Efficiency and Subsidiarity

There has been a significant effort in recent years in industry to improve efficiency in organizations. This has largely focused on improving clarity, measurement, and accountability.

Image used via creative commons license in unaltered form. http://ow.ly/WlbiJ 

On paper, this emphasis seems to make sense. People need to know what they are expected to do. We should have some means of telling when they do it. And folks should be held accountable for how well they do their jobs.

In reality, however, the means that are used to drive improved performance and increase efficiency sometimes produce exactly the opposite the intended result.

In many cases, as Yves Morieux argues in the video below, this is because better cooperation is the solution instead of more rules and structures.

Pursuit of Efficiency

I have survived the efficiency initiative of a Fortune 500 company. I was one of the people who helped lead events that were designed to improve unit performance.

In some cases, I actually believe this was successful because we looked at many forms of waste in our processes. At other places we probably missed the boat.

While there were times that the processes under consideration wasted resources in redoing or triple checking work, there were other times they wasted our human capital by creating rigid processes to keep people doing things the same and prevent errors. Sometimes those checks were considered a necessary part of the process and remained after the streamlining process.

Rigid processes make sense when work is repetitive, but many times it encourages people not to think about their jobs but just to mindlessly follow the directions. Sometimes in nuclear power simply following the directions is a good thing. However, in much of what we did outside of the plant, such rigidity had the effect of stifling creativity and sometimes making people bored.

Cooperating to Prevent Boredom

Bored people are generally unproductive. They end up disengaging from the processes they’ve been assigned and often do their work sloppily or with more errors than if they are engaged.

Cooperation, as Morieux describes it, requires thinking and engaging with the people around you. Bored people don’t cooperate very well. Bored people often use the rules designed to help prevent errors as a shield. (I witnessed this often among union workers in the shipyard.)

Cooperation is one way to end boredom, as is creativity.

The Danger of Creativity

Creativity is dangerous. When new methods are tried, they may fail. To be creative in performing a process is to risk failure.

Failure often wastes time. When someone tries something and it doesn’t work, there is the risk that the work will have to be done again in another way.

Sometimes people celebrate sloppiness and disorganization as being creative. Often this is just a cover for bad habits.

The danger in the creative process also keeps people engaged. There is something in the thrill of potential failure that sharpens instincts and helps people focus.

This means that sometimes, the risk of failure may be justified by the improvements in engagements that are achieved. This depends on the application.


The processes of cooperation and creativity are part of the human experience. Allowing these, instead of focusing on increasing repetition, are helpful in celebrating the humanity of the workers in the process. 

Cooperation requires viewing the others in the process as fully human. It requires looking out for their best interest and the interest of the greater whole.

Allowing creativity (in subordinates, peers, and superiors) requires accepting the variegation that is possible in the human experience. It allows people to express their personality, within boundaries, which is important in recognizing the God-given character of the individuals. 

Dehumanization due to Efficiency

This means that the good of improving productivity by creating rules and standardizing processes ends up being at odds with the human expression at times. The rules that are set up to improve outcomes are often designed to reduce the human uniqueness of the individuals involved in the process. As Morieux notes, it sometimes leads to more concern for the process than the product.

In some situations, such standardization may be good for a company; it certainly is useful in bringing production costs down in an assembly line.

But what can get lost in the process when the human becomes machine and disengages his or her brain? Often what is lost is innovation, because the disengaged human is satisfied to do the same thing over and over, punching a clock and earning a paycheck.

A more human result seems necessary where cooperation and creativity are facilitated.

The problem with this is that in a large organization, if everyone gets to be creative without limits there will be a lack of cogency. Cooperation will be limited in groups too large because no one knows the person on the other end of the line.


Within Catholic Social Ethics the principle of subsidiarity is the idea that the people closest to the problem will be more likely to come up with the best solution than people removed from the problem.

In contemporary social justice movements, there is an emphasis on listening before implementing aid programs. This approach requires asking people what they need instead of simply trying to apply the solution from outside without assessing the local needs accurately.

There seems to be room to balance the expertise and experience of those who have succeeded in solving a problem in one place with the unique contours of the local situation. 

The principle of subsidiary has room for bringing expertise to bear, while balancing the local situation. It is worthy of consideration.


The TED talk did what it was supposed to do. It got me thinking. 

Bigger may not always be better. Of course, I already recognized that with my aversion to mega churches.

However, the real good that clarity, measurement, and accountability do in organizations should not be ignored. There must be a balanced response.

Whatever we decide to do, we need to hold maximizing productivity in tension with celebrating humanity. This will help us make sure we are celebrating the best parts of humanity and not just the bad habits that we deem to be creative.