The #3 Pencil Principle

An office where people were filling out forms all day hired an efficiency consultant to review their business. The consultants found that the workers were using #2 pencils to fill out their forms. The soft graphite of the #2 pencils was easier to erase, but worn down faster. This meant the workers needed to sharpen their pencils more often and that the pencils didn’t last as long as they could.

The consultants figured the amount of money the company was spending on pencils and the amount of time the workers spent sharpening their pencils instead of working. The recommendation came back:  get harder #3 pencils for the workers instead. The harder graphite wouldn’t wear down as fast meaning that the workers wouldn’t use as many pencils and spend as much time sharpening them. There would be more money in the budget from buying less pencils and more time to fill out more forms. The consultants anticipated a 10% decrease in the pencil budget and a 10% increase in productivity.

After a year of #3 pencils, the efficiency consultants came back to check the actual results. They found an almost 100% decrease in the pencil budget and no increase in productivity. When they went to investigate, they found stock rooms full of unopened boxes of #3 pencils.

They asked the workers what was happening. This is when they found that workers hated the #3 pencils because the harder graphite meant they had to press hard to make a darker mark and it was very hard to erase mistakes. Instead of using the #3 pencils provided, the workers were buying and using their own #2 pencils.

This life and leadership strategy teaches us that making things harder on people rarely increases productivity. If you make something too hard, people won’t do it.

This strategy can be used two ways.

First, if you want something to happen you need to make it easy. Get rid of the bureaucracy that keeps your team from accomplishing their goals. Be easily accessible to your family and your community. Don’t spend the same amount of time to set up a meeting that it would take to just have the needed conversation on the spot. Don’t send an attachment that needs opened in an email if you can just type it in the body. 

Second, if you don’t want something to happen but you don’t want to look like a dictator by forbidding it you can make it a little harder. A little bit of bureaucracy can discourage people from wasting their time on things they haven’t realized aren’t needed or productive. This can apply to our work, our community, and our families. Add a form that needs filled out before money can be spent or some optional chores that need done before your teenager can borrow your car.

Take the time to evaluate if you’ve added #3 pencil-obstacles for your team or family without realizing it. You could have undermined your productivity without even realizing it.

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