Efficiency can be bad for your health

In a world of “Bean counters”, the bottom line and increased production, we seem to have missed the human side of the equation and it is having a detrimental effect upon all of us personally.

Terms like work-life balance, transparency and a hundred other touchy feely buzz words seem to only appease the many; with a sense that “something is being done or there is a process to follow”. The problem lies in the truth that as a business the chosen target of focus is the wrong one. We focus to attain and maintain 10% growth, we focus upon man hours wasted, increasing production and reducing staff, all valid strategies yet only one side of the complex equation that is work and business. The other side of the coin is far more complex and counter intuitive.

The ancient Romans were presented with a steam engine by Heron, a Greek mathematician and engineer in the 1st century, yes a basic, rudimentary steam engine (the aeolipile ) it could have been used to do work and may have eventually lead to the industrial revolution occurring back in ancient Rome. The surprising thing is, when this device was shown to the Romans they basically replied “What would we do with all the slaves?” How many among us would have thought to say that, does this mean they were smarter than us or is it that they had a different focus and vision of what work was actually about. Yes they had slaves but they also were aware that if a machine could do all the work then the social impact would be far greater than they were prepared to suffer.

steam engineMechanisation and the industrial revolution did occur and its social impact has been felt ever since but does that mean in a modern work place the workers are machines, cogs in the greater mechanism? Is production the means and the end of the modern global workforce? Strangely enough I have never heard anyone say they work solely to produce; reproduce maybe, family, friends or the next holiday, but never just to produce product or perform a service as the ultimate goal of their labours. The goal for most people is not what they actually produce but what they think it will give them, a means to an end. So to most of us work is not the destination but the method or journey to achieve something greater.

With that in mind, think about the way we examine a business and work-flow. The focus is on efficiency, increased profit and reduced cost, all easily measured metrics and relatively easy to modify, especially in a negative way. Now look at the goal of the “workers” the human side of the equation (yes, this includes Management), a much harder metric to examine let alone measure. This is a can of worms! And far to complex to broach here. Yet we can determine some threads to be taken home from this:

Obviously the goal of the “workers” is not actually tightly related to the method or journey taken.

The way we measure success is narrow by nature, focusing upon components not the whole.

So what am I getting at ? The question we often ask is wrong, not because we don’t know it’s wrong but because that’s how we’ve always worked. More is better but more of the wrong thing is worse.

Focus and goals are highly relevant and to lose sight of them is a dangerous and unhealthy way to go. Consider a holiday, a trip across Europe say, most of us plan this sort of thing, where to go, what to see, what to do, and so on. Now what is the goal of a holiday, this varies but for most of us it’s to relax and take a break from work etc. So if your goal is to relax and take it easy then would you plan every moment of the trip; bus and train timetables optimised, condense the trip to its minimum? No, of course not, but if your goal was to see as much of Europe in the time you had, the answer would be Yes. That’s a sight-seeing trip not a holiday, yes they can blend together to some degree but the goals are different.

So how would we measure this, number of sites seen, number of photos taken, time taken, cost effectiveness, distance travelled, personal interactions engaged in or do you need a holiday when you return? It would depend on your attitude to travel and your actual goal.

Efficiency may be bad for your health if you focus on the wrong things or ignore your goals. Like a laser, a highly focused beam of light, efficiency can cause damage if poorly applied.

So how do we deal with this idea and try to make sense of it. Personally I see work, business and global markets no differently than ecosystems, highly varied and complex but with many smaller “components” which effect the overall health of the system.

Biology is a complex and varied system far more so than business, despite what some economist types would have you believe. Think about it biology has evolved over millions of years, has had dead ends, set backs and eventually become what we see today. Business and economics has had at best several thousands of years and if we remove bartering far less.

So if the more evolved and complex system has particular traits then we should at least examine the more simplistic system to see if it truly requires the same traits. Yes we should pare it back to its simplest form, and see the basic blue print of an advanced system. Wow! heavy stuff and far more complicated a discussion than for this document but basics can be gleaned.

Any biological system has some basic truths our comparisons will depend upon how we see a company or business. If we see a company or business as an individual entity then we would focus on the biological requirements for a single individual of a species. If we see the company or business as a group dynamic then we could focus upon cells in individuals or social behaviour, animal dynamics in a group of individuals or maybe even social insects such as bees, ants etc.

An Ecological Example: Trophic cascade.

When a top predator is removed from an ecosystem, a series of knock-on effects are felt throughout all the levels in a food web, as each level is regulated by the one above it. This is known as a trophic cascade. The results of these trophic cascades can lead to an ecosystem being completely transformed, and some surprising results. The impacts trickle down through each level, upsetting the ecological balance by altering numbers of different animal species, until the effects are finally felt by the vegetation.

