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

The battle of inefficiency at work, May 12, 2006, 2D.

If you are familiar with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, you undoubtedly remember that the ring “wants to return to its master.”  That is the ring’s nature and, in part, what it exists to do.

Organizations also have several “natures” that drive and influence their functioning.  As identified by C. Northcote Parkinson, an English political analyst, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”  Parkinson observed that people and groups tend to complete their work just before deadlines.  If a deadline for a task is set for two weeks into the future, the task will be completed in two weeks—even though it could actually be completed in a shorter amount of time. 

Time wasted correcting and approving work, passing work to and waiting for responses from others, and wasted time that arises from interpersonal conflicts and disagreements lengthens the time required to complete tasks.  Wasteful processes and procedures turn uncomplicated tasks into lengthy, drawn out, and inefficient ordeals.  Tasks seem to seek out the longest amount of time available for their completion. 

In his writing, Parkinson also noted a nasty side effect that comes about from the time expansion principle.  His research showed that as tasks become longer, they also seek to include more people in their completion.  The busy work that accompanies lengthened organizational tasks requires hiring additional workers.  And to justify hiring additional workers, more busy work is created to fill the workers’ time, which in turn lengthens the time to accomplish work, which then requires more workers.  It is a vicious cycle.

The hope for organizational leaders and managers is that unlike the ring from the Lord of the Rings, the unproductive natures of organizations can be controlled—but only if they are recognized and understood.  To battle the forces of inefficiency, wasted time, and overstaffed organizations, managers should continually assess organizational work processes to identify and correct wasteful processes and activities.  These concepts are described in quality control circles as kaizen—a Japanese production principle.  The goal of kaizen is to produce lean, efficient, and healthy organizations.

Although originally studied in the British Navy, Parkinson’s Law as it has become known, applies to all types of organizations, profit and non-profit.  The profit-seeking motive of businesses encourages them to operate efficiently (i.e., to maximize output and minimize input).  Businesses that do not operate efficiently might lose out to competitors who do.  It is in the best interest of for-profit firms to become and remain lean.

Non-profit organizations are probably more susceptible to wasteful and inefficient processes because they lack competitive pressures to remain lean.  Churches, governments, schools and universities, and other organizations that lack a profit motive should be as concerned about creating and maintaining healthy, lean, and productive processes as their for-profit counterparts.  It is up to organizational leaders to recognize the inefficient nature of organizations and to continually work to keep them lean and productive.

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© 2006, 2007, 2008  Coleman Patterson, All Rights Reserved