May 15, 2018 Ralph Perdomo
Sit through a software demo, and you’ll hear it.
Leaf through a press release, and you’ll read it.
I’m talking about business buzzwords, corporate jargon, and enterprise slang. Words such as, ‘synergize,’ ‘ideate,’ and ‘dynamic’ and expressions like ‘world class,’ ‘core competency,’ or ‘business case.’ These can elicit eye rolls from even the most ardent of team players.
Created by Ryan Mason
But it wasn’t always like that. Those now trite sayings once carried a punch. It’s only from overuse and ubiquity that such terms have become toothless.
This is the tale of how one term in particular—streamlining efficiencies—is unlike the others. And why executives should hold this aphorism in much higher regard than the rest.
In the beginning...
We can’t begin to discuss efficiency without first discussing Frederick Taylor and his seminal work, “The Principles of Scientific Management.”
Taylor took an antithetical approach to efficiency. Instead of focusing on the efficient use of material resources (which he states in his introduction has already been embraced by the national consciousness), he focused on finding improvements in man (or labor).
Rather than accept the status quo that, “captains of industry are born, not made,” Taylor posited that “our leaders must be trained,” later concluding, “no great man can hope to compete with a number of ordinary men who have been properly organized so as efficiently to cooperate.”
Taylor substantiated this through meticulous data-recording experiments at the Bethlehem Steel Company, where he recorded “the science of shoveling.” Accompanied by thousands of scientists with stopwatches, he and his team recorded the minutia of laborers shoveling and drawing out a proper load of material. Only by breaking down each of workers’ tasks into its core movements (or subtasks), observing and measuring it, and then adjusting, could Taylor begin to discover modest efficiencies by modifying labor practices.
What’s more, the insights gleaned from those observations led Bethlehem Steel to standardize its equipment. Discovering that it could better evaluate usage once a standard was agreed upon (this would also make re-evaluations easier since a baseline was set):
“...instead of allowing each shoveler to select and own his own shovel, it became necessary to provide some 8 to 10 different kinds of shovels [...] each one appropriate to handling a given type of material [...] to enable the men to handle an average load of 21 pounds”
Taylorism—the theory of scientific management named after its namesake—is the practice and implementation of his experiments conducted at Bethlehem Steel but applied to everyday business management operations.
Or as Niki Savall author of Cubed: The Secret History of the Workplace said:
"Taylor insisted on the creation of teams of people to draw up an entire diagram of the labor process, to see where lacunae and inefficiencies existed and to see where workers doing needless tasks could be disposed of.”
Born from Taylor was the framework for discovering and implementing efficient business practices.
Back in my day
One of the earliest mentions of the term, “streamlining efficiencies” first appears in aviation text from around 1927. It’s not, however, until the early ‘40s where we find an example of this term being used to describe business operations.
“The Office,” a professional magazine specializing in office equipment and supplies mentions streamlining efficiencies in what appears to be a case study for the methodology of finding an efficient office layout:
“To determine the best use of space, scale drawings were prepared with miniature desks and other equipment also to scale and these arranged and rearranged in order to develop streamline efficiency in work…” [emphasis ours]
But the most fitting use of the term (away from its original aeronautical context) is found in John Drummonds Inheritance of Dreams from 1945. In it, Drummonds describes his grandfather’s satellite farm and its (inferior) construction methodology:
“...this was constructed before the present era of streamline efficiency and belonged to the days when nobody troubled to find out if a job could be done by a quicker or…” [emphasis ours]
These two quotes provide a telling window into the profound and resonating impact that Taylorism had on America’s economy well into the ‘40s.
Coincidently, the 1940s also introduced us to the transistor—its invention would usher the world to the preceding knowledge economy in the decades to follow.
And now: This
The usage and context of streamlining efficiencies have seemingly always run alongside economies (as above, used in describing aeronautical, agricultural, and office/managerial industry). It’s unfortunate, however, that in today’s knowledge-based economy, -isms such as “failing fast” and “iterate, iterate, iterate,” have usurped the far superior streamlining efficiency.
What those terms glaze over is the importance of observation and the science behind improving. It fails to acknowledge the necessity of recording and to disseminate a task into its many individual subtasks and steps—all to glean insight into making the whole job slightly better.
Streamlining efficiencies encapsulates so well what it means to be a modern business. It epitomizes so appropriately the science of business—because, well, streamlining efficiencies is rooted in hard science (recall Taylorism).
The right tool for the right job
No modern ERP or accounting platform is a single, monolithic solution. Instead, it’s comprised of many individual solutions pieced together achieving efficient cooperation. Note how this aligns with Taylor’s “no great man can hope to compete with a number of ordinary men who have been properly organized so as efficiently to cooperate.”
Recall how Taylor and his team would break down the shovelers’ tasks into its core subtasks (movements), observing and measuring it, and then adjusting. A solution that affords streamlined efficiencies is one that aligns with the Taylorist approach to problem-solving. One which has already been broken down and evaluated at its core and has quantifiable criteria which a solution must solve.
Modularity is what allows organizations to evaluate individual solutions to solve the many unique problems it may face—especially at this subtask (or core) level.
An accounts payable department, then, should look for a solution that can tackle invoice management or payments without disrupting the rest of its workflow.
Streamlining efficiencies is about approaching a solution only once a task has been broken down and evaluated at its smallest component. It’s about embracing the scientific method to problem-solving instead of blindly trying out different solutions.