The Efficiency Myth

This piece was written in 2003. Some of the examples I've used may be showing their age but the PRINCIPLES remain true.

Does this belong to Mr Primm or does it belong to Mr Proper?

      Monty Python has a lot to answer for. Those who remember this (when it was new) radical series, or are familiar with it as a period piece through the endless repeats on satellite television, may wonder at this allegation. They may wonder all the more in the light of the current 'revival' performances. Perhaps they'd bear with me.

      Now forgotten among classic sketches like the 'Ministry of Funny Walks', 'The Spam Song' and 'The Dead Parrot' was an unkinder one featuring two chartered accountants who revelled in the names of Primm and Proper. The premise was simple: accountancy is the world's most boring profession; therefore accountants are the world's most boring people.

      The wicked humour struck home: accountancy is boring. After all, what do accountants do but count the beans? They don't actually grow a single bean. They don't research better growing varieties. They don't keep the fields free of weeds. They don't bring refreshment to the tillers of the soil. No, all they do is count the beans, albeit in more and more complicated ways.

      But they have to be intelligent people to do their peculiar job, and I believe that the Python team's nasty gibe got under the profession's collective skin, probably without individual accountants really being aware of it. So much did it rankle that they sought revenge on their fellows. Boring? You watch this; I can imagine their unconscious minds saying.

      Far fetched? Well, something must have caused this once unassuming and comparatively harmless group of people to launch a social ballistic missile upon their fellows. That missile is what I would call the efficiency myth. It's usually spoken of more politely as 'efficiency, economy and effectiveness'. It's characterised as a kind of mantra to answer all the world's ills.

      In practice, though, this holy trinity boils down to finding ways of doing things on the cheap. This is sometimes done by making fewer people do more work. Or it can be done by closing the 'competitive gap' by giving the work to people in poorer countries who'll do the work for less money - witness the overseas migration of our beloved and comparatively new call centres. Or, in desperation, 'think tanks' might try to cut 'overheads' by centralisation, amalgamation, and the neat process of getting the customer to do some of the work for the company (as in electricity meter reading, for example).

      Yes, but doesn't everyone benefit from lower prices? On the face of things, it's hard to argue with this, the justification for all manner of morally doubtful initiatives promoted under the banner of 'efficiency'. But, no, lower prices don't benefit everyone, not in the long term. Not unless a very blinkered view of economics is taken they don't. The 'Three Es' translate simply and directly into job cuts: one person's price cut is another person's job cut.

      It doesn't need a genius to realise that this ultimately means one less customer for the cut-price goods. Efficiency in its common-sense meaning of performing a task in the best way and avoiding unnecessary waste is self-evidently a sensible thing. But when it's elevated to a science, or a dogma, then it can be positively harmful.

      Take the recent thinking at of the Post Office (before it was sold off at a bargain-basement price). As far as we mere mortals could make out, the idea was to deliver post to private addresses at some time in the afternoon. This brainwave probably had its origins in the mind of some bright spark, or more probably a committee of bright sparks - probably the same brains that came up with the brilliant idea of calling the Post Office 'Insignia' or some such a few years ago. They were in search of what they grossly miscalled 'efficiency savings'.

      It probably did save money. It had to be cheaper to deliver post and all the junk mail the poor postmen had to shovel through our letter boxes later in the day, after all. I'm glad no-one told the Insignia-General, but they could have saved even more by delivering every other day, or when the phase of the moon was right, or whenever it wasn't too much trouble. Still, is it really more 'efficient' for the person who now has to wait longer for mail or for the country to have more former postmen drawing unemployment benefit? Not in my book it wasn't. And efficiency itself is founded on a myth, or a series of myths.

      Let me elaborate. Firstly there is the flawed economic thinking to which I referred just now. Allied to this is a misconception of what creates wealth, and indeed of what true wealth is. It is economic activity, pure and simple, not 'efficiency' that creates wealth. When everyone is busy, building, working, selling, buying, providing services to one other, everyone makes some genuine contribution to the economy.

      This doesn't always mean that it has to be a totally 'efficient' contribution. Nor can it be. Efficiency in its present warped state is the reverse of sound economic thinking. It means a smaller number of overworked people being watched from the side lines by under- or un-employed people who contribute little to the wealth of nations and who will inevitably coalesce to form a substratum of society. The 'haves' have the means but often not the time to enjoy what their work brings them; the 'have-nots' have time on their hands but little money. This is hardly a formula for a happy and wealthy society. Or for a more efficient one.

      But the greatest problem with the efficiency myth is even more fundamental: the human being is not built for efficiency. Yes, it may have become the cultural norm to work longer hours; to take work home; even to drive oneself to a nervous breakdown in an attempt to meet the apparent demands of a demented workplace. It is no coincidence that more working days are now lost because of 'stress' than the old favourites of 'back ache' and the common cold put together.

      Now look more closely at the phenomenon of the extending working day. Many of those longer working hours are spent by the worker in what is essentially socialising. It's unlikely to be overt socialising, but socialising it is nonetheless. We are social animals and will not be denied. If we are compelled to spend more time in the work place, we'll do more of our socialising there. You can't alter the basic nature of humankind, or somehow make us work much harder in the long term, by chanting the magical mantra of 'The Three Es' over our exhausted frames.

      Then there is the unavoidable law of diminishing returns: twice as many hours spent at the workplace do not produce twice as much work. Then again there is the 'early retirement factor': despite all the hooh-hah about raising the retirement age, the trend is to more intense but shorter working lives. The premature departures from the workplace may be as the result of actual early retirements - only now are we waking up to the fact that we can't afford so many of these, either financially or socially - or some kind of 'downshifting'. It's no more than a reshaping of the pattern of working life. And dare I say that the new pattern is a less than 'efficient' one, now that improving health means a longer life span.

      Now look more closely at some of the activity which goes under the name of work. At its most frenzied much of it is often not productive work at all, but some kind of amalgamation, reorganisation or 'business re-engineering', all in pursuit of the great mythical god of efficiency. This is not work. It's the business world's equivalent of navel-gazing.

      This kind of activity doesn't contribute to the wealth of nations in any way. The processes involved actually cost money. Look at the huge army of 'consultants' we still have. This simply didn't exist as recently as a less than forty years ago ago. It's been said that, in the early years of the third millennium, the only growth industry is the bullshit industry.

      The true glory days of consultants are, thankfully, now probably in the past, although there are still enough of them to blight our business landscape. Now the main individuals who really profit from much of what passes for economic activity today are the deservedly-maligned speculators who go under the misnomer of 'bankers' and their dubious like. None of them do a scrap of real productive work; they just siphon off the money of others.

      All I can say to the money-men is 'Come in, Primm and Proper, your time is up. You've made your point'. And, as for the inheritors of Monty Python, surely this joke has gone far enough? It's not funny any longer. We need a new script for the New Millennium.


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