Saturday, 22 September 2018

Robots Good?


I was musing about robots recently - as one does ... and started thinking about the sociology of such devices. Humans in a work situation can be excellent performers as  individuals but the real performance gains come when humans are organised into cooperative and collaborative teams.

Will the same be true for robots?

Are robot designers and manufacturers building ‘social skills’. Into their robots. Modern AI and machine learning approaches should make this possible. If robots could organise themselves into cooperative and collaborative groups, we may be astonished at the productivity gains we see.

 AI is quite a controversial area with many observers and commentators nervous about the potential threats in the future from sentient, intelligent (though artificial) beings.

With the potential for cooperative abilities built in, we might see autonomous workgroups ... but sometime in the future could we see robot ‘trades unions’ and even robot armies. 

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Think before you count.


I read a piece the other day on the use of productivity measures for academic staff. The measures were all about output quantity (presumably with the proviso that papers wouldn’t be published if they didn’t meet quality criteria). However what matters is not quantity of output or quality of output but the impact of that output - how is thinking or practice changed as a result. 

This is difficult to measure as truly innovative and original ideas could take years to achieve their full impact. But attempting to judge it - even subjectively - might be a better measure than simply counting it. 

Productivity measures can be quite difficult to establish in certain contexts but we should be as creative with our measures as we are with our productivity improvements. 

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Intelligent life.

Artificial Intelligence is said to be set to revolutionise many sectors. Is this a force for productivity gains or just a threat to jobs?

Well, as the Australian Productivity Commission said recently, technology has over time created many more jobs than it has replaced.  But like Moore’s law, most technology trends eventually come to a juddering halt. So, AI might destroy more jobs than it creates.

If so, we will need to change how we distribute and share wealth - the fruits of productivity. Wealth inequality has been growing over the last 20 years. We have seen very few experiments in halting, or even slowing, it.

Yet, unless we find a way of ensuring that the many without work share the gains made by the few in work, society seems doomed.

Of course I could be wrong. (I often am.) Ai might create a range if jobs that we haven’t even thought about yet ... and we will continue our march of inequality to ....???

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Go Retro

Modern workplaces seem antagonistic to efficient working and productivity.  They are noisy, stressful, full of constant chatter. constant interruptions from telephones, streams of emails and so on.

Perhaps its time to turn the clock back.  Get rid of some of the technology. Start to think about the workers, not the kit. We know that productivity is all about people - let's show them we believe that by thinking about their needs. 

Let's give them the time and space they need to be productive and creative.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

A Good Start


Most of us try to organise our working day to maximise performance and efficiency. Yet for many of us that day can be ruined before it really starts. 

If we rise and start worrying about what we should wear (which tie?) and then have a stressful commute, we have drained some of our precious potential energy.

So start your working day the night before. Plan your wardrobe, plan your commute (including the distractions from the stress - your music, podcast or reading material). 

Smile at your fellow commuters ... you will get smiles back and feel better.

Arrive at work ready to go and hit the ground running by attacking an agenda you established before you left yesterday.

A good start is so important.

Saturday, 18 August 2018

Rule number 7

If you want the real secret to productivity development, it is ...

Well, the most important factor is to always, always remember rule number 7 - train and develop your staff, and treat them well.  They really are your most important resource - the source of your innovation, your improvement, your quality.

What about rules 1 to 6, I hear you ask.   They don't exist - but the one true rule is so important it needs a number like 7 ... and I guarantee you are more likely to remember it because it is rule number 7.

So, start practising it, today.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Backup

We all know he importance of backing up the work we do on computer - even if we don't always practise what we know we should.

We also know we should have some form of backup service for the primary services and technologies we use - this can be expensive however, to maintain services we will hopefully never use.

Like all 'insurance' we have to weigh the risks with the costs and take rational decisions. What we must not do is to pretend the problem /issue does not exist and fail to plan.

If we have staff waiting around because core systems are not working, it can be very expensive.



Saturday, 4 August 2018

What really matters?

When giving talks to people about productivity, I often express my amazement - and my worry - that governments spend a lot of time working on the wrong things.

For example, in the UK at the current time, Brexit has been dominating the time of Parliament  and the Cabinet.

Brexit is important- but it doesn't solve any of the UK's underlying productivity problems.

Government needs to do what we all have to do - sort out the urgent from the important - and make sure longer-term planning is not forgotten for the sake of short-term expediency.

