We all want to be efficient. We want to get stuff done. We want to make the most of our time. That’s efficiency. Unfortunately, those two things are often at odds. If we take a look at doctors and firefighters, we can see that there are two types of efficiency and how they don’t always play nice together.

Seeing a Doctor

When you decide you need to make a doctor’s appointment, there’s a typical path that you follow.

  1. Find the contact info.
  2. Make the appointment.
  3. Wait a few days, weeks, perhaps a month or so.
  4. Drive to the doctor’s office.
  5. Wait in the waiting room.
  6. Go to the exam room.
  7. Wait some more.
  8. See a nurse.
  9. Wait some more.
  10. See the doctor.

Your goal, and the thing that gave you value, was to see the doctor. All those other steps don’t provide value per se, they’re means to an end. (Seeing the nurse is the arguable exception, as he or she is providing some of the functions that the doctor would perform.) In a month-long process, you receive roughly five to ten minutes of value.

Services from the Fire Department

When you realize you need services from the fire department, you typically follow a much different path.

  1. Call an easy-to-remember emergency services number (911, 999, 000, etc.).
  2. Talk to the dispatcher.
  3. Wait 5-10 minutes.
  4. The fire department addresses the emergency (firefighters do a lot more than just putting out fires).

In this case, taking care of the emergency is the thing that gave you value. And unlike the doctor, you spend a very small amount of time waiting in comparison to the time that you receive value from the servicer.

Two Types of Efficiency

At this point, you might be saying to yourself “Doctors are horribly inefficient!” However, don’t jump to conclusions just yet. Doctors are actually incredibly efficient. It’s just a different type of efficiency than firefighters.

Resource Efficiency

Doctors are resource efficient. Resource efficiency is a measure of how much time or effort is wasted when the resources in a system are not providing value, or providing value sub-optimally. In the medical industry, doctors are a resource. In fact, they’re an expensive resource. Because of this, we make sure that doctors are using their time to the greatest extent. They’re busy from dawn to dusk. If they weren’t, they’d be even more expensive. What’s more, the risk to the patient of waiting weeks for an appointment is usually pretty minimal.

Flow Efficiency

Firefighters, on the other hand, are flow efficient. Flow efficiency is a measure of how quickly we realize value in achieving a task or, to put it another way, how quickly that task moves through the system. Much like the doctors in the medical industry, firefighters are the resource in this system. Resolving emergencies is the flow. Because of the high importance of accomplishing their tasks, we allow for some slack in firefighters’ time. This slack is resource inefficiency, but is precisely the thing that allows them to be flow efficient.

Resource vs. Flow

Unfortunately, resource and flow efficiency are usually at odds with one another. In order to maximize resource efficiency, we put the flow items in a queue. This makes sure that the resource is working non-stop. But that queue, by nature, slows down the flow.

You might be thinking at this point, “Why not try to get to a point where the work arrives at the resource at precisely the right time?” This is certainly the goal of balancing the two types of efficiency. Unfortunately, perfect balance is practically impossible in any system due to natural variation and entropy.