Diminishing Returns

This is the last in an unintended trilogy of posts on efficiency, effectiveness, etc. See the first and second posts in their respective links.

Efficiency is a wonderful goal, and I think it should be upheld as a moral value. I think efficiency is the real argument people confuse when they steer clear of “high tech” solutions in the belief that old fashioned means of accomplishing a task are “simpler”. But as I stated in my second post on this general topic, it doesn’t always lead to the best results. I went on to give examples of newer “high tech” items that are actually simpler than their older forebearers, but it’s time to talk about achieving the best possible results and the biggest threat in any individual endeavor: diminishing returns.

As a general statement, efficiency in accomplishing a task is a more important consideration when producing multiples of a thing. (That’s such an awful sentence, I know, but bear with me.) If I’m McDonald’s, my focus is on producing millions and millions of hamburgers per day and maintaining an acceptable level of quality; and it’s no coincidence Ray Kroc was a businessman instead of a cook. If I’m Folgers, I need to produce a coffee that will perform in the relatively cheap Mr. Coffee units most Americans buy. If I’m the U.S. Army, I need to train a large amount of new soldiers in a short amount of time to be proficient enough with a firearm.

Now let’s shrink back the scale of operation and see what happens to the product. In-n-Out doesn’t serve anywhere near McDonald’s number of burgers each day, and they employ far more people in the kitchen to keep up with the pace of business. It’s nowhere near as efficient but they make a better burger (even if the fries still suck). A smaller operation can focus on individual quality even more. Lindy’s is one of the best burgers I’ve ever had, as was the Heart Attack Grill before they moved to Las Vegas (and lost something in the transition). Starbucks is considered to be better coffee than Folgers, but again, look at the scale of coffee sold on the shelf of your average American supermarket and they have a much smaller stake (though I wish I had a LexisNexis account to verify my assertion…). The same goes for high quality coffee makers and grinders as opposed to Cuisinart or a $15 Mr. Coffee. And no offense at all is intended to our armed forces when I say better firearms instruction and proficiency is available, it simply costs more time and money than is feasible when training so many so quickly.

These are just three examples, and I’m speaking in generalities, but overall I find this trend to be true. A mass-produced Kimber 1911 may have a great advertising campaign, but they really don’t work all that well and a small custom house like Ed Brown makes a more accurate and reliable pistol. A tailored suit will fit better than something off the rack at Dillard’s. A child that’s actually raised at home by their parents tends to come out more socially adjusted than a daycare kid (and no, I don’t care who I offend by saying that). Efficiency is something to strive for, individual attention applied by somebody with strong ethics should always produce superior results.

I haven’t even touched on the threat of diminishing returns yet, but I have to pause first and wonder why it is that individual attention matters so much more in a result. I believe the answer lies in both the customer and person at work. When the scope is narrowed on who the customer is, it becomes easier for the worker or producer to figure out the needs of their clientele. Lindy’s isn’t trying to appeal to the entire nation; they’re focused on making the best burger in the downtown/4th Ave. area and by consequence have made the best burger in Tucson (Zinburger is all pretense and no taste). Starbucks (despite all their locations and rampant late ’90s expansion) isn’t trying to be in every home coffee maker in the U.S., but targets the premium coffee crowd. A tailor focuses on one customer at a time. A parent focuses on just their child. That focus brings clarity to the needs of the job.

The danger in eschewing all modern production methods in a search for the best quality is that of diminishing returns. The most obvious example is the cost of every single example I’ve listed so far. Lindy’s costs a lot more than a Big Mac. A tailor-made suit will cost more than having something from Men’s Wearhouse altered. Starbucks costs more than Folgers, Ed Brown is more expensive than Kimber, and a stay-at-home parent isn’t bringing in another source of income (although they’re working just as hard, imho). The individual attention costs more time, which we recompense with money. If only there were a clever saying for that…

More than that, this post started with talking about efficiency and my first essay on this train of thought mentioned personal efficiency. We pay for quality, whether by virtue of more work being put into a thing or price controls from the manufacturer (Intel actually put more work into Celerons to slow them down and increase profit margin on Pentiums, or Porsche restricting the Boxster and Cayman so the flagship Carrera is faster). But at what point do we start working disproportionately harder for a smaller increase in return? And how do we quantify this on a personal level, when our project may not be so easily measurable?

