Diseconomy of Scale

From Wikipedia: Diseconomy of Scale (The article has the “original research” warning, and therefore, should be taken with more of a grain of salt than even the average Wikipedia article.

Diseconomies of scale are the forces that cause larger firms and governments to produce goods and services at increased per-unit costs. They are less well known than what economists have long understood as “economies of scale”, the forces which enable larger firms to produce goods and services at reduced per-unit costs. The concept may be applied to non-market entities as well. Some political philosophies, such as libertarianism, recognize the concept as applying to government.

There are obvious efficiencies that come with increased size: The per-worker overhead of a leased office for two people can be slightly more than half that of an office for one person. Meanwhile, two people can potentially accomplish at least double what person can do.

Moreover, there is a certain minimum size below which certain tasks are not feasible. One million individuals working alone would likely not be able to create a practical system of roadways going from Atlantic to Pacific coasts. Some things require big scale to make them happen.

Unfortunately, there is a point where the additional costs incurred by adding additional resources [see Handshake Problem] are greater than the additional savings gained by sharing the resources with one more person.

The scale problem illustrated with keeping track of organizational “to-do” lists:

  • 1 person – might be forced to write things down on a scrap of paper to keep things organized.
  • 2 people – leave post-it notes.
  • 5-10 people – use team to-do list software.
  • 10-30 people – may use more sophisticated, “issue-tracking” software.
  • 30-100 people – may use a more generic activity management software
  • 100+ people – have to be certified to be on the use of standardized language and procedures so that activities may be managed in the most effective way possible.

The last step in the chain here are procedures for dealing with procedures to track tasks.  That’s a virtual calculus of bureaucracy. Considering how few people are any good at the mathematical calculus, which deals which actual numbers and formulas, I would imagine that bureaucratic calculus is nearly impossible.

Political Overtime

New business analysts. Tight timelines. Sensitive business periods…

Halfway through the project, one of the “customers” decides to pay attention during a review of minor specification update. Interestingly enough, the customer doesn’t pay attention to the relatively minor changes that you’re pointing out. Instead, the customer decides to focus on wording in the first few lines of the first page of the document [cue the rant about extensive specifications being too long to be useful].

“That’s not how our business works,” the customer says, pointing to the wording that has been in the document since the very first drafts.

“That’s how the system was designed, and how your counterparts everywhere else in the company do theirs.” Yeah, the “everybody else is doing it”-style reasoning. That wins over customers about as well as it did parents when you were little.

Cue a restart of the entire project.

Months later, you’re far beyond the possibility of making your original timelines, but effectively, you’ve done all the work you can do. The solution? You’re asked come in to work the weekend to make a good show of demonstrating that you’re doing everything you can to finish the project on time. In reality, you have trouble finding administrative tasks to do, yet, you come in every weekend for several weeks under the premise that making the political statement of being there is going to somehow offset the project delay itself.

Meanwhile, you’re burning yourself out before the next project even begins.

Length of Interruption is not Proportional to Amount of Disruption

This topic has been covered here before: Just because something requires very little time on its own does not mean it disrupts less. Any activity that takes “only a small amount of time” is likely to be accompanied by many other ones that carry the same justification for their existence.

Justifying that something should be done because it takes an insignificant amount of time is the same as saying that a 0.02% increase in your property tax should not concern you. The individual amount may be insignificant, but after years of property tax increases, you may end up with 1 or 2% extra in taxes.  More importantly, every additional request will carry the extra guilt trip of having accepted increases before and may embolden further, possibly larger requests.

Cognitive disruption

Deep thought tasks require deep concentration–see Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule.  You can’t do deep analysis or intense tasks if you have 30 minutes between meetings.

Meetings are only one such offender.  Logging your time by work code and customer, and filling out three pages of forms upon beginning or ending a task are other such offenders.  Let’s say that you were reading an unabridged copy (1488 pages) of Les Misérables (Signet Classics), and every 10th page, read a page of A Tale of Two Cities (free Kindle Edition). You’re going to get the details of the characters confused because the settings are so similar.

This example may seem extreme, but in reality, is this not what all of this extra tasks are doing? You record time about a project. You send an email about a project. You open some form and fill out information about the project. At some point you may actually do work on the project. At this point, you’re going to have to start a spreadsheet to keep track of your tasks and what necessary steps you’ve done as part of completing a task. Fortunately, you can at least create some sort of calculated field to turn the task green, yellow, or red, based on whether the task is complete, partially complete, or not started. That should save you the mental energy of determining whether a task is actually complete–so at least you have that going for you.