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Efficiency, Quality, Value And Soul

A new public hospital is opening in Perth this week and along with cutting edge medical facilities patients can expect a state-of-the-art “free-roaming food delivery robots”. Our local newspaper reported that, “The 300kg AGVs will deliver up to 2200 meals a day, directly to wards without human intervention, once they leave the kitchen.” The theory being that quality will be improved if the time between cooking and delivery is reduced.

The system is efficient and if the temperature of the meal when it reaches the patient is the measure of quality then this high tech solution wins—but do absolute improvements in quality always increase value?

A hospital administrator who can point to savings and reduced labour costs over time has data to prove efficiencies. It’s assumed that efficiency and value go hand in hand. But value is subjective, not absolute and in many business settings we underestimate the value of things that we cannot measure. We know that even expert opinions of quality can be subjective. Yes, it’s true that wine labels really do change the perception of the contents of the bottle.

Perhaps the value, or even the enjoyment of the meal served to a sick person can’t be measured by how quickly it was served? Maybe how it got there, who brought it and how they interacted with the patient matters too? Often the people who get closest to patients in hospital wards are not the highly qualified medical team who treat, or specialist nurses who monitor—they are the people who carry out the routine tasks of wiping down bedside lockers, filling water jugs and delivering meals.

It’s easy to argue for more humanity when we’re talking about how we design environments and public services for people when they are at their most vulnerable. But the efficiency vs. soul conundrum is worth considering in relation to products we create and services we sell.

Remember back to the first time you used an iPod and contrast that with your experience of an MP3 player of the time. What you probably sensed was the intention behind the design. Imperceptible details that made the iPod more than something that was simply functional. You knew that a person who cared had tried to experience the world through your (the future user’s) eyes and thus created more than a utilitarian device.

The interesting thing about many of the successful upstart businesses born from the digital revolution we are living in, like Warby Parker, Airbnb, Uber and Task Rabbit is that despite being predominantly digital businesses they have found ways to put the humanity and soul back into service industries that had been stripped of those things, often for the sake of efficiency.

It turns out that imperfect people like us don’t always want the most perfect of solutions. When we have a choice, we choose and value soul over efficiency almost every single time.

William Bruce Cameron’s words have never felt more relevant than they do today.

“It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”


Thanks to my son Kieran for nutting this one out with me and for being the amazing person he is—one who talks about nurturing food and phones having soul.

Image by Emily Barney.