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Efficiency is bad for digital projects

by on September 5, 2012

With all the use of machines and the focus on numbers, it can be easy to talk about efficiency when it comes to digitization. The desire is to tweak the process so that it goes just a little faster. This is true especially of large projects where a 30 second difference per image can shave weeks or months off the time for a project. However, efficiency is a double edged sword. It allows you to get faster, but it limits your ability to handle variety. In the book Slack: Getting past burnout and the myth of total efficiency, the author talks about how the more efficient you are, the less agile you can be. As efficiency goes up, your ability to handle complexity goes down. Something big happens, and suddenly you can’t change easily because your too efficient. I experienced this first hand in our digital lab. We had our process down perfectly. The moment someone gave us some items that didn’t quite fit in, everything fell apart and I had to quickly re-train everyone to handle the new variety of items.

In addition to that, there’s the disruption of all these small efficiency changes themselves. I worked on a very large project that people were eager to have done quickly. They kept asking to speed the project up and I did my best to tweak the process. Then I realized that we had about 8000 items to go, and we were processing 3000 a month. At that point, I stopped trying to make the process more efficient because I realized that the disruption my changes would make would actually slow the process down.

So, be cautious about those feelings to want to make the process more and more efficient.

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