Time Management Expert, Event Speaker: Mark Lamendola

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Productivity Knowledge Base Why Working Harder Doesn't Work

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.



Do you want to radically improve how well people in your organization make use of the limited number of hours in each work day?

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.