Effective revisited

· October 23, 2014

I’m talking a lot about effectiveness and how it difference from efficiency. This probably have to do with two things; first - the difference between these two concepts is at the heart of the lean mindset. The second fact is that I’m Swedish.

Swedish is a very poor language compared to, for example English, that is much richer. If I was to translate the first sentence of this blog post in Swedish you’ll get what I mean:

Jag pratar ofta om effektivitet och hur det skiljer sig från effektivitet

Ah, the poverty! It’s the same word. There’s no difference… in Swedish. I’ve still to understand if that means that Swedes are focused on effectiveness of efficiency.

From drcliffordchoi used
under Creative Commons

But this poverty has been a trigger for learning for me. I’ve really tried to deep dive in this.

To this date this is the best and hence simplest way to describe the difference between the two concepts:

For a sprinter, efficiency is about running without wasting energy. Make sure your hands doesn’t take a lot of air, be very particular how you move your legs, when is the best time to raise your head, how long should your steps be in the beginning, middle or end of the raise. How do I use the energy from the start in my first 10 meters. Etc. Etc.

For a sprinter, effectiveness is running in the right direction. Towards the goal, if I may offer a suggestion.

Effectiveness has to do with reaching our goal. In fact I don’t care much about efficiency until we know where we are going. Imagine see Usain Bolt take off from the starting block and run the wrong way! We would all go;

Why on earth did he do that? Don’t he know where he’s going? He knows where the goal is right?

Very few would say;

Yeah sure, he ran the wrong way, but did you see those knees?! Perfect execution - very efficient!

For a deeper treatment about the differences see this post by Staffan Nöteberg.

You’re a running expert now? What does this have to do with us?

Still in many organisations… we are not in agreement about the goal - the vision that I’ve blogged about recently. And many many organisations are trying to optimise our efficiency.

Let me give you a couple of examples;

IT development at Insurance company

By doctormo used
under Creative Commons

At one big company I was consulting at the time from idea for new software feature (even small things like spelling fixes, or layout or reports) to deployed software was 8 months. The actual programming time was a couple of days, sometime hours. Where do you think we started to implement efficiency? Yes that’s right - we trained the developers in being more efficient. Surely that would help us.

. In fact a lot of the time was waiting time. Decided on beforehand by schedules. Because we only deploy 4 times a year. It’s right there. In our IT-policy.

What is the goal in this case?

Software exists to solve a problem for an user. Until it’s used software is truly useless, to use the wise words of Woody Zuill, and the agile manifesto principles. The goal is to have the software used by users. To become “more effective” would mean to give the users more useable code faster.

Health care

Right now I’m serving in a new area (and a new country) trying to help the six hospitals that the Salvation Army has in Indonesia. I went in very bold - effectiveness; I know this. Just make the system flow faster to the end-customer, which is the patient in this case.

What is the goal in this case?

But … what is the goal of a health care service provider. Is it speedy delivery really… No not really. The goal of health care (as I think now, I hope this changes to something wiser) is to cure the patient, or quality in the health service.

Using effectiveness as your guiding star and principle you will automatically get a patient perspective and put the patient (who said end-customer?) in focus. This how we measure the quality of our service - the experience and end-result of the patient.

Sure the internal processes are important and needs to be looked over but if we’re not putting quality care first and the patient in focus… we’re running the wrong way.

That doesn’t mean that a fast flow is uninteresting. If your process flows faster the quality have to be good. If your process produce bad quality you will end up creating waste in the form or rework and failure demand. The difference, for me, is that for other business (such as manufacturing and software development) the faster flow can in itself be something to strive for. In health care I see it more as a mean to increase the quality - which is the goal of the system.

Pastors, coaches and parents

For a pastor the effectiveness will be … eeeh? This is harder. The only thing I’m sure of is that counting the number of pastoral calls, number of meetings held, number of prayers said etc. is not the target. This at best measuring the efficiency of the pastor.

And that’s not what we are after - we are after the effectiveness of the system. The goal, the purpose of the pastor being in the church. Or having a church in the first place.

What is the goal in this case?

I’m no pastor. And I don’t for a second think that I know more about their very special job than they do. I simply cannot answer this question adequately.

But this is a nice way to reason about this question that I’ve used for myself, when I was asked the same kind of question about the role of an agile coach:

If we didn’t have a pastor here - how would you notice the difference?

If the team didn’t have an agile coach - how would that change the team? What would be better? What would be worse?

As a parent what kind of outcomes am I looking for in my kids, that my parenting has given them?  

I’ll leave that as an exercise for you to think about. When I come up with something worth writing I’ll come back to you.


To me this has a strong connection with a holistic systems thinking view; we more interested in the output / outcomes of the system rather than optimising certain parts of the system. It is as a whole that we can effect the overall effectiveness of the system.

To know about the goal of the overall system we need to step back and ask ourselves why we are here. What is the purpose of our organisation? Why do people turn to us?

Those are hard questions to answer sometimes. Hard because they might point to that the kind of efficiency increasing measures we are focusing on today, might not be the correct ones.

Are you ready to ask those questions? Are you willing to change to improve for real? To improve the effectiveness rather than to improve efficiency? Are you willing to not only run fast - but to run towards the goal?

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