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Productive Education

I read a piece the other day on the use of productivity measures for academic staff. The measures were all about output quantity (presumably with the proviso that papers wouldn’t be published if they didn’t meet quality criteria). However what matters is not quantity of output or quality of output but the impact of that output - how is thinking or practice changed as a result. This is difficult to measure as truly innovative and original ideas could take years to achieve their full impact. But attempting to judge it - even subjectively - might be a better measure than simply counting it.


Productivity measures can be quite difficult to establish in certain contexts but we should be as creative with our measures as we are with our productivity improvements. 

Saturday, 14 July 2018

An even more bizzarre suggestion

I am quite used to seeing strange suggestions for improving personal productivity - often tied to an app someone is trying to sell me.  But the one I saw the other day 'takes the biscuit'.

It is based on the fact that some people think they are more productive working from a coffee shop rather than working from home (fewer - or at least different - distractions).

(Of course whether they really are more productive is probably debatable to say the least.)

A new app - Coffitivity - plays you the ambient sounds of a coffee shop for those occasions when you can't actually get there. It comes with a range of coffee shop sounds and claims to boost your creativity.

I haven't used it - so I won't pass judgement ... except to say this is the weirdest productivity app I have heard of so far ... unless you know better, of course.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Does technology harm or help productivity?

Silly question, isn't it?

Well no. If you could monitor what your staff are 'working' on all the time, you would find that many book holidays, contact their medical practitioner, look for theatre schedules - and so on ... all in your time.

They work more productively on task perhaps but the time they gain they treat as their own.

I am not suggesting you put sophisticated monitoring software on their PCs - they would only use their phones...  but that you recognise these unintended consequences of introducing technology.

The same is true of other technologies - what we expect to gain we often do ... but we might lose other elements to the technology - and the net gain might be less than we expect. When you do the sums, factor in unintended negative consequences. If the sums still work, go ahead.  if the negative consequences don't arise - you get a premium!

Saturday, 30 June 2018

The paperless office at last?

Most of us believe that technology has a good track record in improving productivity.

But there have been many promised futures that did not come about.  Think 'the paperless office' for one.  This was first mooted back in the 1960s and every decade or so, someone promotes the concept again (normally scanner manufacturers).

Well, mindful of stepping onto a burning platform, I think - finally - the time might be nigh.  Scanners - yes! but more so -cheap storage ... especially cloud storage, accessible from anywhere in the world - could be the real key.  Add in effective search mechanisms to find the documents in that cloud and we might have a winning formula.

Oh, and of course we have a generation of users brought up in the digital era - who are quite used to reading things off screens.

A perfect storm?

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Not whether, but how?

All nations want to increase their productivity.  This makes them more competitive, brings rewards for citizens and allows society to develop.

The problem is that no-one is quite sure how it can be achieved.

There seem to be as many solutions (or strategies) as there are nations.

Is there a simple answer?

No!  It is right that each nation tackles the problem from their own context and their own starting point.

Beyond that there will be obvious similarities - build a macroeconomic environment that supports small businesses, build transport and technology infrastructure, educate and train the workforce, support innovation - all simple in principle but not quite a simple in practice, especially when scaled up to national level.

However, at least (and at last) we are seeing positive efforts to address the issue of productivity.

Let's hope at least some of them work - for all our sakes.


Saturday, 2 June 2018

Employ a questioner

Several years ago, Peter Drucker noted that if most organisations increased their productivity by 10% it would double their profits.   At that time, 10% seemed achievable.  Now, firms are lucky to achieve 5% - and nations feel good if they move into positive figures.

What has changed?

Not a lot, actually - but firms seem to have lost the 'secret' to improving productivity.

By 'secret', of course I mean adopting a consistent, structured approach to planning and executing productivity improvement projects.  Where are the industrial engineers and work study engineers of yesteryear?  Gone!  Managers are expected to improve productivity as part of the day job.  But they are busy people - and they are too immersed in what is going on.  They cannot stand back and take a dispassionate view.  They cannot ask themselves the hard questions.

We need independent experts who have the skills and the time to take the hard view, to ask the questions, to think about solutions, to evaluate those solutions and to draw up implementation plans.  This cannot be done in spare time - it is too important.


Saturday, 26 May 2018

Why aren't firms more innovative?

We hold innovative firms up to the light- as rare, glorious examples.

Most organisations have a number of creative people - whether or not in avowedly creative roles.

When these creative people come up with ideas that could become innovations - the ideas tend to be evaluated too early and too harshly.  Evaluators look for ways in which the idea could fail rather than looking for ways in which the idea could succeed.

Some products will fail because they are not technically feasible - they don’t do what it was thought they would do.  Others will fail because they are financially not viable - they cost too much or will fail to generate sufficient additional revenue.

