August 21, 2014

Editor's Page

Sometimes, efficiency Is overrated

Mark R. Howard | 11/12/2013

A recent experience refinancing my house made me think of one of my most memorable classroom experiences. In graduate school, for reasons I’ve forgotten, I chose a class with the charmless title of “Operations Management.”

At one of the first classes, the professor divided the class into four groups. He then gave three of the groups an identical task. Each faced a table on which sat a two-page letter, uncollated, along with a stapler, brochures, envelopes, address labels and stamps.

The professor explained that for the purposes of the scenario, the three groups’ members were to consider themselves administrative employees of the school who were helping to respond to inquiries from prospective students. The assignment: Develop a process — basically, an assembly line — for putting the two pages of the school’s “response letter” together, then staple and fold the letters, put one into each envelope along with a brochure, then attach an address label and stamp on each envelope and seal it. There were no other instructions or advice.

The three groups huddled individually, leaders emerged and smart minds focused on how best to organize the task. Unspoken was an assumption by all of us that a major goal was to be faster than the other two teams. After a few minutes, the professor asked us to break the huddles and, upon his signal, to go to work.

What ensued was a race, a frenzy of stapling, folding, stuffing and stamp licking. Each of the three groups had developed a slightly different methodology for the process, but all finished within about a minute of each other. The first team to finish, of course, celebrated with high-fives and victory glances at the other two teams.

It had been unclear what the fourth group’s task was, but we soon found out.
The professor gave the three stacks of envelopes to the fourth group, which left the room with them. They came back about 15 minutes later with reports that evaluated the work products of the other three teams.

It was quickly apparent that the fourth team represented the prospective students — the school’s potential customers. The reports weren’t complimentary. Most of one team’s address labels were on crooked. A few envelopes from one team lacked stamps, or the stamps were on crooked. Many letters from all the teams were poorly stapled, or the pages weren’t aligned or had been folded unevenly. Some envelopes had been stuffed in such a way that when they were opened, the brochure fell out onto the floor.

The professor had some pointed questions for any of us on the first three teams who rolled their eyes indignantly or showed signs of “what difference does it make?” Who did we think was going to get these letters that we were in such a hurry to prepare, he asked. What kind of impression were we creating? What might a prospective student think of a supposedly well thought-of school that provided such a slipshod response? Had any of us, by any chance, proofread the letters or brochure to catch any embarrassing misspellings or grammatical mistakes that might have slipped past others? What, he asked members of the team that finished fastest, were they going to do with that 30 seconds they saved compared to the next team?

The breadth of the lesson unfolded with agonizing clarity. In 50 minutes our teacher had provided us, first, with a short course in the history of the American economy in the late 20th century — how the drive for efficiency and preoccupation with process could obliterate the whole point of the process: The customer.

The lesson also led us to look at unspoken assumptions: Why had we taken for granted that the point of the exercise was to see who could develop the fastest system? Ultimately, the professor led us to an even more fundamental strategic question — was a form letter and a brochure the best way to respond to someone interested in spending thousands of dollars in tuition at the school? Not a single team had considered rejecting the letter/brochure response out of hand and adopting a different approach that might have been a better use of our time as “employees” — a phone bank, for example, to call the prospective students and bring a more personal touch to the recruitment process.

I frequently have reason to recall the class and its lessons. The details of my encounter with the refinancing team at the bank are tedious and of little interest. Suffice it to say that the bank’s process was organized totally with an eye toward segmenting the process into manageable pieces of bureaucracy rather than serving the customer — me. The process was impersonal and unaccountable. I dealt with at least four people in three time zones, including a supervisor whom I called after the process broke down.

Even worse, the process turned out not to even be efficient. One bureaucratic segment forgot to tell the next segment it had finished with its part of my application, and what should have taken a week or so took a couple of months. I got my mortgage, but the bank’s tactics, ultimately, defeated its strategy. I’m very unlikely to open an account or do any more business there.

“Efficiency” can have costs, too.

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