Why the quest for efficiency makes people inefficient

I’ve learned that our quest for efficiency is often one of the things that makes us the most inefficient.
Many people in management or coaching positions often get sour on the folks who they work with – claiming that they’re lazy, unmotivated slackers.
While this can be true, I’ve found that people are often putting forth a solid effort and doing the best they can, but are victims of two types of errors:
•A confused and improper focus on “efficiency” (which results in cutting corners, relying on willpower to create behavior change, and failing to set up long-term systems that are actually sustainable)
•A lack of skills to deal with obstacles, barriers, or questions that come up when attempting to engage in a new behavior.
I will discuss these issues from a management perspective, since I often find myself getting much more frustrated with employees than I do with coaching clients. (I have a healthy emotional distance from coaching clients, while I often regularly take mistakes employees make as a reflection of me in a way that is not always helpful).
In running a gym, I’ve found that one of our biggest issues as we’ve scaled is that – at each tier of growth – we have to relearn and refocus on the basics of each role within the organization.
This could be the basics of coaching a class (Give everyone in the class at least two pieces of individualized feedback – and use their name while doing so), the basics of setting someone up with a membership in our system (Please please please take their picture and have them fill out a membership agreement), or the basics of coaches communicating schedule changes for class coverage (Until the class is formally taken off of your schedule, it is your responsibility to make sure that someone shows up for it).
As we add employees and members, we tend to lose the thread of executing on these fundamental building blocks of our business. There’s more clients in the gym so classes get busy. There’s more front desk staff with a tiered management structure, so the way that we communicate and hold staff accountable is constantly shifting. There’s more to do in general, so it’s easier for things to slip through the cracks.
Over the last year, I’ve focused most of my effort on creating systems to make sure that we are not missing out on the fundamentals.
These include systems that track new members so that we can follow up on them consistently.
These include systems that track the recurring front desk tasks that need to be completed during each shift.
These include systems to make sure that all new members have all of their information entered into our software correctly.
And, as anyone who has tried to roll out systems like this in an organization, a lot of people just flat out don’t use them. Which results in a constant stream of mistakes, forgetting and oversight which can drive a high conscientiousness individual mad.
It can sometimes seem like people are actively ignoring my efforts to clean up all of these messes in an attempt to be “lazy.”
But, I really don’t think this is the case.
From conversations with employees and partners over the years, I’ve found instead that people are often searching for “efficiency” and a better way to do things.
Many of the solutions that I’ve come up with can seem overly optimized and like a waste of effort.
It can seem easier to “just remember to do it” than to create a to-do list system.
It can seem easier to “just remember your appointments” than to keep a detailed calendar.
It can seem easier to “just scan your email periodically throughout the day” rather than having structured times to handle your entire inbox.
And, in fact, it is easier to do each of those things. In the moment.
However, it’s not actually easier in the long run – neither for yourself nor for the organization that you work for.
Most people never make it past the initial difficulty of using a new system or a new protocol since it is often slower and less efficient the first several times you do something a new way.
It can still be purely self-interested behavior to develop systematic, repeatable ways of doing things. If you don’t have to remember how you did something last time, if you don’t have to rebuild the same email template every time, if you’re not constantly scrambling and cleaning up messes from things that you forgot to do…you tend to be a happier and more productive person.
And, if you do care about the organization that you’re a part of, developing systems has multiple benefits:
•The things that you’re doing can be more easily taught to a colleague – allowing you to focus on other areas, or allowing someone to cover your responsibilities if necessary.
•Systems make it easy to communicate throughout the organization what has been done and what needs to be done next.
Lets use a seemingly trivial example.
I’ve made a Google Sheet for our front desk that has a variety of recurring tasks on it – things like “fold towels, refill chalk buckets, empty trash on main gym floor, etc.”
Each task is categorized by the shift that it’s supposed to fall under.
The tasks also link to an internal wiki article that explains how to do the task.
The checkboxes automatically uncheck themselves on regular intervals relative to when the task needs to be repeated.
Tasks use conditional formatting to show when they’re due, overdue, and complete.
This ostensibly makes it very easy to keep track of what needs to be done – removing the the pain point of confusion between desk employees regarding which tasks are done, which are not done, and which need to be passed off onto another shift.
What’s not to love?
Well, it’s taken quite awhile to get front desk employees in the habit of consistently checking tasks off the list – even if they’re done.
It seems easier to just do them. Who cares if the tasks are checked off if they’re done?
It seems easier to just remember what tasks need to be done during your shift and take care of them. Why bother looking at the task list – it’s not that hard to remember to fold towels.
But, it’s not actually easier.
That’s a false sense of efficiency gained by skipping over the task list that is really a tax on the organization whenever a task is repeated prematurely or left incomplete past its due date – and it’s also a tax on your future self since you are often spending mental energy remembering what to do and how to do it (that could be externalized to a system) as well as spending time and energy cleaning up the messes that your lack of systemization created.
Or, more likely, one of the other employees or managers ends up cleaning up after you.
So, quit looking for efficiency in the wrong places. You don’t get more efficient by doing less.. You get more efficient by doing more work upfront so that you can trade in the mundane problems of forgetfulness and miscommunications and actually work on something interesting.

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