Efficiency is fundamentally about using less input and getting more output. When CEOs talk about increasing “worker efficiency”, it usually means getting fewer workers to do more work. You can have the most efficient workforce in the world, but if the company, the system, and the process they’re working in are wasteful, none of it really matters. Eliminating waste is actually way more important than driving efficiency. Efficiency will help you, but waste will crush you.
To waste means to use or expend carelessly, extravagantly, or for no purpose. In business, this usually manifests as time spent on things that don’t matter. This could be anything from an executive’s pet project to utilizing hundreds of hours to tweak and modify documents that never end up seeing the light of day.
There are also things that might look like waste but aren’t. Waste is not an idea explored that ultimately doesn’t make the cut. Waste is not an effort that fails. Waste is not a canceled project, no matter how much went into it. Waste is not a prototype abandoned along the journey to a solution – there’s always a portion of things that can get naturally lost in the process. (In making whiskey, this is called the “angel’s share” – a portion of the product that’s lost in the production process.)
But when we allow actual waste to occur, we’re draining our organization culturally, competitively, and financially. Typically, there are four common causes of waste within an organization.
First is bad communication – Say you come out of a leadership meeting energized with clear direction. You and your team charge ahead and make a ton of progress. Then, you hear from leadership the direction has already changed. Days ago, in fact. The problem here isn’t the fast pace of change, it’s bad communication or even the lack thereof. Is bad communication worse than no communication? Who cares. They both create excessive waste.
Second is no framework — When a team gets handed strategic direction without any framework, they’re guessing what will meet expectations. They will bust their butts only to find out they’ve misunderstood the goalposts or worse, the goalposts have changed. When teams have to guess to understand strategy, objectives, or success measures, they’re mining rubies with a spoon and flicking them into the ocean.
Third is bottlenecks — A bottleneck is a place in the work process where progress gets stuck. It might be because progress can’t happen without meeting with someone who’s double booked until 2050 or hasn’t looked at their inbox in months. Bottlenecks can force teams to sit on their hands until the bottleneck is resolved. What’s even worse is when ambitious teams decide to push on with the work anyway, only to find out only they were on the wrong track, and now you didn’t just generate waste but also destroyed souls at the same time.
Fourth is fake urgency — Say you’re just wrapping up for the day when you get a message from the boss asking you to drop everything because something urgent is needed before the next morning. Your team pulls an all-nighter and gets it out the door. Then crickets. You never hear back and only later find out it wasn’t really needed at all. When we create false urgency, often it’s theater. It’s like when your boss’s boss slightly mentions that it’d be interesting to see some data, and your boss is already lighting up to get your team to produce it.
Some people will see this as “an issue with leadership” and that it should be remedied by conducting a slew of leadership training exercises. I’d argue it’s not just leaders, but organizational culture. It’s likely most leaders aren’t thinking about waste on a day-to-day basis. But most organizations also haven’t created a culture to continually define, examine, and discuss waste, or define success metrics that actively measure the amount of waste in the organization versus how much has been eliminated.
By ignoring organizational waste, you’re also wasting employee enthusiasm and morale. You’re also wasting opportunities for employee growth and learning. And ultimately you’re wasting employee loyalty. Most people are actually willing to work extremely hard. When it’s rewarding, they feel it. But when they see their good work wasted for no good reason, they’re left with animosity, angst, and frustration. And that’s what puts one foot out the door.
About the Author
Andrea Belk Olson is a keynote speaker, author, differentiation strategist, behavioral scientist, and customer-centricity expert. As the CEO of Pragmadik, she helps organizations of all sizes, from small businesses to Fortune 500, and has served as an outside consultant for EY and McKinsey. Andrea is the author of three books, including her most recent, What To Ask: How To Learn What Customers Need but Don’t Tell You, released in June 2022.
She is a 4-time ADDY® award winner and host of the popular Customer Mission podcast. Her thoughts have been continually featured in news sources such as Chief Executive Magazine, Entrepreneur Magazine, Harvard Business Review, Rotman Magazine, World Economic Forum, and more. Andrea is a sought-after speaker at conferences and corporate events throughout the world. She is a visiting lecturer and startup coach at the University of Iowa, a TEDx presenter, and TEDx speaker coach. She is also an instructor at the University of Iowa Venture School.