While numerous reports have sought ways of improving the efficiency of surgical operating lists, none has defined ‘efficiency’. We describe a formula that defines efficiency as incorporating three elements: maximising utilisation, minimising over-running and minimising cancellations on a list. We applied this formula to hypothetical (but realistic) scenarios, and our formula yielded plausible descriptions of these. We also applied the formula to 16 consecutive elective surgical lists from three gynaecology teams (two at a university hospital and one at a non-university hospital). Again, the formula gave useful insights into problems faced by the teams in improving their performance, and it also guided possible solutions. The formula confirmed that a team that schedules cases according to the predicted durations of the operations listed (i.e. the non-university hospital team) suffered fewer cancellations (median 5% vs 8% and 13%) and fewer list over-runs (6% vs 38% and 50%), and performed considerably more efficiently (90% vs 79% and 72%; p = 0.038) than teams that did not do so (i.e. those from the university hospital). We suggest that surgical list performance is more completely described by our formula for efficiency than it is by other conventional measures such as list utilisation or cancellation rate alone.