This is the real problem that faces the person that chooses to be “old fashioned” in the face of modern means; this is where they face diminishing returns on their effort. It’s easier to discuss when it’s something that can quantified as in a business: paying 20% more overtime to employees and receiving only 5% more in return revenue is very clear. But I don’t have a profit margin in mind when I’m shaving with a brush and safety razor. Sure, I may be saving money because blades cost far less than cartridges, but I spend a lot more time shaving now, and what’s my time worth? Do I really get a better shave, or is it just for a sense of personal satisfaction and what is that worth? Eric Johnson is such a demanding tone freak it’s been said it takes him the better part of a decade to finally be happy with his recordings and release a new album (long version here, worth the watch). Would he be better known to non-guitarists if he put out more music? Am I really going to get the bore of my rifle that much cleaner by using a countless number of dry patches that remove less and less carbon each time?

The only fair answer I can see is that it has to be personal judgment call. Washing my car to the point of obsession is different in different people’s eyes; the battle of preserving a vehicle is good condition vs. the reality of future dirt isn’t worth the same amount of exertion to all drivers (or for all cars). I have no illusions of a career as a musician or author, so I don’t practice my guitar for 3 hours a day nor do I author this blog on a reliable schedule. But what if somebody told Michael Phelps he was swimming too much? What Lance Armstrong listened to the voices that said he was cycling too hard (or spending too much effort to figure out how to hide doping, if you prefer)? What if Lenny Kravitz gave up? (He’s far more talented than his limited number of chart-toppers would suggest.)

While those at the top of their game, from athletes to musicians and authors, are probably near the zenith of diminishing returns (as far as improvement resulting from their efforts), they’re also at the top of their game and maintaining the edge that makes them the best. That’s why sometimes, it’s worth the work. And even in a high-end manufacturers case (Bowers & Wilkins, Bose, Porsche, Starbucks, etc.) they’ll search out the most efficient means for them to accomplish their goal and maximize the return. But it’s their call.

So really, I guess it all comes down to something I’d not considered inserting into this essay until now but has been looming in the background of all three: value.

Value now makes all three of these essays true, but reflects an individual’s estimate of worth. I find it worth my time to shave more laboriously with natural means, where others don’t mind synthetic gel foams and disposable razors. The 2005 Boxster S I found at $24k was a far greater value to me than a dime-a-dozen Ford Mustang, but I don’t value one enough to pay the $60k they can go for new. The capabilities of my Apple products makes them more valuable to me, whereas an Android phone is more valuable to a power user. Everything I’ve discussed as far as efficiency, work-applied to a task, old fashioned vs. newfangled high tech; they ultimately start to become abstract ideas as we refine/redefine arguments and our meanings or examples begin to bleed over into other aspects of life. This is part of being human and life’s ever-changing nature, I think. But the overall principles I’ve discussed are sound as general guidelines if we remember it eventually comes down to the value we place on a thing.

So, Dear Reader, what do you value and why?

3 thoughts on “Diminishing Returns

  1. You talked mostly about placing value on “things” but your post me think about something else I value. For years, my best friend & I had good phone conversations a couple times a week. We were busy with our families & life, but we made time to talk… until everyone started texting and facebooking all the time. I guess I’m a little bit old-fashioned, & I’m not saying that texting and social networking don’t have definite benefits; they do, and everyone knows what they are. I’ll admit I have some pretty fun conversations that take place on-line but when you replace real life with them, you definitely get a “diminishing return”. Random status updates & writing on walls can’t replace hearing the voice of someone you care about over the phone, & an emoticon doesn’t come close to being a good replacement for a real-life smile. I’m generally a glass-is-half-full kind of girl, but it seems that in society as a whole, real conversation is dying away, and that’s something I value.

    • I used the term “thing” because I felt it best covered everything. Every THING. I was struggling with words, but a relationship IS also a thing; it may not be tangible but it can be defined. I know it wasn’t a very elegant choice of words, but since I write stream of consciousness it was all that came to mind. LOL.

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