Ye gods: an efficient orchestra!

3 October 2014

I didn’t write this. I found it many years ago, and have used it to the great amusement of many groups.1

A young, enthusiastic student was finally given the opportunity to apply his learning. He was asked to carry out a survey of a group with which he was not normally familiar and submit recommendations as to how its efficiency could be increased. He selected as his target a symphony orchestra. Having read up on the tools of the trade, he attended his first concert and submitted the following analysis:

  1. For considerable periods, the four oboe players had nothing to do. The number of oboes should therefore be reduced, and the work spread more evenly over the whole concert program, thus eliminating the peaks and valleys of activity.
  2. All twenty violins were playing identical notes. This would seem to be an unnecessary duplication, so the staff of this section should be cut drastically.
  3. Obsolescence of equipment is another matter warranting further investigation. The program noted that the leading violinist’s instrument was several hundred years old. Now, if normal depreciation schedules had been applied, the value of this instrument would have been reduced to zero and the purchase of more modern equipment recommended long ago.
  4. Much effort was absorbed in the playing of demisemiquavers, which seems to be an unnecessary refinement. It is recommended that all notes be rounded up to the nearest semiquaver. If this were done, it would be possible to use trainees and lower-grade operatives more extensively.
  5. In many cases, the operators were using one hand to hold their instruments. The introduction of a fixture would free that hand for other work. Also, it was noted that excessive effort was being used by the players of wind instruments whereas one compressor could supply enough air for all the instruments – and under more accurately controlled conditions.
  6. Finally, there seemed to be too much repetition of some of the musical passages. Therefore, scores should be pruned to a considerable extent. No useful purpose is served by repeating on the horns something that has already been handled by the strings. It is estimated that, if all redundant passages were eliminated, the whole concert time of two hours could be reduced to twenty minutes and there would be no need for an intermission.

If this student had instead chosen a factory, nobody would be laughing, perhaps least of all the people in that factory. This, in other words, is no laughing matter. So what to do about it (good luck):

First, keep away from influence people who barely understand the situation they are in. This includes, not only such students, but also too many consultants and CEOs. (More on this in later TWOGs.)

Second (also to come in another TWOG), there are species of organizations just as there are species of animals. Don’t mix them up. After all, orangutans are different from foxes, just as orchestras are different from factories.

Intended to come next Friday: A TWOG on that dirty word “efficiency.”

1. Published more or less as above in the mid 1950s, in an American professor’s bulletin, a Canadian military journal, and Harper’s Magazine, based on an anonymous memorandum that circulated in London and was probably published originally in Her Majesty’s Treasury of the Courts.