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Hard work and best efforts are not sufficient for optimization of a system

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Hard work and best efforts are not sufficient for optimization of a system

Scott Miker

In an article titled Some Notes on Management in a Hospital, Dr. W. Edwards Deming said, “Hard work and best efforts are not sufficient for optimization of a system.  A system must be managed.”

There is a lot of value that can be taken from this quote from Deming.  We can use the wisdom from it to help us improve. 

The first insight that we can take from this quote is that hard work doesn’t guarantee improvement.  Hard work is usually required but by itself hard work wouldn’t always lead to success. 

We all know people who are always busy and always working hard but don’t seem to get better along the way.  And we have all probably felt the disappointment after working hard and coming up short.  The reason is likely due to the various system elements not being aligned with the work that we are doing. 

For example, think about a simple system we use every day – setting the water temperature for our shower.  We use our ability to feel the water and then we make adjustments to the amount of hot or cold water until we have a comfortable temperature. 

But if we do this at a new shower, such as at a hotel, we might find it more difficult.  There is likely a different length of the delay between when we make an adjustment and when the water temperature changes. 

So if we don’t wait long enough for the water temperature to reflect the new setting, we may add too much hot or too much cold water.  Then, when the temp catches up with the setting, we would have to adjust it again.  Instead of making slight adjustments until the water was just right, we may just keep jumping from water that is too hot to water that is too cold.

Looking at this systematically shows why hard work and best efforts aren’t always enough.  If we “work hard” and use “best efforts” to try and get the water just right we don’t get to the perfect water temperature faster than if we understand the system.  Understanding the delay gives us key insight to know if we should turn the knob or wait a minute before deciding how to proceed. 

In this example working hard and best efforts don’t really align with the system and if they cause us to be more impatient than normal, they will actually work against the system.  We won’t actually improve the water temperature until we start to better understand that particular shower and the water temperature delays. 

The other element that strikes me as interesting is the phrase “Best effort.”  I remember a few years ago hearing a Navy SEAL speak about the incredible effort they have to put forth in order to succeed as a Navy SEAL. 

He talked about how difficult it was and how mentally tough they had to be.  He said that he realized that what he thought were his limits before becoming a SEAL were nowhere near the level he achieved as a SEAL.

To give a quick example to all of us he said to raise our hand as high as we could.  We all did.  But then he said, “Now raise your hand a fraction of an inch more.”  All of us did.  He did this several times until he stopped and said something to the effect of, “I thought you all said after I first told you to raise your hand as high as possible, you were at your limit.”

His example showed us that we tend to think we have a set limit.  But we often underestimate our limits and never realize how much we can push past them. 

Therefore, “best effort” is misleading. 

I remember when I helped a family member start a business.  We worked incredibly long days and did everything we could do in order to get the business started on the right foot.  Time and time again when I thought I was working as hard as I possibly could, something would come up and require us to work just a little bit more.  And somehow we did. 

By realizing there really isn’t a “best effort” we can start to remove this self-limiting belief.  It becomes too easy for us to assume we worked as hard as we could.  But the reality is there is always a little bit more that we can do.

So knowing that we have to align our work with the various systems that impact success in an area and that our “best efforts” are often less than what actually is our highest effort we have to find a way to push past this in order to truly keep improving.

The key to being able to do this is in the second sentence in Deming’s quote.  We have to “manage the system.”

Managing the system means looking at our approach in a way that gets to the systematic elements.  By starting small and building the right habits we can slowly add more and more and more.  This allows us to move past our limited “best effort” to get more and more and more, often with the same or less actual effort.

We can start to find leverage points in the system and find better ways to work the system in order to see the success we desire.  Then, when hard is required, we will have the willpower available to attack those important leverage points to get the most out of our efforts as possible. 

Let’s look at a quick example.  Let’s take our career and assume we want to move up in a corporation and gain more responsibility.  We can come in and just “work hard”.  But if we come in and work hard every day at keeping our desk clean or work hard to make sure we sent the best hand written messages instead of emails we are missing the point.  We wrongly assume working hard in these areas somehow will improve our ability to move up in the company but this is incorrect. 

The factors in the system of career advancement are not simply keeping your desk clean or sending beautiful messages to people.  In fact, sending these messages will be less effective than sending a quick email.  So working hard is working against you.

A lot of people will say this just means that we have to work smarter, not harder or that this shows that hard work isn’t necessary.  But this isn’t really accurate.

We will have to work harder but we have to find the system elements that have a greater impact.  Maybe it is to go to more networking events and work hard at making connections within the company.  Maybe it is making sure the teams or projects that you lead are impactful to the company.  Maybe it is finding ways to achieve corporate goals, even if it means working longer hours or working on the weekends.  Maybe it is to take additional training or enroll in college courses to gain more knowledge. 

For every career system, it will be different.  Understanding the system is really the only way to be able to align your hard work and efforts for maximum gain.   

But the more I talk to people in this situation the more I realize we don’t think this way.  Instead we feel because we did something for the company or because we have a particular skill set we are owed something.  These individuals never really stop to evaluate the systems and determine if their assumptions are, in fact, accurate.  Most of the time they are what that individual thinks should be important rather than what the systems say are important. 

Dr. Deming had an incredible impact on companies being able to improve consistently over time.  He was able to see systematic elements of their work and found great ways to continue to fine-tune their work to achieve better quality, which led to more and more success. 

We can take this same mindset to improve ourselves over time.  We can accomplish goals by focusing on the system and making sure we utilize the systematic elements as much as possible.  Then we can align hard work and best efforts with management of the system to get the maximum amount of improvement for our efforts.