Waste is the Real Enemy

13 Apr 2023

Did you hear? It's the The Year of Efficiency! Zuck is dedicated to making Meta more efficient and productive. Google, Salesforce, Amazon, and many others are in too.

Of course, these leaders didn't care about efficiency so much when times were good. But growth is down, profits and share prices are lagging, and efficiency is the solution!
Efficiency is fundamentally about changing the input/output ratio. Do more with less. Sounds great, right? It is! But there are some issues.

One issue is that when tech com- pany CEOs talk about increasing worker efficiency, it's like dropping an email with a huge ASCII middle finger in the inbox of every em- ployee. The implication is that (lazy, incompetent) workers are the prob- lem. It's not that leaders over-hired and made bad strategic decisions. It's not that leaders failed to adapt their companies to the realities of the business environment, or to hybrid work. Nope, this is about getting fewer workers to do more work.

But there's another, bigger issue -waste. You can have the most efficient workforce in the world, but
if the company, the system, the pro- cess they're working in is wasteful, none of it really matters. We made the greatest imaginable widget in record time, and then we shipped it straight to the landfill.

Efficiency will help you, but waste

will crush you.

That makes eliminating waste more important than driving efficiency. So let's take a look at what waste is, how to spot it, and how to prevent it.

Waste Not

To waste to "use or expend carelessly, extravag- antly, or to no purpose." - Oxford English Dictionary

Individual employees can drive

efficiency, but leaders drive most

of the waste. When leaders create
waste, I'd argue they rarely do it on purpose. But regardless of the reason, the outcome is the same - work that doesn't advance any objective. Time and energy spent on things that don't matter.
In hindsight, it's often obvious that an effort was a waste. Usually, lead- ers will justify their carelessness, extravagance, or idiosyncratic lack
of purpose as a necessary evil. And it's true that there are a good many things that might look like waste but aren't. Here's an incomplete list:

Waste is not an idea explored that ultimately doesn't make the cut. Most ideas are bad. The route to good ideas is usually through the bad ones.

Waste is not an effort that fails.

Failure is normal and healthy as

long as it leads to learning.

Waste is not a cancelled project,

no matter how much went into it.

Circumstances change, and only

a fool doesn't change with them.

โšซ Waste is not designs abandoned along the path to a solution. Get- ting to great design usually re- quires dead ends and the courage to stop and rethink. Promising research insights can lead us far
down a road, but sometimes they don't lead us all the way. It's all normal.

These things are like the angel's share the portion that's lost in the process of making a fine whiskey. We'd rather it didn't happen, but it's utterly unavoidable, and it makes the whiskey taste better.

Waste is like aging your whiskey for 20 years only to pop the barrel and pour it right down the drain.

Thankfully, waste isn't just visible in hindsight. When we pay attention to the causes, we can prevent it. Things that leaders do, and don't do, which turn work into one long and eventful journey to the dump.

Why Waste

In my experience there are four primary causes of waste. To know them is to stop them.
Bad Communication - See if this sounds familiar. You come out of a leadership meeting energized. With clear direction you and your team charge ahead, working your butts off to make a ton of progress. Then, when you hear from leadership, it turns out that the strategy and direction has already changed. Days ago, in fact. Didn't anyone tell you?

The problem here isn't the fast pace of change, it's the slow pace of com- munication. Leaders often think of their job as decision-making, and someone else's job as telling anyone what they decided. That attitude creates gobs and gobs of waste. Thankfully, the solution is simple. Fast change pairs up with fast com- munication. When things change, leaders make it their direct problem to let the right people know.
Lack of Standards - When leaders rely on their (often fickle) intuition to decide what fits the strategy or meets the quality bar, they're man- ufacturing waste by the ton. The team gets direction, but without any framework or detail to interpret it, they're trying to read between the lines. Guessing what will meet the bar, everyone busts their butts only to find out they've misunderstood the feedback, the leader didn't like it, or they simply changed their mind. Back to the drawing board!

Many leaders convince themselves this is what they're supposed to do. Especially when we throw around words like "vision" and "innovation" as the ultimate goal, channeled through leadership during sรฉance- like sessions. But when teams have to guess to understand strategy, ap- proach, quality standards, and taste, they're mining diamonds by hand
and firing them into outer space.

A leader's vision and taste are cru- cial, but to avoid waste they need to create frameworks that teams can follow. No guessing required - leaders did the hard work, created the guidelines that allow teams to execute with a leader's vision in mind.
Bottlenecks - A bottleneck is a place in the work process where progress gets trapped. It might be because progress relies on a meet- ing that happens only so often. Or because a team can't make progress without meeting with someone who's double booked until next century. Or hearing from someone who hasn't looked at their inbox in months.

Bottlenecks create waste in two sad ways. First, they can force teams to sit on their hands (relatively speak- ing) until the bottleneck is resolved. That's bad enough, but worse can be when ambitious teams, reasonably trying to make progress, decide to push on with work anyway. They find out only when the bottleneck is resolved that they were on the wrong track, and now you know how to generate waste and destroy
souls at the same time!

Leaders usually create bottlenecks when they refuse to delegate. A lack of trust prevents leaders from empowering others around them to act with appropriate guidance. Or insecurity prevents leaders from allowing others with relevant expertise to decide. The solution is not just to delegate, but to create the process and organization that allows delegation to be effective.

False Urgency-It's 530pm and you're just wrapping up for the day, when you get a Slack message from your VP-"Got a second?" Ruh roh. Before you even respond, you've already canceled your dinner plans. Drop everything, I need that by the morning! So you and your team pull an all-nighter, send it over first thing. Crickets. You never hear back
from the VP, and later that day you

find out it wasn't really needed at


When leaders create false urgency, often it's like theater. See my hustle? See how I can stoke my team into action? Tada! In a meeting, your bosses boss barely mentioned that it'd be interesting to see some data, and your boss is already stoking a fire under the team to produce it. Sound like effective leadership! But only if you love waste.

Moving fast and jumping into action are essential. But when you ask for work you don't need, or stoke people into action before an idea has a chance to be vetted, you're wildly increasing the chance that work will be wasted.

Saying Goodbye

I couldn't say for sure whether
Inefficiency or waste is a bigger issue. But I'm a fan of leadership accountability. And I don't see leaders talking about waste. Espe- cially the ones complaining about efficiency and productivity. Maybe it's because those leaders are mostly responsible for it.
Getting everyone moving in the

same direction is hard. Every ti
you make them crash to a scream- ing halt, you're wasting more than time. You're wasting enthusiasm and morale. You're wasting valuable energy that people could be chan- neling towards innovation and qual- ity. You're wasting opportunities for growth and learning.

And ultimately you're wasting loyalty. You're dramatically accel- erating burnout, which leads to attrition. It turns out most people are actually willing to work ex- tremely hard. When it's rewarding, when they can feel progress, when they're growing. When people see their good work wasted for no good reason, and they're left with the sinking feeling that the next project will probably be the same... well, that's what one foot out the door looks like.me
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