by Leon Rosenshein


What is efficiency? According to Merriam Webster, efficiency is:

Efficiency (noun):

the ability to do something or produce something without wasting materials, time, or energy : the quality or degree of being efficient

Ex: Because of her efficiency, we got all the work done in a few hours.
Ex: The factory was operating at peak efficiency.

But what does that really mean? And how does it change depending on what you’re doing/producing? Do you measure efficiency the same way when you’re building a bridge, running a sprint, running a marathon, creating an original painting, or building software? Of course not. I ran across this distinction by Jessica Kerr.

“Efficiency” is about fewer steps, uniformity, control— only when building the same thing over and over. 

“Efficiency” in building something new is about smaller steps, exploration, quick learning.

There’s something very subtle going on there. When you know exactly what to do and when to do it, being efficient means ensuring that everything happens exactly as planned, and exactly when planned. Anything beyond that minimum is wasted effort. Something to be eliminated when you’re trying to be more efficient.

On the other hand, when you don’t know exactly what to do next, when to do it, or what it will look like when you’re done, you approach it the other way. Take small steps. See if they work. Adjust and make sure you’re going in the right direction. Instead of a detailed roadmap with explicit steps (Taylorism), you have a sea chart. You have a goal, and you have the environment. The goal gives you your strategic direction. The environment helps you make tactical decisions.

We often use the first version because it gives us a sense of control. It’s rework avoidance theory. Define the path, execute the plan, arrive at the goal. No rework required.

Unless there is. If you just follow the plan you reach the last step and look up to see where you are. You might be close, you might be where you started, or you might be even further away. You won’t know until you get there. So you don’t know how much rework there’s going to be. You do know one thing though. The less you know about the environment between you and the goal, the further off you’re going to be when you finish the plan.

So if you want to execute efficiently through the unknown, take many more much smaller steps.