The Fallacy of Efficiency

· Posted by Joshua in Miscellany

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.

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  1. Efficiency without any sort of implication can mean anything. And efficiency can only go so far as long as it involves humans, but even computers can have problems. Take for an example, schools. Everyone wants to get higher and higher scores on their standardized exams, but students cannot get “smarter,” unless they are the same students year after year. A teacher cannot become more efficient in the way he or she teaches because she has a new group of students every year, and he or she will have to change her approach for each student. Yet the students must get higher scores that the last years students. The only thing that has stayed the same from year to year was the teacher, and the teacher does not become more “efficient,” but more effective in changing her style for each of her students. However, this can only go so far as he or she starts from zero with each and every student. It’s list trying to fit more and more water into a container that only holds so much water. It doesn’t work.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Eric. I’m glad you’re still reading and sharing your insights. You raise some interesting points — like how do we measure the efficiency of things like teaching, which involve so many different variables and personalities and possible outcomes. And why bubble tests?

    I do think it is a good thing for teachers, and all of us, to work towards being more efficient year by year. Efficiency is essentially about utilizing our resources for the maximum benefit, and like I said in the post, that is a good thing, but we must remember what we’re actually looking to achieve with our resources, and not let efficiency in pursuit of one goal cause inefficiency in our pursuit of other goals.

    However, I really appreciate your comment about trying to fit more water into a finite container. That’s very true. No matter how efficient someone becomes, there is only so much one can accomplish with the resources available.