Removal of apex predators, such as sharks, from food chains can have a devastating effect on the ecosystem. Many sharks reproduce slowly, attaining sexual maturity at a later age, this means their removal has a long term effect to their ecosystem. The next level of carnivorous fish are now not preyed upon and can increase in numbers. This increase can lead to the removal of herbivorous fish which graze upon the algae. If the numbers of these grazing fish is reduced drastically the algae can grow unhindered. This type of trophic cascade can destroy coral reefs by choking out corals that can’t compete with the fast growing vegetation. Not really an obvious outcome, is it?

So when we optimise or increase the efficiency of any part the trophic cascade effects can result into surprising outcomes some of them detrimental.

Aquariums a simplified system as an example.

Most of the technology used to keep a modern aquarium healthy has directly or indirectly evolved from the sewage treatment industry. Many aquarists find this surprising but the legacy of waste treatment is undeniable especially when we look at marine aquaria. The marine aquarium is the pinnacle of aquaculture for the home hobbyist, loaded with advanced equipment such as, biological filter media, Protein skimmer (foam fractionation), denitrifying beds, probes for pH, ORP (oxygen redox potential) etc., ozone generators the list is extensive and goes through even to the low tech box filters and under-gravel filters used in a basic bowl or tank for goldfish and other freshwater fish etc.

Why are we talking about fish? Well the point is that all this technology originated from sewage treatment and is now used to keep your fish alive yet it was developed with a different goal. The best example of this is the protein skimmer or foam fractionator, this device forces a stream of small air bubbles into a water column and if the pH (is say that of seawater ) is sufficiently high a foam begins to form, floating up and then collected and removed, extracting proteins (organics) from the water column. This basic tool is invaluable to the marine aquarist wishing to keep corals alive and healthy in their marine aquarium. Marine invertebrates, especially tropical and reef invertebrates are highly sensitive to pollution and increased organics because they have evolved in nutrient poor waters.

The removal of organics before they can pollute the water column is highly beneficial as you would imagine. The first protein skimmers were an air driven affair using special wooden air-stones, that would slowly degrade and become less efficient overtime. The advances in protein skimmer design meant that air driven skimmers were replaced by highly efficient venturi and/or “turbo” skimmers. Now herein lies the problem, as skimmers became increasingly efficient at removing dissolved organics from the water column, there was a growing need to add supplements to your aquaria to maintain healthy growth. Corals and some other invertebrates require dissolved nutrients, organics and minerals to maintain a healthy metabolism. Highly efficient protein skimmers were in fact being run continually by most aquarists and ironically they were also adding expensive supplements while the skimmers were on and therefore extracting them at the same time. My advice was, since the ridiculously efficient skimmer was being used, they should only run them intermittently either on during the day and off during the night or 2 days on, 3 days off or variations of these depending upon feeding schedules, stocking levels and inhabitants.

The fact that was lost, was that the goal of sewage treatment is ultimately pure water; the goal of an aquarium on the other hand is an aquatic ecosystem which is anything but pure. Actually pure water or distilled water will kill your fish very quickly indeed. When transplanting technology from sewage treatment to aquaria, the goals of the two disciplines were similar but not identical.

Be careful and aware of your intent or goal and the intent or goals of the “tools” and methods you utilise.

Wikipedia, History of the steam engine

The cascade effect

Efficiency and Behaviour in Different Contexts

I like efficiency – when I walk into a shop, I want the sales person to help me find what I’m after and process the sale in a business-like manner. I also like to be treated as a person.

The other day, I was getting an ID card and the person serving me took a little extra time to find out about my transport means to the site. She then let me know about an extra public transport service that I wasn’t aware about. This is now saving me 10 minutes travel time each way which is 20 minutes per day. So a little less efficiency in one transaction has resulted in ongoing efficiency for me on a weekly basis.

ID sketchWhen is efficiency good and when is it bad? It’s related to the type of system we are in.

In the obvious domain on the Cynefin framework, we can attain best practice – repeatable processes. Here we can see the cause and effect relationships, observe bottlenecks and optimise the process to make it more efficient fairly easily.

In the complex domain, efficiency is not easy – or is about something very different. Using my ID example, by having a little chit chat with me, the service centre person was able to identify an extra need that I had and supply me with valuable information. The efficiency in that exchange was the use of ‘anticipatory awareness’ – being sensitive to the hints in conversation that could express a need. Great sales and service people are very good at this – if we asked them to document the process they use, it would not be easy. It would not be a step-by-step ‘recipe’ – instead it might be something like a multi-branching if/then/maybe flow chart thing. I’m certain that it would be adapted or added to after almost every interaction.

