This post is long overdue. For years now, I’ve cringed at the constant appeals for “increased efficiency” made by managers, executives, politicians, researchers, journalists, teachers, engineers, activists, bosses, columnists, liberals, designers, coaches, conservatives, accountants, and radio talk show hosts. I think it is safe to say that we all agree: all of us want to make our businesses, our jobs, our governments, our schools, and our refrigerators more efficient. Efficiency is a good thing.
Efficiency, however, is a property of means, it is never an end, and it cannot be an ultimate goal. The thing that matters most is our choice of objects to efficiently accomplish. The business that efficiently returns value to shareholders is not necessarily the business that efficiently rewards good employees or that efficiently turns out efficient refrigerators. It is clear that machine guns and gas chambers are very efficient killing machines, but efficient murder isn’t a good thing at all.
When a merchant or a candidate or an employer tries to sell you on efficiency, it is a meaningless pitch unless you ascertain what sort of efficiency he or she means. Is the most efficient factory the one that makes widgets the most quickly, or the one that makes the strongest widgets? Is the most efficient government the one that does things for the least expense, or the one that does things for the most good? Is the most efficient plan for your boss the most efficient plan for you?
Let’s take a collective step back from this mad drive towards efficiency, and remind ourselves of our values, our goals, and what it is we’re trying so hard to accomplish. Using ends to justify means is bad enough. Don’t make the means into the end.