Originally posted on the Software Process and Measurement Cast 57

Efficiency has a simple technical definition, the ratio of work done to the energy required to do that work. In the software development world, efficiency is rarely managed. Rather the discussion tends to be on cost. Cost and efficiency are different; they are related, but they are not the same.

Increasing the level of efficiency in a person, process or organization will require some kind of change. You do not get a different result by doing the same thing over and over. We know that in order to change efficiency, we need to change the process that transforms an input into a product, the environment the transformation occurs inside, the input (such as people or raw materials) or some combination of these areas.

While it might be too obvious for most people, the first place to look when you want to improve efficiency is the process. Some examples include, removing process dead wood, simplifying the flow, adding tools and automation whether through frameworks like CMMI or Agile or through techniques like Six Sigma, lean or others. Unfortunately process changes are not instantaneous, which causes many organizations to jump over the process improvement step and go right to the cutting people. The thought process around the cutting people option goes something like this:

We will cut some percentage of people because we have gotten ‘fat’. Those that are left will pick of the slack through working a little harder and by multitasking. They should just be happy to have jobs. Tasks that we just can’t cover anymore probably didn’t need to be done anyway.

Multitasking is the silver bullet of the 21st Century. However, relying on multitasking steals efficiency. According to René Marois, a neuroscientist and director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt University, “trying to do two things at once can be disadvantageous.” Now I will readily admit that I have not been able to put aside multitasking. Humans do most of their multitasking in an unconscious mode (breathing, pumping blood and other mostly autonomic tasks). I have tested conscious multitasking personally, trying to talk on the cell phone while driving; no one has died (although my wife has threatened divorce). Unfortunately humans aren’t good at multitasking because we do not really multitask. What we do typically is fast switch shuffling between tasks quickly focusing on each slice for a brief period of time. It is during the switch and reorientation that we lose efficiency. An article published in the The Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance reported a 2001 study by Joshua Rubinstein, David Meyer, and Jeffrey Evans on the brain’s executive control process found that “at best, a person needs to be aware that multitasking causes inefficiency in brain function.”

Focus is required for efficiency. Doing one thing at a time correctly has an appeal both in terms of logic and science. We are faced with the issue that most workplace cultures do not seem to support focus with action. As evidence I suggest you count the number of interrupters in your environment (cell phones, email, twitter, instant messengers, etc.). Our work culture is sending a strong message that you are not expected to be cut off from the information flow at any time. The ability to deal with continual partial attention is a career success factor in many instances. Quiet time for concentration tends to happen outside of core hours or at home when we are tired. The question we must ask is when the does the cost of interruptions and multitasking ever outweigh the benefit of focus? How can we construct processes or environments that allow connection and collaboration to happen while providing an atmosphere where focus is not the odd man out of the equation?