I recently attended a Legal Lean Sigma training course, and I tweeted that I had gotten a great deal out of the course.  Someone whom I respect a great deal tweeted back: "Pat, for real?  Yikes.  Efficiency kills innovation.  Effectiveness always trumps efficiency.  Use client selection and right price."  I was, to put it mildly, surprised by this comment.  Effectiveness always trumps efficiency?  I didn’t realize that the choice was one or the other.  And, in reality, the choices are not mutually exclusive.  Effectiveness obtained efficiently is always going to be better than effectiveness obtained through a meandering, wasteful path.  I can’t imagine much debate about this point.  Certainly from a profit margin standpoint, driving down the cost of production is always going to improve your margin.

The real issue is whether efficiency kills innovation.  I asked my Twitter friend for evidence and got anecdotes.  Obviously, anything pushed to an extreme has the potential to yield silly results.  Some anecdotes support that notion.  And if you begin with the premise that efficiency is the ultimate objective, I can see the risk of the "checklist mentality."  But particularly in a small organization, there is no need to be forced to pick one or the other.

Here is the event that convinced me of the importance of both efficiency and innovation. An adversary filed a set of interrogatories.  One of our fantastic associates in an effort to impress, prepared a set of answers, worked with the client to make sure things were in order and gave them to me for final review.  I read the answers and quickly realized that the efforts to object or shield information was exactly contrary to the way I wanted to try the case.  All of the early work was wasted.  So we built into our process handling a requirement that before time is spent answering interrogatories, there needs to be a meeting of the case team, including the lead trial lawyer, to discuss the responses and how they fit into the case theory.  Typically a very short meeting, but it ensures everyone is on the same page.  I can’t for the life of me see how this process improvement limits innovation.  In fact, experience is the discussions breed innovation and improvement in our approach to some cases.

Since litigation is governed by rules, it only makes sense to build processes to insure the rules are followed precisely, every time.  No time should be spent exploring how to satisfy the rules since processes are in place.  Following the rules is not "knowledge work," but it is important.  And so there is a role for process management even in an area most susceptible to creative thinking, litigation.

It also seems to me that every knowledge worker looks for ways to be more efficient on the parts of their work that are not knowledge work.  An accountant may exercise great creativity, but they want their addition and subtraction to be right every time and fast, so they use a calculator.  Programs are created to help tax accountants more quickly process returns.  That doesn’t mean that they are not knowledge workers or that they do not exercise judgment.  It means that every job includes some measure of process.

This phobic disdain for process as part of even customized work is widespread, but I have to confess to not understanding it.  Let me offer this example.  ABC Company decides to acquire another company.  Having never handled a transaction, all of my work on the deal would be entirely customized—pure knowledge work at every level.  For one the elite M&A firms on Wall Street, this would be another in a long line of deals of this sort that the firm has handled.  Where does the client go?  To the experienced Wall Street firm, and rightly so.  Their experience means everything.  From the firm’s standpoint, it needs processes to draw on the collective experience, and it is plainly better if those processes are efficient rather than not.  The fact that even an elite M&A firm has processes does not mean that what its lawyers do on the deal is not knowledge work.  The judgment exercised to know which precedent to draw on and which to supplant is critical knowledge work, and is the creation of work product that is novel.  But even in the midst of all that customized knowledge work, there are processes at play.  

False choices, such as between innovation and efficiency, do not advance the ball.  Both should be areas of desired improvement.


  • Great post. I know the proponent of ‘effectiveness over efficiency’ and I’ve never understood why there must be a choice. Identifiying efficiencies can be very difficult and often leads to innovations in process, and that often leads to better effectiveness in a number of areas. Innovators are efficient and effective.

  • Efficiency is relative. When it comes to preparing deal documents, the elite M&A firms aren’t models of efficiency (or effectiveness). That’s something I discussed in a 2008 article, available at http://www.adamsdrafting.com/downloads/nylj-cerberus-021908.pdf.

  • Patrick,
    I liked your post and shared an excerpt of it with my key team members to reinforce the importance of “process” even in a professional knowledge firm. I particularly liked that you noted not every activity within a professional knowledge firm is necessarily “knowledge work.”
    I’m sure you know your blog post was noted in a VeraSage post at the link shown below. I commented there in support of your post, so check that out. (It may take a little while for my comment to be posted as the site is moderated).