|One of the
themes that comes up in productivity discussions with managers is the
"need" to get more work out of their people. They talk about
such things as multi-tasking, adding responsibilities, shortening
breaks, providing output incentives, and tightening performance
standards (raising quotas, raising the bar, raising expectations). This
approach is not only completely misguided, it’s a counterproductive
waste of resources.
One underlying assumption of this approach is that productivity would
rise if only people would decide to work harder. Another underlying
assumption is that if you overload people with more work, they’ll find
ways to be more efficient. Neither assumption holds up under the light
of examination. So, let’s examine some things.
- Multitasking. Oh, this sounds great. Have people do two or more
things at once. The problem here is the brain is a limited device.
When you tap an area of the brain that handles a certain type of
activity (e.g., processing visual information), it will have to
select one task or another because it can do only one thing at a
time. This is why people can’t engage in serious conversation and
drive safely at the same time. Multitasking is vastly over-rated and
usually results in lower output. Its opposite, focus, produces
superior results efficiently. We all know this, because we
concentrate when we take tests, but somehow the idea of multitasking
still gets credibility as a productivity enhancer. For the most
part, it is a productivity killer.
- Adding responsibilities. The "thought" here is giving
people more work to do and calling it "added
responsibility" will somehow inspire them to get more done. In
reality, this does not result in more work. Those so burdened simply
don’t do some of the things they are asked to do, and/or they
lower the quality of what they do so they can fit more completed
activities into their schedule. A coffee cup holds eight ounces of
liquid. Pouring 10 ounces into it will not result in more than 8
ounces of liquid in the cup. The next time you are tempted to
overload people, keep that in mind.
- Shortening breaks. A construction manager noticed that
electricians and were taking 20 minute breaks, and other trades were
at 15 or 20 minues. The job had 75 electricians on it. This manager
did the math and saw some big dollar signs from cutting the breaks
in half. So, that’s what he did. Work output did not increase. In
fact, it went down Why? The electricians had a tough job. Those
breaks allowed them time to rest their overworked forearms, talk
shop about problems they were looking at, and even make personal
phone calls on their cell phones. With the 20-minute breaks, they
had more energy for their work and they concentrated better on it.
With the 10-minute breaks, the electricians eliminated the shop talk
(and thus the problem-solving and team-building) so they could make
their personal calls or "just chill." Plus, the perception
of no rest cause by such a short break caused them to pace
themselves through the day. The resultant drop in output was about
20%. Breaks are not a concession gained by lazy workers. They are a
necessary part of the human work experience.
- Providing output incentives. These range from plaques and
certificates to cash awards and promotions. While awarding such
things to recognize outstanding performance is good, awarding them
for working like a dog is not. When overworked, people burn out.
Trying to build a culture that rewards people for burning out is
counterproductive, and the results are unsustainable. A better
approach is to reward people for working smart. Reward them for
applying their intelligence, not brute force. So, Joe comes up with
a labor-saving new way to do a job—now, everyone can be more
efficient and total productivity goes up. But if Joe merely worked
harder, something will have to give eventually and productivity will
drop. For example, Joe very hard works for years and one day
realizes this hasn’t gotten him anything but a few plaques. So, he
starts getting a negative attitude. Such attitudes are infectious.
The bottom line with incentives is they must take a long-term view
or you are better off not using them.
- Tightening performance standards. Susan met her quota each day,
and put together a string of quarters where she got the quota bonus.
So, the company raised the bar so she would no longer get the bonus.
Her output dropped. That’s one way managers ineffectively tighten
performance standards. Another way is by taking a perfectly good
employee aside and saying something like, "Your performance
needs to improve." If that person feels s/h is already giving
100%, this approach is very de-motivating. It causes insecurity, and
it leads employees to cheat. They will, for example, find ways to
give the impression of getting more done without actually doing more
(because they can’t do more). They may lower their quality
standards, or they may take some other detrimental action. The idea
that intimidating people into doing more by simply demanding more is
somehow good management is simply a wrong idea.
A better way
So, if these things don’t work then what should you do? The answer
lies in changing your underlying assumptions. The problems with
productivity are not usually with the worker. The problems, instead, lie
in barriers managers can remove. Here are some key areas to address:
- Training. While training is not the answer to everything, it can
often improve productivity and quality. When people gain skills,
improve their knowledge of the process, or learn more efficient ways
of doing things, they can get more done in the same amount of time.
- Procedures. If you don’t have work procedures, that’s your
first mistake. If you do have procedures, go through them and look
for such things as wasted steps, unclear language, improper steps,
and improperly ordered steps. A mechanical engineer changed a
manufacturing procedure by simply changing the order of the steps—and
he increased output by 20% while decreasing scrap by %3,000!
- Front office. The job of the front office is to facilitate the
smooth flow of work, invoices, and customer transactions. They are
an interface for the workers, management, customers, and vendors.
Train and equip your front office with this in mind, and you’ll
see many frustrations and inefficiencies disappear from the field.
- Back office. Your accounting systems, databases, CAD archives,
phone system, and other back office infrastructure should be
transparent to your staff and field crews. Penny pinching in this
area can prove very costly. For example, Robert is supervising a
crew when the customer asks about
- Tools. Many companies "save money" by limiting purchases
on computers, software, bar coding systems, and other money-saving
automation tools. They'll use old printers that require constant
fussing to make a decent hard copy, or provide old laptops to their
field crews so their crews take two or three times as long to do a
task. They'll even "save money" buy not providing the
biggest laptop batteries for their field crews, not providing
adequate data transfer and backup systems, and so on. That's just
the information side of things--you can almost forgive
decision-makers on the grounds of not being computer-savvy. But when
they deprive work crews of quality tools with which to get the job
done efficiently--that's just insanity. Make it a priority to keep
your crews equipped with the tools that improve output volume and
quality--rather than the tools you can get by with. These tools
include test equipment, safety gear, power tools, ladders, and
vehicles. When it comes to hand tools, most shops require
craftspeople to provide their own. But don't be so strict on
"not providing" that your crews are "making do."
It might be wise to give them a tool allowance or simply provide
"consumable" (high wear) tools such as punches.
- Onsite management. While it may seem like a great idea to promote
your star electrician to a field supervisor position, don't blindly
follow this tradition. Some folks are cut out to be great skill
users, while others are cut out to be great managers. Some aren't
cut out for either. Promote people based on their ability to do the
new job, not on their ability to do the old one. To make this happen
properly, you need to provide a means for your people to develop
"next level" abilities. You can give them vouchers for
training (online, seminars, self-study, or college courses). You can
also provide your own training--but understand it's going to be
worthless unless it is structured. Chart out a path for promotion,
and those who want a promotion will understand how to get one. Those
who don't want a promotion will understand how promotions are made
and are more likely to respect their first-line and higher managers.
Your onsite managers will have the training and confidence to do a
good job, as opposed to the traditional "bungle your way
through it" approach. Invest in proper onsite management of
your jobs, and you'll see productivity rise. Boost it even further
by creating a mentoring system to complement your training system
for these rising stars.
Of course, there is much more to it than this. But now you have a
good start on how to dramatically increase the productivity in your
organization. Starting, however, is not enough. That’s why we offer
our productivity seminars.