March 1998 - Improving Productivity
Productivity: What is it?
Webster's Dictionary defines "Productivity" as:
The definition of "Productive" is:
To expand a bit on Webster, we define "productivity" for this article as using the energy of people to create better ideas, better products and better working conditions - all leading to abundance for the people involved.
To improve existing productivity means removing existing barriers and energy-wasters that divert valuable resources (people's available energy, time, money, supplies, raw materials, etc.) away from the production of better ideas, better products and better working conditions.
Increasing productivity means being able to generate greater results without more people, more resources, more money, more time or more energy. In other words, learning how to do the work so that less energy is required to produce the same results, producing higher results using the same amount of energy. The result is abundance for everyone.
Productivity: Why is it important?
Energy (or any resource) expended without producing something better is wasted. It cannot be reclaimed once it is gone. If a working environment is such that it sucks the life force (their available energy) out of the people who work there everyday, productivity cannot be improved. Hostile environments not only waste valuable energy, they can do severe damage to people (we've discussed this before).
Why are we concerned about productivity at this time? The last few years have seen major companies reducing their employee headcount without reducing the actual workload. People are struggling to keep functioning under increasing demands from management. Management is struggling to keep functioning under the ever faster pace of business.
This seemingly endless cycle must be broken in order to allow greater productivity and improved results. Most attempts at business re-engineering (BPR) start out with a goal of streamlining the work flow. However, many BPR efforts have had a hidden agenda of eliminating people without really eliminating the work. BPR is now getting some very bad press - some deserved, some undeserved. BPR fails most often is when it does not change the work environment enough to capture the wasted energy of the people involved.
If there is suspicion of management's motives on the part of employees, BPR cannot successfully accomplish a re-alignment of work. Where employees are able to understand the goals and use their energy in positive, creative ways as part of a solution that benefits them, they are able to focus their energy toward management's goals - rather than on protecting themselves or on resistance to management's proposals.
Far too often, employee's goals are not anywhere close to management's goals, leading to a conflicting set of goals that drains people of their energy and available resources. It becomes almost a war of control between management and employees.
In our productivity consulting work, we use the analogy of a group of people lost at sea rowing a boat. "Management" is the captain of the boat and has the ability to see a far away island (management's goals). "Employees" (who have never been at sea before and are trying to row the boat as well as they are able) cannot see the island, but they can see that there is a huge sea all around them filled with sharks. If each employee focuses on rowing based on their own fears, the boat will go in circles and no one will get away from the dangers. When management is able to explain that they do see an island and give appropriate direction and guidance to employees who respect their leadership, management can empower employees to row together toward the island.
Another relatively common approach is for "management" to yell at employees to do better without giving them the tools to do what is being requested. For example, not giving employees oars, not explaining why they want to go a certain way, berating them for not rowing better (when they have never been taught to row), not allowing them rest/food breaks or not helping them learn that working together helps everyone.
Remember: management cannot get to the island without the help of employees, because the island is only visible if management is standing up. If they are standing up, they cannot row the boat themselves. Management's only job in this drama is to keep management's eyes focused on the island and to help employees see it (and believe it ) through their eyes. Employees cannot see the island and must depend on management to give them clear directions about which direction to row. Mutual trust and respect is critical in such an endeavor - key components of any team effort.
What about the sharks in the water? If all employees are watching out for sharks, they are not rowing as well as they can. What to do? The obvious answer is: appoint someone to keep an eye on the sharks. The shark-watcher must be able to do that job, let management and employees know when the sharks are a danger or they must kill them if necessary. Again, placing someone in this position requires a great deal of trust and respect - the entire boat of people may owe their life to this person's efforts.
What if the boat springs a leak? Who is bailing water and who is watching for leaks?
Suppose a sleek new engine-powered boat comes along side your boat and tries to lure
your employees away with promises of a fast route to a safe island containing food, money
and better working conditions? What rewards does management have to offer that will help
keep their existing employees rowing toward a goal they cannot see for themselves?
Take a minute now and think about your own working situation. Are you the manager or an employee?
What is your goal and who must you depend on to get it done?
What types of sharks (or challenges) surround you? How are you dealing with them?
Who is rowing your boat? Who is teaching employees to row together in the right direction?
Who is watching for the island? Are they giving clear instructions to the rowers?
Are the rowers putting all their attention on getting to the island or are they diverted by fear of sharks, or tempted by promises of a better life somewhere else? Or, do they spend all their time complaining about management's inability to lead them?
How much energy is directed toward the common goal of everyone in the boat?
How much energy is wasted in activities, fears and concerns that are not productive?
Why should your employees (rowers) stay in your boat and continue rowing rather than jump ship for a better life somewhere else?
Employee retention has become a severe problem this year, especially in the high-tech areas. During the recession only a few short years ago, job-seekers were plentiful. Today, many companies are finding they cannot get good quality applicants and are having a hard time keeping the employees they already have.
The shortage is due to several converging factors: the extreme pace of growth in all technology sectors, the Internet explosion, the challenges facing companies dealing with Year 2000 issues, and the growing integration of computers and technology into every facet of business. Technical people are coming out of retirement and still there are major shortages of people.
The only true solution to the growing shortage of qualified employees is to increase productivity - to be able to accomplish more results with the same or fewer people. In order for management to be the "eyes" of the rowboat for their employees, they must be able to entice employees to stay with them.
(We have previously discussed changing management/leadership styles, managing different personality types and basic human needs in other newsletters. If you are not familiar with those articles, be sure to read them).
Suggestions for retaining employees:
Remember, employees who like their job work harder. When everyone works harder, everyone in the company benefits. (If everyone does not benefit, productivity will fall). Productivity increases are easiest to obtain when everyone is working toward a common goal that is, everyone is rowing in the same direction.
To all managers who "don't get it":
Managers are only needed when there are employees to manage. If you treat your employees badly, they will leave. They may not all leave at once, and they may not leave tomorrow. But, eventually, they will leave if not treated properly. They have many options. Then, you as a manager become obsolete - there is no reason for the company to keep you. Your very existence depends on your ability to keep your employees working at their highest productivity level. Employees will only do that with proper encouragement and support from management. In the 1990's and into the new millennium, managers need employees much more than employees need managers.
Question: What is Business Process Re-Engineering — Really?
Answer: It's what you have to call a project to get it funded!
Page updated: February 27, 2010
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