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How Useful Is the Pareto Principle?

How Useful Is the Pareto Principle?

The Pareto Principle states that 80% of the results from any series of actions are caused by 20% of the actions themselves. In other words, most of the results we get are because of a small minority of our actions. The rest are either wasted or produce little of value. This sounds like a useful observation. However, before you decide the Pareto Principle is true and can be used to guide your actions, I want to ask two important questions.

  1. Can you identify which actions make up the useful 20%? And can you do so in advance?
  2. Does this useful 20% always contain more or less the same actions?

Let’s take the first question. It’s easy to feel intuitively that most results arise from a small group of actions. The Pareto Principle feels immediately valid. It also feels like a practical tool. Identify the “magic 20%” of actions and you can more or less dispense with the other 80% without much impact on your results. What a marvelous saving of time and effort.

Of course, this only works if you can reliably distinguish the 20% of actions (or people, or events) that produce that disproportionate amount of benefits. It also assumes every result comes from a single, identifiable action — or at least a small, obviously linked group of them.

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But is this true? Don’t some results rely on the interaction of large numbers of events, choices, actions and decisions? Can we know which count and which don’t? What if we dropped some, only to find later they were essential in some way? Maybe they only produce good results in combination? Cutting seemingly unnecessary actions because they don’t obviously fit into the “magic 20%” might turn out to be a poor idea.

The Pareto Principle is perhaps most often applied to sales. Suppose you could reliably identify the 20% of sales calls that produced 80% of the orders you took this week. How much might the success of those calls rely on the market intelligence, knowledge and simple practice you gained by making the other 80%? Could you miss out all the rest, or even a significant number of them? That would include new customers being encouraged to place larger orders, prospects and old customers who might be won back from a competitor.

My second concern is this: is it always the same 20%?

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Let’s stick with the sales calls. This week, 20% of your calls produce 80% of your sales. Pareto rules! Next week, you need to sell just as much. Will you visit the same 20% of customers and receive the same orders?
Surely that’s unlikely. They only just placed an order. Most, maybe all, need to use up that order before buying again. Fine. You just need to find another 20%. But how? Everyone else was in the “unproductive” 80% last week? But if Pareto works, at the end of the next week you’ll once again find 80% of orders came from a new 20% of calls.

What’s going on? My guess is the Pareto Principle distinguishes groups you can only find after the event, once you can see what worked and what didn’t. The membership of the “magic 20%” of people or actions shifts each time. Wait long enough and every one will sometime be part of that 20% group.

If that’s so, the Principle is almost worthless as a guide to future action, which is how it’s most often used. There may be some actions or people (20% again? Who knows?) that figure so rarely in the “magic group” they could be removed without loss. There may be some regular members of that group that could be identified and given more focus and investment. Either way, what’s needed is time, careful observation and recording over many occasions, good records and much patience and reflection. None of these are actions or qualities much associated with today’s frenetic organizational pace.

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I’m not saying Pareto is wrong. I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone has ever done the lengthy and extensive research needed to find out. I’m merely suggesting it’s neither the universally applicable principle, nor the simple measure, nor the practical guide to decisions we’ve been asked to believe it is for so long.

To sum up:

I think the Pareto Principle has great intuitive attractiveness — which says nothing about whether or not it works, nor how it works (if it does). However, these questions remain unresolved:

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  1. How do you know which 20% is producing the results? Can you even find out at a time when the knowledge might be useful? I suspect you can usually only find the answer — if there is one — after the event. And if that’s so, it leads me to a second question.
  2. Is it always the same 20%? If it’s not (and I suspect it isn’t), over time maybe the whole 100% will be in that magic 20% group sometime. And if that’s true, the Principle applies only to a specific occasion (if it applies at all).

If any of my concerns is valid, the whole idea becomes worthless as a guide to future action or allocating resources (which is how people try to use it).

Adrian Savage is an Englishman and a retired business executive who lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his thoughts most days at The Coyote Within and Slow Leadership, the site for anyone who wants to bring back the fun and satisfaction to management work.

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The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

It’s a depressing adage we’ve all heard time and time again: An increase in technology does not necessarily translate to an increase in productivity.

Put another way by Robert Solow, a Nobel laureate in economics,

“You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

In other words, just because our computers are getting faster, that doesn’t mean that that we will have an equivalent leap in productivity. In fact, the opposite may be true!

