Efficiency for Whom?

About sixty years ago, a few intersections held a few traffic lights like the one illustrated below.

Look carefully.

Not only is the green on top, but note the glow – on top! – of the red signals telling cross traffic to stop.

In other words, for, say, east/west streets, green took pride of place, but for north/south streets, red was uppermost.

Needless to say, this would have been confusing for distracted drivers. Luckily, there were no cell phones or onscreen maps back then… but the streets teemed with hundreds of station wagons filled with screaming kids. And of course, the signal was incomprehensible to colorblind drivers.

So why would anyone have created such a thing?


Note that this signal used only three bulbs – one on top, one on the bottom, and one in the middle. When the top bulb is illuminated, two directions see “go,” the other two “stop.” Simple. Easy. And so what if it displays a yellow light before the signal goes green, similar to the sequence before it goes red?

Efficiency, but for whom?

Whenever a client or manager or fiscal analyst brings up efficiency, a good project manager asks two questions:

  1. Efficiency for whom?
  2. Who benefits?

First Question: Efficiency for Whom?

In the case of the traffic signal, the benefits presumably accrued to those dealing with the budget – cheaper and simpler fixtures, fewer bulbs to change, etc. But what’s the cost of a car accident? Of injury or worse? As towns grew from sleepy exurbs to bustling postwar metropolises, the non-budgetary costs of these units quickly outran their efficiency, and they were scrapped as the 1960s rolled in.

Ask the same question when someone suggests you be more efficient with some aspect of the project. New timekeeping methodology? Efficient for whom? Status reports? Efficient for whom? Process improvements? Open-plan offices?

Don’t confuse efficiency with effectiveness.

Second Question: Who Benefits?

This question can help serve as a bulwark against “efficiencies” pushed on you. How do they benefit the client? How about our overall profitability (or for a corporate department, overall budget discipline)?

By the way, that question applies even if you’re the one contemplating steps to increase the efficiency of your project.

Not everything you do has to benefit the client, but choices should be at least client-neutral. There’s nothing wrong with improving systems to make the firm or department as a whole function better, as long as those changes don’t come at the expense of client needs.

But too often, suggested changes benefit only a few people, and have significant if sometimes non-obvious costs that can far outweigh those benefits. For example, I recall many years ago, as a client, beginning to receive highly detailed and standardized fortnightly status reports from one group. I hadn’t requested them. So I reached out to some other clients. Nope, not their idea, either. The team’s management had thought it would be a good idea because it made them look good to their VP, so team members were spending up to half an hour every two weeks writing these reports – and project managers were devoting a couple of hours to assembling them!

Remember, efficiency is good – but only when it follows rather than precedes effectiveness, and only when it has clear benefits that outweigh the hidden costs.

For drivers, it’s far more efficient to have standardized locations for green and red on vertical traffic signals. If traffic engineers can be efficient, that’s great – as long as it does not come at high costs to drivers!

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