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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.

How being less efficient can mean more productivity, June 2, 2006, 2D.

Efficiency is a big topic these days.  With gasoline and energy prices at all-time highs, many people are looking to get the most out of every energy dollar.  Some are trading in their gas-guzzling vehicles for ones that are more fuel-efficient. They want to travel further on each gallon of fuel they purchase.

The theories used to structure organizations and jobs through the Industrial Revolution and into the early 1900s were also very focused on efficiency.  Companies wanted to maximize organizational output and simultaneously minimize the inputs to produce those outputs.  In manufacturing, jobs were studied and tasks reduced so that each worker performed only a few distinct operations.  With every worker in a factory doing one or two things over and over, workers became very efficient in their production.  Employees worked long days with few breaks and had little chance to interact with others, make decisions, or give input to the production process.  Workers were viewed as interchangeable parts of an efficient manufacturing machine.   

Although very efficient in their production, the factories of the Industrial Revolution were rather unpleasant places to work.  Performing the same repetitive tasks everyday was boring and monotonous for the workers and because many had no input in setting the terms and conditions of work, employees also tended to feel powerless and enslaved.  It was not until some groundbreaking research in the 1920s and 1930s did the traditional understanding of the relationship between efficiency and worker performance change.

From a multi-year study of workers at an assembly plant, known as the Hawthorne Studies, organizational researchers recognized the importance of paying attention to human needs and making workers feel valued.  In a series of work-performance experiments, workers were allowed to give input to management decisions and permitted to interact with their coworkers (and thereby become members of a team).  The experiments manipulated the hours of work and the timing and durations of lunch and rest breaks.  Performance was studied across the entire series of experiments.  Researchers found that performance rose across each experimental condition—even ones giving workers longer breaks and shorter work hours.  Traditional organization theorists would never have predicted this finding.  It would have been like turning off an efficient machine for part of the day and getting more output from it than if it had been left on for the entire day.  The findings caused managers and researchers to question their assumptions and beliefs about organizations, efficiency, performance, and the importance of people in the workplace. 

What arose from those studies was recognition that organizations are made up of people and not machine parts, and that by attending to basic human needs (e.g., to be recognized, to feel valued, to have input, to be part of a team, and to meaningfully interact with others) organizations can back off of efficiency and still become MORE effective and productive.  Efficiency is still important to organizations, but sometimes being less efficient can be even more effective for organizations.

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