Smells Like Fish To Me!

Efficient has about as many uses as a dead fish. In polite scientific company, it means one of a dozen quite specific, calculated quantities. Everywhere else, the meaning gets mixed in with the bad crowd always hanging around theoretical ideals. Ground up with careless usage, efficiency creates a rich and fragrant fertilizer apt to burn in application.

The word elicits righteous satisfaction. Proclaim something efficient and an angelic heart starts glowing. If cleanliness really is next to godliness, efficiency stands even closer to it. Or seems to.

I’m learning to question my own glowing feelings when someone starts batting around the term. I more often cringe, as if witness to some slow-motion catastrophe, but I didn’t always respond this way. There was a time when I was more readily entrained, a time when my heart of hearts really did beat a little faster, when I really would stand a little taller when instructed to improve efficiency. I’m a smart enough guy, I’d think. I can do this.

My track record stinks. Sure, I could often find ways to cut time, but simply cutting time doesn’t necessarily translate into efficiency. I could cut waste, too, but waste it tricky stuff; one’s waste is another’s sustenance. I could even produce more with less, but often at some unaccounted-for, often long-deferrable additional cost. But I’m not here to discuss my first marriage. I’m here, I think, to cut some smelly bait.

I like to blame it all on Aristotle. Might as well, since he’s no longer here to defend himself. I know it’s not fair, but he slung efficient around and I suppose was an early principle in the proliferation. What did Aristotle mean when he spoke of efficient?

Ari parsed our world into four causations: Material, Efficient, Formal, and Final. Material Causation explained something as being caused by its nature. This feels tautological, but some things really do seem to be caused by simple nature. Because I am a mammal and all mammals have hair, my being a mammal is the material cause of my hair. Ari used efficient to describe the necessary precursor to a present state. My hair looks the way it is because I had my hair expertly styled. My stylist caused my hair style.




[Drawing from the May 14, 1911 New York World, reporting on best-selling author and The Father of Scientific Management, Frederick W. Taylor’s after dinner speech at the American Bookseller’s Association convention.)

A hundred years ago, the world was in the middle of going crazy again. It’s not profound to notice that the world goes crazy sometimes, but this crazy was special. Usually, these insanities disappear quickly. This one did not. It managed to worm its way into our DNA and replicate until today, this crazy has become the accepted benchmark for sane.

What was this insanity? Efficiency. Slip over here for more ...