I’ve recently come across the term “Efficiency Paradox” being used by different people, in different contexts, and giving it different meanings. I thought I would share them…
The Efficiency Paradox in Economics
In 1865 William Stanley Jevons postulated, the more efficient a process gets in terms of resource usage, the higher demand you will see for that resource. This seems counter intuitive, as you might think the more efficient a process is, the less resources it requires, and therefore total resource usage would go down. Instead as a process becomes more efficient, costs drop and that drives demand, which eventually can result in more of the resource being needed. This is the heart of the Jevons Paradox, which is also referred to as the Efficiency Paradox by some sources.
Cost is always an important factor. We are currently going through a cost of living crisis in the UK. One of the factors affecting this is the cost of power. People are looking at ways to save money by reducing their power usage. When power was cheaper many people didn’t pay any attention to saving power. Now it is expensive, every little bit matters.
The Efficiency Paradox in Gaming
I watched a video by Josh Strife Hays, where he discussed the impact of guides and wikis on the enjoyment of playing video games. The term “grinding” refers to highly repetitive tasks that you must do to achieve a goal. Grinding can be exhausting, but when you achieve your goal there is a sense of satisfaction. Some games require a certain amount of detective work, where you try to figure out how to progress. Once again, the effort of trying to figure out how to progress can be exhausting, but the satisfaction on completing the task is high.
With the advent of the internet, there are loads of videos, wikis and websites dedicated to helping you play games in the most efficient manner possible. They might tell you how to minimise grinding, or flat out give you the answer to puzzles. These guides reduce the amount of time it takes to complete a task in a game, making you more efficient, but because you never have to deal with the adversity, you never get the same satisfaction when you complete a task.
So the efficiency paradox in gaming is, the more efficient you make the game play in an attempt to help the player, the less satisfying the game may become. Of course, if it is too difficult, they might leave before completing the task. There is a balance…
The Efficiency Paradox in Lean/DevOps
The previous versions of the efficiency paradox are interesting to me, but it’s this version that is really the subject of this post. In Lean and DevOps people often use the term efficiency paradox in subtly different ways, but invariably they are talking about resource efficiency vs. flow efficiency. Specifically, a focus on maximising resource efficiency resulting in less overall efficiency.
Lost Time : I’ve written about lost time before here. Lost time is about work waiting in queues while passing between siloed teams. Each team believe they are working efficiently because they have maximised their resource usage. All their staff are busy, but the flow of work through the chain of teams is really slow, making the flow efficiency low, and reducing the quality of work.
To counter this, some companies reorganise into self-sufficient teams that can progress a piece of work from conception to delivery, thereby reducing the hand-offs between teams. Some may retain the silos, but use automation to deliver self-service tools and APIs that others can pick up and run with. Regardless of the approach taken, they are attempting to reduce the constraints on the flow of work to improve flow efficiency.
Work in Process (WIP) : I’ve written about WIP before here. Most people can’t multitask well. Some think they can, but they just end up doing multiple things badly. Problem solving requires concentration, and it’s really hard to concentrate when you are being distracted by multiple projects competing for your attention. In an ideal world your WIP would be 1. You would work on a single task to completion, then move to another task. This can be tricky if you are constantly being blocked by other people and teams/silos, but it’s also complicated when a company wants to see staff being “busy” all the time.
In an effort to maximise resource (staff) usage, they increase the WIP, so there is always something for people to do. On the surface this increased resource usage looks like it is increasing efficiency, but often the work degenerates to the point where people are spinning plates, without actually achieving much. Also, the reduced attention on a specific task results in a lower quality of work. You should always try to keep WIP low, even if that means some people have idle time. If the idle time is excessive, it probably means there is a problem somewhere else in the organisation that needs to be fixed. Deal with the root cause, not the symptom!
Ultimately we have to forget about the resource efficiency and focus on flow efficiency. We can often see this in our normal working lives. We have some processes we know are going to take weeks to complete. Then there is a “Priority 1” incident that means we need to complete something ASAP. The P1 instantly aligns every team giving them the same priorities, and we race through and complete the work in a few hours. Once the P1 is over, every person goes back to their silo, with their differing priorities, and the process returns to taking weeks to complete again. We have proved it can be done in hours, but because of politics and the internal company organization, fast never becomes the norm.
I thought it was interesting that the term efficiency paradox came up in three different contexts in the space of a few days, so I thought I would write about it. The important point is that in all three cases people are often making incorrect assumptions about efficiency. People are doing things that they think will improving efficiency, but it is not having the desired result.