“Optimize” means “make the best of it”
I read an article that suggested people think "optimizing" and efficiency efforts are synonymous with cost-cutting and worker burnout. I am surprised and disappointed; optimizing, by my definition, is positive. If you don't like the outcomes of an effort to optimize, don't blame the process, blame the criteria.
I grew up with a dad who specializes in optimization. Here's how I have already understood it: to optimize is to minimize or maximize a set of criteria given specific constraints. We can use math and economics to find "optimal" solutions to hard problems. But we can also use reason, discussion, qualitative descriptions, and more. Organizations trying to be the best they can be are "optimizing."
So why is the term viewed in a negative light? Optimizing gets a bad rep for two reasons. First, people disagree about what criteria constitutes "best." Second, failing to measure the important criteria.
On disagreements about what is best: An R&D leader may choose to optimize for speed while holding quality constant, whereas a project manager may believe it's important to focus on quality up front, even if it takes longer. The R&D leader weighs the criteria (i.e., speed and quality) higher than the project manager.
On measuring the criteria: Worker burnout is often unmeasured. The R&D project manager may understand that if the engineers are pushed for speed, they will burn out before the end of the project, leading to quality failures. Burnout isn't measured, yet it is a criterion that could lead to project failure. Formal measurement of burnout isn't common, because it is usually "measured" through human connections and interaction. But if burnout is a major problem in R&D teams and an R&D leader wants to make a systematic fix in a large organization, she may need a measure for burnout. Otherwise, systemic error is likely.
Optimizing is only as good as the criteria and the measurements.
~Shannon, the Optimistic Optimizer
Ps. I'll address measuring the seemingly unmeasurable in the future. Meanwhile, here's my favorite measurement. Bhuttan's gross national happiness.