Another example of efficiency being bad is in farming, Imagine that we created plants that could extract all of the nutrients they needed from the soil and grow until the nutrients in that place were all taken up. This would be a disaster – we could only grow one crop in that space and it would desperately need all sorts of composts and fertilisers before it was useful again. If it can be that bad in a farming sense, perhaps we do not want all of our best practice processes to become super-efficient – it could deplete supplies in ways that we cannot anticipate.

In summary, efficiency can be good when we have processes that sit firmly in the obvious domain and can achieve standardisation and best practice (except if the efficiency leads to resource depletion). In these cases we can save time, money and effort by becoming more efficient. Efficiency can lead to poor outcomes if we try to apply it in the same way to the complex domain – this can waste time money and effort in the pursuit of gains that are not possible. Instead, here we want to sharpen our awareness and improve our methods of detecting small signals.

Natural Flow

I’m a morning person – I like to get my chores out of the way first so that I have more options later in the day. There are others who are night owls, their flow is to stay up later and get things done and then sleep in a little later the next day. These patterns are an example of our natural flow.

Natural Flow SketchFor example, I am writing this post on a Sunday morning because it is the first time this week that I have had the energy and time to do it (after work during the week is harder for me).

How does this impact us at work? When working with other people, how often do we stop to ask them about their preferred ways of working. It might be terrible of me to schedule a 7:30am meeting with someone who was a night-owl – but highly effective if that other person was like me and was able to start early. On the other side, how often would we speak up and say that we don’t do our best focused work after 5pm?

We have natural flows and rhythms of working in many other ways

  • Our conversation habits – the gaps we leave between when we start speaking and others have finished (these are also influenced by our geographic culture)

  • The ways that we perform repeatable tasks (such as filling in time sheets, drafting emails, transport between and to/from offices)

  • Ceremonies such as how we start meetings, where we sit/stand how we make tea or coffee

  • Engagement flows – how we greet people and get started with conversations and work items

We are subconsciously observing a lot of these flows whenever we interact with others, but there is a risk that we are misinterpreting our observations. I have also not given my own natural flows much thought aside from the morning person observation already mentioned. I am about to start working on a few small projects with some colleagues and will try having a conversation about preferred working styles in the next month – a good future topic for this blog.

“Biological flow” and the implications upon work-flow and enjoyment.

The concept of biorhythms is an ancient one founded upon the observations of the seasons, tides and even life itself. The validity of biorhythms is debatable, yet we all have fun reading our horoscopes which are based upon astrology and biorhythms.

The word biorhythm is a composite of the two Greek words, bios and rhythmos, which mean life and a constant or periodic beat. The theory of biorhythms defines and measures three basic and important life cycles in humans: the physical, emotional, and intellectual.

The key thing here I wish to expand upon is the idea of cycles and rhythms. The idea that we all have a natural rhythm and cycle is the basis of the idea of biological flow.

Biological flow is defined here as the natural flow that exists in every individual. The basic premise of biological flow can be seen in the length of your stride when walking or running, this is the result of many factors unique to you and as such is natural to you. Now consider you have to walk using a taller persons stride. The distance covered by each stride would be larger and feel awkward to you, so much so, you may actually stumble and fall. The basic fact is that the longer stride of a tall person is not suited to your biological parameters such as length of leg, muscle mass etc. Now the same would be true if a tall person was forced to walk or run using the stride length of a shorter person, the end result would be unease and a lack of comfort and even failure such as stumbling or falling. This is easily observed when a child is trying to match the stride of their parent, they often loose step and run to catch up.

Now I propose that we all have a natural metre and rhythm when performing any task. When singing, the number of words a vocalist can sing is determined by factors such as lung capacity, the way they usually phrase their words when speaking, if they are a smoker etc. Now most of us have tried to sing along and at some time have just run out of breath in the process. This is partly due to technique, not taking a big enough breath at the right time but it is also due to our natural and unique biological flow, shaped by our lung capacity, phrasing etc.

The concept of biological flow owes its framework to musical theory in particular musical metre and musical rhythm.

When we look at musical theory, musical metre and musical rhythm often become confused and meld into one. The actual fact is that music is all about beats, timing and sound patterns. A metre is a regular pattern of beats indicated by a time signature. A rhythm is the way different lengths of sound are combined to produce patterns in time.

