What Makes Workplace Efficiency Beautiful?

Manager mindsets that leave room for slack

By Shannon Mullen O'Keefe

Efficiency can be beautiful.

It means waste is minimized, energy is maximized, and we achieve things.

Everything has a time and a place, everyone knows where to be, there isn’t extra — there’s just enough.

Things are right-sized.

And things clip along perfectly.

When the Pict woman (pictured above) lived — probably during the late Iron Age — people were excited about advances in efficiency. Back then, it was new iron tools that helped to streamline human life.

As humans, we’re rightfully proud of the gains we’ve made in efficiency, from iron tools to Roomba vacuums.

But, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end.

And now some business thinkers are rethinking efficiency.

As humans, we may have taken it a little too far. Efficiency may be losing some of its luster — some of its beauty.

Roger L. Martin is a business thinker who believes we’ve been overdoing it.

In his new book, When More is Not Better: Overcoming America’s Obsession with Economic Efficiency, he suggests that when we pursue everything in our economy and in business as if it were a machine, “pursuing ever-greater efficiency,” we miss the mark.

When we do this, we leave little room for slack and resiliency. He points out that slack and resiliency help us adapt and respond to things.

So he implores leaders to “turn [their] back on reductionism, and embrace the reality of business as a complex adaptive system.” Rather than think of business as a machine, we should view it as a complex ecosystem — more like a rainforest.

A rainforest?

In a machine, there are replaceable parts. We can toss in a new battery. In a rainforest, there are creatures.

Managers might be a little wary of the whole — rainforest — analogy for that reason. Creatures sound difficult to manage. So managers might prefer a machine to an ecosystem.

But here’s the deal: Managers must give themselves permission to manage beautifully. This means placing efficiency in its proper place. One doesn’t design for speed. Instead, Martin suggests, one tries to “Design for Complexity.”

How to manage beautifully?

In resilient cultures, “slack is not the enemy.” To build-in slack there must be elasticity in the way managers think and create. Here are some actions they might take to open up their thinking in order to do that:

Find beauty in “loose-tight” thinking

Martin reminds us that the business thinker W. Edwards Deming “did not argue for the utter elimination of slack — in fact, he argued for the importance of maintaining an optimal level of slack.”

As managers piloting our way through the rainforest, how do we know when we’ve reached an optimal level of slack?

With loose-tight thinking, managers are not necessarily perfecting team systems, but are always moving them across a spectrum of loose to tight. This means they give themselves and their teams permission to experiment.

Keeping in mind individual wellbeing, things might need to be tight now with new measurements, more measurements, longer hours, later nights, and then loose later—and that’s when you remove, tweak, or improve those measurements and free up time for thinking and learning.

As Marizanne Knoesen points out in her recent article, a practical way to safeguard some slack is “to establish and maintain good relationships with reserve workers, freelancers, and temps who can be called up at a moment’s notice and slot into operations with minimal effort. This means that you are never in one optimal, perfect place, but that you are adapting to what your teams and customers need, knowing that you need some flexibility.”

When managers live in the flux of loose-tight thinking they allow themselves to regularly adjust, adding in tight thinking when things are a little too loose, and also allow themselves to free things up — when things might be too tight, when whatever it is no longer serves a purpose.

Get tight and then loose. Loose and then tight.

Imagine the journey through the forest. You’re not always staving off the beast. There will be moments of resting while you gaze up at the tall trees.

The important thing is for managers to stay close to what teams and customers need and that they live wherever they are on the loose-tight spectrum with transparency.

Find beauty in the forever balance

Martin points out that “in an adaptive system, there is no perfect destination; there is no end to the journey. The actors in it keep adapting to how it works.”

So how do managers live in a world where there might not be a clear end to the journey?

A manager’s opportunity is to maintain a forever balance between what is and what can be — where they are now and where they are going in a not perfectly knowable future.

One way of looking at this can be how an author approaches writing a novel. In her book Bird by Bird, the author Anne Lamott describes it this way: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night,” she writes. “You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you.”

It is important to have a destination, but when the future isn’t perfectly knowable, the destination doesn’t have to be so far out there. It can be just a few feet ahead.

Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao professors at Stanford, shared this thought in a Stanford webinar earlier this year: “Give people as much predictability as possible. Good leaders create periods of safety.”

Managers don’t always need the high beams on to light up the distant future, but they do need to have the headlights on, to give some visibility to what’s next. In essence, they make sure people don’t wake up every day wondering, and everyone can see just far enough ahead to make progress.

In this way, everyone can adapt and move forward at the same time.

To find beauty in impermanence

The Pict people were known to tattoo themselves everywhere. It was a marker of their tribe. While that worked for the Picts back then, it doesn’t work for the workplace now.

When it comes to workplace resilience, managers must be wary of permanent tattoos.

The opportunity is not to become overly attached to anything.

Instead, lean into the beauty of impermanence. Most everything managers create will inevitably, in the near or distant future, uncreate itself. And that is o.k.

When that happens, it makes room to create something new.

Or it opens the door for someone on the team to try something new.

This means development and learning. This means experimenting and building and growing.

And it also means that what you are building now, matters most now, to those you are serving now. That includes your customers, team, constituencies — all of them, including your family.

This thought can be very freeing. And ideally it inspires managers to do some mindful listening. Consider Walt Whitman’s words: “We were together — all else has long been forgotten by me.”

How to manage beautifully?

Be present for your people as you get work done together today — and forget the rest. After all, people are the most important thing.

Like the poet Mary Oliver says, “You must leave some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”

In this same way, managers must leave some space at work for the unimaginable to happen.

Leave a little slack in there.

When managers do this, they will again find the beauty in efficiency.


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