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Productivity Knowledge Base: Case Histories

Case #0004: Procedures can improve or undermine productivity

Mike was Chief Operating Officer of a firm that made budget commitments to seeking ISO 9000 certification in the following calendar year. Mike decided to read about this certification process and do some planning. In his research, he discovered that work procedures would figure prominently.

So, he e-mailed each of his Vice Presidents to develop a small pilot project that involved developing written procedures. He then wanted those procedures implemented on a trial basis. He set forth some metrics for evaluating the procedures, such as time saved and errors reduced. He wanted to see monthly results until the end of the year. He told each VP to just pick a department and implement a couple of written procedures for a couple of different functions.

The results were mixed, as expected. But, what Mike did not expect to see was the huge disparity in results. For example, one department showed a productivity decrease of 35%. Another doubled its productivity after going to written procedures. He was stymied. Why such vastly differing results?

When Mike presented his question to the VPs, they had no explanations. So, Mike went to the workers.

First, he went to the department that had the worst results, and talked to everyone using a particular procedure. They all complained that their department manager had written the procedure, but didn't understand the work process. Further, it was overly detailed, poorly organized, and full of grammatical errors. They had problems understanding it, and it also conflicted with the right way to do the job. Because they weren't following the procedure in detail, they worked more slowly to avoid mistakes. But, because they were following its major points, they weren't the right things--they were doing additional steps that weren't necessary.

Next, he went to the department that showed no significant change in productivity and talked to the procedure users there. They all complained that their supervisors and written a procedure round-robbing style, and it was such a "Tower of Babel kind of thing" that they just ignored it.

Then, he went to the department that showed the doubling of productivity. He heard a much different story. Sharon, their VP, had talked to several people before making any assignments. She said she needed to pick one of their coworkers to do the actual writing. She wanted to pick some other folks to tell the writer what to write.

Vickie, as it turns out, had a degree in English. Everyone recommended her for the writing, because she was always talking about the latest book she had read. Bruce, who worked in the department, was the editor of his church's newsletter. When Sharon heard this, she changed her original plan. Vickie would write, and Bruce would copy-edit.

Sharon had asked the supervisors to identify subject matter experts--those employees who consistently got the best results doing this kind of work. Then, she matched the writers with these people. The supervisors were then charged with walking through the completed procedures with someone of "average" ability and looking for holes. Then, the writers got another stab at this.

Mike asked Dalia, a production worker, to see one of the two procedures. Dalia laughed. "We just changed it again. I got to thinking about Step 11.5.3 yesterday, and we all ended up having a little conference here. We just made what looks like an 8% improvement. And so I'd rather wait until the revised copy arrives. That'll be in about 15 minutes. Looks like I'm getting the free dinner this week."

Mike said, "We haven't authorized any free dinners. I mean I'm glad for the improvement, but...."

Dalia stopped him. "Look, ya'll wanted our input, and now you're making twice as much stuff by taking all the best ideas. I didn't say you had authorized a free dinner. I was just hoping to get one."

Mike realized these people were being motivated by something other than a free dinner. And, he saw what it was. Respect. The fact that their management, from the VP on down, had respected them enough to ask their input and keep asking for it meant a great deal to these people. And, they gave accordingly. Mike let Dalia know she had more coming than a $20 dinner. His new budget would reflect that.

The lesson, here? Procedures, best practices, and directions of any sort are only as good as the experience and brainpower put into them. People often standardize procedures without regard to actual conditions. This is a costly mistake. It's also costly to make procedures "set in stone." When the people using the procedures can view those procedures as a starting point for continual improvement, then you will be on the road to maximizing product quality and employee job satisfaction--not just productivity. Fail to make this happen, and you are likely to drop on all three scores.


Disclaimer: In many cases, the names have been changed for various reasons. In no case are we publishing any case that sheds a negative light on any real person or company. Any negative comments related to the name of an actual person or company are purely coincidental.


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Contact me to arrange a time when we can talk about a presentation: mark@mindconnection.com. Why arrange a time? So I can give you full attention during the call. There's a really powerful time management tip. Ask me why it works.