The following terms are used to describe and preform music :

  • pulse

  • simple and compound time

  • regular, irregular and free rhythms

  • augmentation, diminution, hemiola, cross-rhythm

  • dotted rhythms, triplets, syncopation

  • tempo, rubato

  • polyrhythm, bi-rhythm

  • drum fill

The field of musical theory is vast and out of scope for this discussion, yet the same idea for biological metre and biological rhythm can be observed. We all have a natural and unique biological metre, the speed at which we walk, run, perform tasks etc.; we also have a tendency to have a set pattern of doing things, the rhythm to which we tend to perform tasks for example. There is even a set metre, the time signature per se, of when we naturally perform these patterns of work and life. Some of us work at a steady pace, others are more like sprinters, while others still are marathon runners and on top of this there is the metre of when our energies are expelled. The same could be said for the way we go about performing our daily tasks and even lives. This methodology or rhythm that we gravitate to, often is the reason why we find some people hard to work with and others easier to collaborate with. There is no one answer because we all process and respond differently to the stimuli of work and life but what is clear upon reflection is that the way we are wired definitely impacts our work-flow and enjoyment of work/life.

Our natural biological flow when performing tasks is also affected by where we are in the day; Are you a morning person or a night owl?

Do you need a coffee in the morning before you start?

Do you become so absorbed and consumed by a task you loose track of time?

Do you like to jump in and try things?

Do you like to have tasks defined and quantified?

Are the others you work with wired similarly?

So next time you’re working with others try to keep biological flows in mind, and accept the fact that these different work flows require awareness, understanding and communication and only then will we feel and attain collaboration rather than WORK.

The nirvana of collaboration can be obtained from the oppression of work when aware of the biological flows involved.

Misconceptions are harder to correct than lies.

We all do it, take things out of context, only read the summary, sound bites, hearsay and even don’t listen carefully or fully enough to truly understand. These lapses of focus and concentration can sometimes lead to misconceptions about certain things in our lives. These misconceptions are often not noticed because we actually don’t realise they are misconceptions until we expend some effort in discovering them and correcting them. Misconceptions are like cracks and in the foundations they can range in size from minor hair cracks to major structural fissures. It is only when we begin to build upon them that we start to notice things aren’t quite correct or aren’t quite how they should be.

Like the denial of an alcoholic we often fail to recognise the misconceptions we carry and blindly follow and heaven help anyone who tries to correct them, for us. The simple fact is, that lies on the other hand are far easier to identify and therefore correct. Think about it lies or false concepts often hit a brick wall of reality where things don’t add up. At this point there are usually glaring and obvious inconsistencies, so we begin to dig deeper. Once we begin to examine the facts and look carefully at the lies or false conceptions, we are actually prompted into awareness of their existence. To a vigilant mind, lies and false conceptions are like acids corroding the understanding of the world; while misconceptions are like caustics, slowly undermining it. Acids burn when it touches our skin so we become painfully aware of it quickly and address it by washing it off, to correct the situation. Caustics also causes damage yet we do not feel it burning our skin so a caustic solution can continue to burn you without you every knowing its present.

Misconceptions are more subtle than lies, yet they skew or pervert our perceptions of the situation in much the same way. Misconceptions behave in a caustic way because we don’t realise they are misconceptions at the time. If someone told you today was Monday, when you knew it was actually Tuesday, you’d know it was an untruth or a lie; yet if you woke up thinking it was Monday, you could actually plod threw the whole day and never realise your mistake. You may even argue that the day was in fact Monday, with some vigour. In this situation your misconception would only come to light if you needed to work with a date oriented task.

Misconceptions like misunderstood lyrics can be rather difficult to shift and can actually lead to differing outcomes.

So how can we stop them? Well we can’t actually stop them, the best we can do is reduce the opportunity for them to exist.

Some thoughts on how to reduce the misconceptions:

1) Definitions are the foundations of communication, therefore when using jargon or sound bites paint the frame work of their meanings, in your context. It wouldn’t be the first time people glaze over the meaning of a word because of embarrassment.

2) When ever you use information from another field or discipline be aware that your audience my not be cross the subtleties of that area or field. Again context or the lack of a common context may allow misconceptions.

3) The opportunity for miscomprehension lies in life experience of your audience, the more homogenous the crowd the more specific, focused and jargon biased you can be. The trade off for easy of “communication” is an increase in potential misconceptions.

As a member of any community if you truly wish to discuss, debate and explore possibilities you must define, scope and frame the context of the discussion point. Only when we’re on a firm footing of known concepts and defined language can we have the freedom to truly communicate and explore ideas. Most people find the grunt work of defining and framing boring but without shared concepts, language and communication fails and falls into disagreement and argument.

Have you ever debated/argued with someone only to find the disagreement was solely based upon a subtle difference in the definition of a word. Words are not just words they carry with them subtile overtones of meaning which vary for each of us depending upon when, how, where we heard them and what they meant to us.

I hope these thoughts about misconceptions may aid in avoiding them.