Punishing efficiency

Reading time: 4 – 5 minutes

Years ago, I practically lived in a little restaurant.  I ran my first, rather small, consulting business from a table in there and spent a lot of time observing and learning about the food service industry.  I recall one young guy — call him Scott — who was hired as kitchen staff.  There was a set list of tasks to be done every evening for closing the restaurant, some of which could be done while there were still a few customers present.

On his first night, Scott finished all the closing tasks in record time — the place closed at 11:00 and he was completely done by 9:00.  Being a hard worker, the manager found more work for him to do.  And more work, and more work.  By the end of the week Scott had been properly trained.  The closing tasks consumed his entire evening work and Scott was finished them at precisely 11:30.

The paradox

It is a paradox of economics that we tend to reward inefficiency and punish efficiency in our employees.  Think about it for a second.  If you assign eight hours worth of work to an employee and they finish it in one hour, will you

  1. Give them the other seven hours off with pay or
  2. Find more work for them to do?

Now think about this.  If you assign one hour’s worth of work to an employee and it takes them eight hours to do it, will you

  1. Dock them seven hours pay (and get sued) or
  2. Pay them for the time and write it off to either your optimism or their learning?

The problem

To be fair, the problem stems from the fact that it is very difficult for we employers to actually estimate how long a particular task or set of work will take.  By demanding a known quantity from our employees — hours worked — we think we can use the law of averages in our favor.  We also operate under the somewhat delusional idea that by rewarding with more responsibilities and increased pay we will motivate people to keep giving up the only asset humans really value — time.

However, I have news for you.

  1. If you employ fewer than about a hundred people, the law of averages is not going to work.  You don’t have enough data points.
  2. By definition the law of averages means you are settling for average productivity.
  3. We’ve entered a world where more and more people are beginning the understand that true wealth is defined by the way you spend your time, not by how many dead presidents you have stuffed in a mattress.

The most disturbing piece of news is that employees learn.  If you punish efficiency for a few weeks, they will learn to never be efficient.

Now, it’s your turn…

No, I don’t have an easy answer for this particular dilemma, maybe you the reader can suggest some solutions.  Drop a comment if you have an idea.

Until next time…

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