New York Times writer Matt Richel wrote in an article for the paper back in 2008 that stated, “Statistical and anecdotal evidence mounts that the same technology tools that have led to improvements in productivity can be counterproductive if overused.”

There’s a strange paradox when it comes to productivity. Rather than an exponential curve, our productivity will eventually reach a plateau, even with advances in technology.

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So what does that mean for our personal levels of productivity? And what does this mean for our economy as a whole? Here’s what you should know about the productivity paradox, its causes, and what possible solutions we may have to combat it.

What is the productivity paradox?

There is a discrepancy between the investment in IT growth and the national level of productivity and productive output. The term “productivity paradox” became popularized after being used in the title of a 1993 paper by MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson, a Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and the Director of the MIT Center for Digital Business.

In his paper, Brynjolfsson argued that while there doesn’t seem to be a direct, measurable correlation between improvements in IT and improvements in output, this might be more of a reflection on how productive output is measured and tracked.[1]

He wrote in his conclusion:

“Intangibles such as better responsiveness to customers and increased coordination with suppliers do not always increase the amount or even intrinsic quality of output, but they do help make sure it arrives at the right time, at the right place, with the right attributes for each customer.

Just as managers look beyond “productivity” for some of the benefits of IT, so must researchers be prepared to look beyond conventional productivity measurement techniques.”

How do we measure productivity anyway?

And this brings up a good point. How exactly is productivity measured?

In the case of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity gain is measured as the percentage change in gross domestic product per hour of labor.

But other publications such as US Today, argue that this is not the best way to track productivity, and instead use something called Total Factor Productivity (TFP). According to US Today, TFP “examines revenue per employee after subtracting productivity improvements that result from increases in capital assets, under the assumption that an investment in modern plants, equipment and technology automatically improves productivity.”[2]

In other words, this method weighs productivity changes by how much improvement there is since the last time productivity stats were gathered.

But if we can’t even agree on the best way to track productivity, then how can we know for certain if we’ve entered the productivity paradox?

Possible causes of the productivity paradox

Brynjolfsson argued that there are four probable causes for the paradox:

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  • Mis-measurement – The gains are real but our current measures miss them.
  • Redistribution – There are private gains, but they come at the expense of other firms and individuals, leaving little net gain.
  • Time lags – The gains take a long time to show up.
  • Mismanagement – There are no gains because of the unusual difficulties in managing IT or information itself.

There seems to be some evidence to support the mis-measurement theory as shown above. Another promising candidate is the time lag, which is supported by the work of Paul David, an economist at Oxford University.

According to an article in The Economist, his research has shown that productivity growth did not accelerate until 40 years after the introduction of electric power in the early 1880s.[3] This was partly because it took until 1920 for at least half of American industrial machinery to be powered by electricity.”

Therefore, he argues, we won’t see major leaps in productivity until both the US and major global powers have all reached at least a 50% penetration rate for computer use. The US only hit that mark a decade ago, and many other countries are far behind that level of growth.

The paradox and the recession

The productivity paradox has another effect on the recession economy. According to Neil Irwin,[4]

“Sky-high productivity has meant that business output has barely declined, making it less necessary to hire back laid-off workers…businesses are producing only 3 percent fewer goods and services than they were at the end of 2007, yet Americans are working nearly 10 percent fewer hours because of a mix of layoffs and cutbacks in the workweek.”

This means that more and more companies are trying to do less with more, and that means squeezing two or three people’s worth of work from a single employee in some cases.

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According to Irwin, “workers, frightened for their job security, squeezed more productivity out of every hour [in 2010].”

Looking forward

A recent article on Slate puts it all into perspective with one succinct observation:

“Perhaps the Internet is just not as revolutionary as we think it is. Sure, people might derive endless pleasure from it—its tendency to improve people’s quality of life is undeniable. And sure, it might have revolutionized how we find, buy, and sell goods and services. But that still does not necessarily mean it is as transformative of an economy as, say, railroads were.”

Still, Brynjolfsson argues that mismeasurement of productivity can really skew the results of people studying the paradox, perhaps more than any other factor.

“Because you and I stopped buying CDs, the music industry has shrunk, according to revenues and GDP. But we’re not listening to less music. There’s more music consumed than before.

On paper, the way GDP is calculated, the music industry is disappearing, but in reality it’s not disappearing. It is disappearing in revenue. It is not disappearing in terms of what you should care about, which is music.”

Perhaps the paradox isn’t a death sentence for our productivity after all. Only time (and perhaps improved measuring techniques) will tell.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

Reference

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