A study in inefficiency (or: Why outsourcing to cheap locations tend to take double the amount of time)

A study in inefficiency (or: Why outsourcing to cheap locations tend to take double the amount of time)

During the fall break I took my kids to a week in the sun in Turkey. We went on an all-inclusive charter trip to Alanya with a really nice hotel complex, great pool situated right at the beach. Since everything from coffee, ice cream and drinks was all-inclusive we had a great time relaxing and enjoying our selves. We’ll since there seems to be something wrong with my relaxation gene I soon started to get restless. So I started to look around me and noticed a really interesting work taking place. The gardeners.

The plot

A few meters from me two gardeners where trimming a 10 m long hedge. It was a small hedge about 1,2 m high and 40 cm wide. When I started watching them they had cut about 1,5 m on one of the sides and where both gathering the cut leaves and branches that had piled up under the hedge. One of them was gathering leaves and the other one was sweeping up behind him. What struck me was that everything seemed to be done in slow motion. The man picking up leaves and branches took them branch by branch. Sometimes he paused to put the trimmer on the other side of the hedge just to take it back to the same side again a few minutes later, seemingly pointless.

The build up

After a while another gardener came and joined them. The three of them looked really busy but after 15 minutes no more than 1,5 m of one of the hedges sides were cut and there was still a lot of branches on the ground. Then another gardener joined them and started picking leaves with his hands where the other three had already been picking and swiping. Now, you might think that this low activity was due to the heat but let me clear that up at once. It was the last week of October, of season, 26 °C (roughly 79 °F) in the air and not that sunny. So, no.

The crescendo

The four gardeners were all working in slow motion, basically doing nothing, when another worker came by. He was obviously in charge of sweeping the paved walks around the hotel area. He stopped, started sweeping some leaves that had blown onto the paved walks. After a while he took out 5 bottles of water and offered four to the other workers and they all sat down to have a well deserved break. Now, about 30 minutes later another 0,5 m of the hedge was cut. This break went on for about 10-15 minutes. After that they started working in slow motion again.
When everything was done it had taken 4 men 2 hours to trim a 10 m long hedge. There were branches and leaves all over the place and the hedge didn’t look that nice.

My reflections

I have a similar hedge, but a bit bigger, at home so I started thinking about how long it usually takes me to trim and clean up. I estimated it to take me 20-30 minutes when I do it alone and 10 minutes when someone helps me clean up. And then my hedge looks spotless, even though I’m not a gardener.

This whole incident got me thinking about the times when I have outsourced work to cheap locations or contractors. The effect is very often that it takes 2-4 times longer and the quality is 80-50% of in house work. I’m not saying that this is a rule but it’s definitely something to consider when you are outsourcing. It might be a good idea to use a local consultant for critical work or even considering to hire a person. The quality of the outcome is almost linear to the control you have over the resource.