”
    “We should be less concerned with being efficient in our roles and more concerned with doing what is effective for the larger system or team we are part of.”
    “try to see the whole process not just your part of it.”
    The need to think about the larger picture and how we can help others achieve goals helps us in the long run. Unfortunately people become divisive and believe they are practicing efficiency when they are really not helping the entire team effectively. If I am more efficient at anther’s expense, it is hurting the total output.

    Like

  2. Hi John,
    Just found your blog, as a result of starting work at your new-found home. You make a lot of great points, very succinctly. I feel compelled to comment on this:
    “The cost cutting creates larger costs elsewhere.”
    My father is a well-respected avian disease expert. His employer “increased efficiency” by reducing the number of admin assistants, shifting the duties of booking travel and typing up correspondence to research scientists. The result was that the employer paid research-scientist salaries to book travel. And, with no disrespect intended to research scientists, an admin assistant could have accomplished the same task much more quickly (and at lower cost). Plus, how many words per minute do you think a research scientist can type? Not their wheelhouse, believe me.
    keep blogging!

    Like

  3. Pingback: Why Scrum so often fails | An exercise in herding cats

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