IN TOUCH : Comment on Productivity – the answer to what question?

Hear the term ‘productivity’ and in your mind’s eye you see boffins in white coats with clipboards and stopwatches examining and recording how long it takes someone to carry out task.
The danger with this picture is that we miss the key points of what makes someone productive: it is not the time that task takes, but rather more complex understanding of the combination of effort, commitment and enthusiasm with which the task is undertaken and completed. This greater understanding allows the development of workplace culture that not only encourages greater productivity but takes satisfaction from achieving more with less.
Productivity is becoming an increasingly critical focus for organisations that are unable to fill the vacancies or are otherwise limited in the number of staff available to do the work. Essentially, it’s an embodiment of the philosophy of “if you can’t get more people, look to how you can get more out of the ones that you have”.
The New Zealand Engagement Study, conducted by Gallup in 2005, found that only 17 percent of people working here are engaged at work, providing their employers with high levels of productivity, profitability and customer service. In other words, 70 percent of your staff are operating in “cruise mode”, doing enough to get by but often, no more. The remaining 13 percent are not just unhappy, they are actively working to undo what other staff are accomplishing.
The survey found fewer New Zealand workers were engaged at work compared to its 2002 survey. Then, it found 23 percent of workers were committed to their job and were highly productive.
Here’s thought: imagine if another 25 percent of your staff operated at 80 percent rather than at 40 percent or even 50 percent – what would that do for productivity, for the bottom line, for sense of achievement? What strategic objectives could be achieved that you are currently unable to resource?
A recent article in the NZ Herald reported that New Zealanders habitually work longer hours than workers in other OECD countries. The obvious corollary is that while they may be at work, it does not mean that they are as productive as they could be. Internet sites such as
TradeMe, Facebook, Bebo seem to be visited by workers during work hours, in other words cyberslacking. Just because someone is tapping away at the keyboard, it is not necessarily work related.
The “Better Work, Working Better” project, joint enterprise between Government, business groups and the unions, has been underway since 2000. The driving rationale is that if New Zealand wants to be competitive in knowledge world, then we have to lift our performance and our productivity. The project identified seven drivers of improving productivity:
• Building leadership and management capability
• Creating productive workplace cultures
• Encouraging innovation and the use of technology
• Investing in people and skills
• Organising work
• Networking and collaboration
• Measuring what matters.
While the development of strategies and programmes to implement these drivers fall into the HR sphere, it is clear that they must be led and supported by the chief executive and senior management. The challenge is to convince them that their people are capable of producing more than they currently are. The even bigger challenge is for them to accept that their leadership and the cultures that they create in the workplace are major contributing factors to encouraging more productive work ethic.
In the absence of hard data, particularly financial data, it can be difficult to move some managers from their current view of their staff and productivity as being acceptable. It is also tempting to look for short-term productivity stimuli such as the use of technology, which may be more appealing than recognising their own contribution to the problem and changing themselves. Yet worldwide drop in productivity, which began in the ’80s, corresponds with the increase in the use of technology in the workplace. Perhaps the technology provided is simply allowing staff easier access to TradeMe and Facebook rather than being used as tool to lighten workloads or improve efficiencies.
Yet we have seen some New Zealand organisations that have made huge productivity leaps. In general, they’ve done this by taking an organisation-wide approach, well led from the top, to engage their people in the vision. They’ve looked at developing staff and creating culture of excellence driven by the individual and the team rather than forced from above.
When people know where they are going, and have been involved in planning how to get there and when good and open communication provides feedback and reinforcement on their activities, motivation increases and productivity improves. It tells us the solutions are in leadership, employee engagement, staff development and understanding that staff are motivated by different things.
The statistics, study results and anecdotal evidence are compelling. In the long run, our workplaces are just not as productive as we think. But, when organisations and leaders accept the scope of the problem and take responsibility and steps to address the key drivers of productivity, the spin-off in engagement, retention and bottom-line profits is demonstrable. All it takes is recognition of the issue, an objective eye on the organisation and courage to ask the hard questions and make the hard calls.

Paul Stevenson is from the Grafton Consulting Group – NZ-owned consultancy that assists organisations and their people to improve their performance.

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