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Author: Guru Madhavan
John le Carré laid espionage traps. They came with honey pots, false flags, and negotiated morals. Just as in these thrillers, one such double agent has infiltrated vast areas of our real lives: the concept of efficiency. We created efficiency as a way to think about reducing waste and boosting performance. Now with untold variants, efficiency has become much more insidious. What was once a solution to escape the trap of disorder has now become the trap itself.
In the frosty January of 1912, a perfectly accoutered Frederick Winslow Taylor appeared at a congressional hearing in Washington. Over four days, with formulas and charts, the steely-eyed engineer lectured politicians on process control, capitalism, and work philosophy. A year earlier, he had published The Principles of Scientific Management, an accidental bestseller. Taylor sold his theory as the way to elevate efficiency in “every branch of the business to its highest state of excellence, so that the prosperity may be permanent.”
Taylor’s ideas spread from the oily machine shops of Pennsylvania to the chambers of the US Congress and Sunday sermons in Paris. A father in the Dominican Order preached that the “love of God is the Taylor System of our inner life.” But for Taylor, the high priest of efficiency, scientific management was bigger than time and task tracking. It was a “mental revolution.” In reality, though, that revolution faced resistance. Consider slacking on the production floor—or “soldiering,” as Taylor termed it. When factory workers lollygagged, that meant revenue loss. But when the companies following the Taylor System tried to eliminate these unwanted idle times, pointing to accountability, employee morale and burnout problems increased. Efficiency in practice was not an unalloyed advantage.
In a society with countless efficiencies, no two are alike. In a recent analysis, manufacturing policy scholar Erica Fuchs and colleagues cited a midsize American company that struggled to produce nine million masks during the initial stages of the covid-19 pandemic. The chief hurdle was not in sourcing the core ingredient—melt-blown polymer—but in sourcing the elastic cord for the mask’s ear loops: The sole US supplier of the elastic could not quickly scale to produce it in sufficient quantity, and the only product it could provide was coiled, which was incompatible with the assembling equipment. Unspooling dramatically slowed production. Policy wonks “wouldn’t classically think we needed to produce elastic,” Fuchs points out. “And yet, in this story, that lack of elastic cost our country millions of masks a week.” The point here is not to make elastic manufacturing a national priority, but to make the manufacturing system itself more elastic. Piecemeal efficiencies (or inefficiencies) like highly specialized production can and do trigger unanticipated systemic crashes.
Efficiency may be portrayed as a paragon of rational thought, but this can be a cover for its more duplicitous aspects. Understanding four covert identities may help in uncovering this guise.
The first and the most familiar is when -efficiency serves as a toy. In this aspect, efficiency produces gains that make countless conveniences possible, from livestreaming to frozen lasagnas and express-delivered Nordic socks. Each application is endlessly—and separately—optimized for efficiency, systematically turning individual preferences into parameters. But if greater efficiency merely produces the newest fad rather than a material gain, we are right to question whether a benefit has been achieved.
The second identity emerges when efficiency becomes a general theory. Over the past century, the shopfloor concept has been exported to the management of working hours. The typical 40-odd-hour workweek with meetings, emails, calendar invites, teleconferencing, and action items is more or less a scripted show. We buy into the unspoken theory that these optimize billable hours while leaving our work environments increasingly less nurturing, an enemy of productivity and creativity.
The third is when efficiency is viewed as a tradition. Efficiency can be a fierce numbers game. A ritual in its own
right, efficiency thrives on rigidity, repetition, and rigor A penchant for quick returns unwisely erodes investments in not just maintenance and scientific research but civics and arts as well. Yet we consciously make these choices, which begs the question: Is efficiency a characteristic of simplified systems or over-simplifying minds?
The fourth and final covert identity of efficiency is that of a trap, enticing the mark with the idea of unquestioned goodness. How, after all, could being more efficient be anything other than a positive thing? The simple answer is that numerical objectives that are divorced from human concerns are not innately beneficial. Indeed, the world is full of examples where the “efficient” solution had monstrous consequences.
In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, le Carré wrote, “The more identities a man has, the more they express the person they conceal.” The same is true for efficiency. To become nuanced and skilled in questioning the toys, theories, traditions, and traps of efficiency, we need to unmask our risky flirtations with it. That’s how we can engineer efficiencies that don’t just make us better off, but better.
Inspired by the name of this quarterly, this column reflects on the practices and uses of engineering and its influences as a cultural enterprise. This issue’s column also simultaneously appears in the Indian Institute of Technology’s new global science and technology magazine.
1 Taylor FW. 1911. The Principles of Scientific Management. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers [1919 version], p. 9.
 Taylor Society. 1920. Frederick Winslow Taylor: A Memorial Volume. -Norwood: Plimpton Press, p. 6.
 Hearings before Special Committee of the House of Representatives, January 1912, published in the Bulletin of the Taylor -Society XI(3–4), June-August, 1926.
 Fuchs ERH, Karplus VJ, Kalathil N, Morgan MG. 2020. To respond to the pandemic, the government needs better data on domestic companies that make critical medical supplies. Issues in Science and Technology, Dec 18.
 Hearing on trade, manufacturing, and critical supply chains: Lessons from Covid-19. Testimony for Subcommittee on Trade, House Ways & Means Committee, July 23, 2020.
 le Carré J. 2000 (1974). Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. New York: Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster, p. 213.