Speed vs. Efficiency: Mutually Exclusive Terms

As counter-intuitive as it seems, operators that focus more on doing things as efficiently as possible rather than as quickly as possible routinely get more done with less effort and/or damage.

On March 8th of this year, it was my pleasure to have acted as the Head Judge of the Columbia Forklift Challenge, a forklift operator competition that has become one of the highlights of the biennial Oregon Governor’s Occupational Safety and Health Conference. This was the 4th such event and as per usual, Craig Hamelund and his merry band of field officers did a tremendous job organizing and putting on the event.

The crux of this article stems from a reply to a comment I made during the course orientation in which I stated that the winners of the day would likely be the most efficient drivers and that they would do well to not confuse speed with efficiency. At that point, one of the competitors replied: “What’s the difference?”

Given the time and place, I kept my answer brief and relative to the event but internally I wondered if drivers out in the real world also struggled with the meaning of speed vs. efficiency. I concluded that given the number of damage/injury-producing incidents involving forklifts, forklift operators do indeed confuse the two.

To clarify the differences, let’s start at ground level by looking at the dictionary definitions of the two terms:


  1. rapidity in moving, going, traveling, proceeding, or performing; swiftness; celerity: the speed of light; the speed of sound.

  2. full, maximum, or optimum rate of motion: the car gets to speed in just nine seconds. 


  1. the state or quality of being efficient, or able to accomplish something with the least waste of time and effort; competency in performance.

  2. accomplishment of or ability to accomplish a job with a minimum expenditure of time and effort: the assembly line increased industry's efficiency.

As per the definitions above, we can see that speed is predicated more on the simple rate of motion of an object while the definition of efficiency encompasses the time and effort within it. In fact, the term “competency in performance” appears within the definition of efficiency which, in terms of forklift operation, cuts right to the heart of the matter.

It’s all well and good for a forklift operator to be fast but if that speed is not blended with efficiency, it often leads to poor performance which, in relation to a forklift driving competition means a poor score but in relation to the real world could also mean damage and injury.

Speed is one dimensional and while it may be useful in some instances such as traveling between tasks with the work attachment lowered, it offers little benefit beyond that. Alternatively, crawling along at a snail's pace may be useful (if not required) in certain situations, however adopting it as standard operating procedure is not likely to lead to victory at a competition or a long career as an operator in the real world.

Ultimately, operators that are able to demonstrate “competency in performance” on a consistent basis are likely to rise to the top regardless of the venue, be it under the bright lights of competition or the serious challenges of the production floor.

The seemingly little decisions efficient operators make throughout the day relating to such things as the best routes between A and B, direction of travel, if and when to increase/decrease travel speed and of course taking a moment (and it only takes a moment) to engage/deposit loads properly all have a significant and cumulative effect on efficiency at the end of the day as they do not need to waste valuable time and effort correcting the things that usually occur when speed is the sole concern.

As counter-intuitive as it seems, operators that focus more on doing things as efficiently as possible rather than as quickly as possible routinely get more done with less effort and/or damage and every now and then, they even win competitions.

Rob Vetter
Director of Training
IVES Training Group

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