Businesses are obsessed with efficiency. Creating maximum value with minimal resources is the essence of the lean movement and its predecessors like scientific management. There is a cost to employing people, maintaining infrastructure, and buying machinery, and it makes sense to ensure they’re all well-used and not wasted.
At the same time, biological entities have evolved to conserve energy - to not expend more effort than is necessary to do a job. This is actually the same principle as efficiency, but businesses and their employees can have competing goals.
Businesses want to get as much value out of their employees as possible while paying them the lowest salaries they can get away with. And employees may want to expend as little time and energy as possible to keep their jobs. Those are both examples of efficiency, they’re just competing with one another.
One of our main interests is reconciling the disparate goals of customers, businesses, and workers, so we’d like to talk a bit about slack in this newsletter.
We need to respect our organizations. An organization is always too complex to be fully understood. Even in a sole-proprietorship, the owner has only a limited understanding of what their customers want, how their products are used, and what’s happening inside their own mind and body.
In an organization with hundreds or thousands of people, it’s impossible for anyone to really know what’s happening. It’s far too complex, far too quickly changing, and far too subjective for anyone to truly know it. We can only deal in simplified models.
But we need to interact within the organization, so we need some attitude towards the organization even in the absence of full understanding. If we’re going to have a hope of working effectively and harmoniously we must trust that each other will do a good job and that we are working towards a worthy purpose.
Part of building trust is having enough slack in our schedule to be able to connect and talk with each other. We must also have enough slack to be able to respond to people when they have questions or need help. We need a balance of tension and slack to be effective. Slack allows for flexibility - it allows us to move in a different direction because we’re not constantly being pulled/forced in a fixed direction.
When we’re talking to each other in meetings, we’re exchanging information. But most people spend most of those meetings actually resting. Any meeting with more than two people likely includes a lot of slack, as many of the participants will be distracted (literally “pulled away”) to daydreaming or other tasks.
People need that space to rest, to conserve their energy, and to enable creativity. We say we’re busy, we think we’re busy, but if we check carefully we’ll find that our body and mind naturally find opportunities to rest if we’re not intrinsically motivated by what we’re doing. We should acknowledge this tendency and take advantage of it.
For example, creativity (adopting a new idea or direction) can’t arise if there’s no slack. The creative process requires time and space to investigate new ideas and possibilities. Social connection and bonding also happens in times of relaxing, such as eating together.
We’re not necessarily advocating that people should work less hard, just that we should notice in a humble and honest way whether we’re actually working as hard as we think we are. We should also recognize that there are many things that a company needs to be successful other than just hard work.
Some people find a way to keep showing up and getting paid without ever enduring much risk or strain. But that’s never as satisfying as investing energy to face and overcome challenges. That comfort can only arise when the company has sufficient resources.
Even in a wartime situation, soldiers find ample time to slack. This doesn’t mean that people sit around doing nothing, it means that we maintain excess capacity. One of my favorite examples of this are fire departments. We absolutely don’t want fire departments to be busy all the time. If they were, they’d have no excess capacity if there were an increase in the number of fires. Firefighters spend most of each day sitting around, talking, training, and exercising. But that excess capacity is critically important to enable them to act quickly if an emergency arises.
We face an overwhelming amount of danger and change as a species and as a society. For any endeavor to be effective, we need to align the most basic inclinations of everyone involved. Slack is not the enemy when it offers opportunities to increase creativity and trust. Bureaucracy and waste is certainly not the answer to the world’s problems, but we shouldn’t think that efficiency is either.