However, the biggest killer of innovation is a lack (rarely explicit) of organisational feasibility. It just doesn’t fit with what we do - or how we do things. We don’t have a department where it fits.

If you have good ideas, treat them kindly - look for ways to make them fit and make them work. Otherwise you are never going to innovate.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

India's difficult task

India is often cited as the next major economic powerhouse - perhaps even overtaking China.  This is based on India's recent record in moving up the international GDP league.

However, look just below the surface and you will see that this impressive growth has largely been fuelled by widening employment participation.  India has been very good at creating jobs.  It has been significantly less successful in creating productivity.  India's GDP per worker is very low. This is OK for growth in certain sectors but limits India's ability to compete in some sectors - and in overall terms.

India knows it has to improve and increase skills - and is trying to find ways of doing just that.  But this is much trickier than simply employing more workers.  It is, however, essential to securing and sustaining long-term growth in productivity.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Start (real) coaching

Coaching has become 'fashionable - the number of business coaches has multiplied dramatically over the last 10 years.

However many of thee coaches are 'consultants' under a different name.

What is the difference?

Well, a consultant attempts to improve your business.

A coach, on the other hand, is trying to improve you - so  that you can improve, and continue to improve, your business. The focus, the approach is quite different - as are the skills required.

So, if you need coaching, make sure you employ a coach with the right (personal ) skills and the right focus.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Get them on board - quickly

Careers have been changing for some time. More and more people have portfolio careers, switching industries, roles and employers frequently to fit in with a more flexible lifestyle and give a better work-life balance.

This means most firms have higher labour turnover and greater recruitment costs.

It also means it becomes necessary to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of recruitment and induction processes - what is often called 'onboarding' these days - so that shorter tenure employees get up to speed quickly.

It can take months to get an employee fully up to speed in a skilled job - every week saved is worth money.


Saturday, 28 April 2018

Not exactly taffiff-ic!

The US is imposing tariffs on a number of imports - notably steel and aluminium.  The aim is to protect US manufacturing by making foreign goods more expensive - thus making domestic products more competitive.  Now I haven't seen the details of the tariffs - but I do know that this is an area in which there are often unintended consequences - and my experience also tells me that the 'pain' from unintended consequences often outweighs the 'pleasure' from the intended consequences.

I hope President Trump's advisors have remembered that US auto manufacturers import steel and aluminium parts from around the world.

There is evidence that - mot surprisingly - countries like China will respond in kind, imposing tariffs on goods most likely to come form the US.

There is other evidence that Modi, in India, is also looking towards forms of protectionism - it seems to becoming into fashion as politicians become more populist - looking for short-term vote grabbers rather than long-term economic success.
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The rest of the world needs to avoid getting sucked in - no long-term good will come of it.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Give them a jolt!

Sometimes, well-performing organisations move into 'coasting' mode - they know they are good, so they keep doing what they are doing, perhaps taking advantages of new technologies or 'obvious' improvements when they come along, but not actively striving for change and improvement.

in such cases, the leaders of the organisation have to find some way of providing a stimulus - forcing them to think more deeply about improvement opportunities.

One such stimulus can come from zero-based budgeting where the organisation makes departments bid for all the funds they need rather than taking last year's budget and adjusting it to reflect changes.

If the leadership at the same time suggests that the total budget allocation will be no more than, say, last year minus 5%, then departmental managers have to think more deeply about how they can run their departments and achieve agreed outcomes.  Those departmental managers  might think such an approach is 'unfair' - but if it unleashes creativity and higher productivity, perhaps a bit of unfairness is what is needed.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Control finance or process?

Business people who come from the product, manufacturing or engineering disciplines have a natural instinct to try to exercise process control to improve efficiency and profits.

Those without such a background often aim at controlling costs.

Some take one or other of these approaches to extremes. (Think Six Sigma.)

The great advantage of the former (exercising process control) is that it involves the establishment of useful metrics and experimentation to see what makes those metrics move in the right direction.

The problem with he latter approach (exercising financial control) is that this measurement/experimentation process becomes much more difficult as the linkages between actions and financial consequences are often either too indirect or occur over too long a time. By the time the results are in, it is too late to change the parameters that have resulted in poor results.

So though financial control might be the ultimate aim, something more direct is needed to give you useful levers to pull (or push).  You need some intermediate, relatively direct measures that will tell you promptly what is happening when you make changes.

Control the process properly - and the finances will take caee of themselves.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Creativity underpins productivity

There is some debate about whether a concentration on productivity is bad for creativity.  However this is a fallacy. Over-concentration on quality - and especially compliance - can be bad for productivity, but productivity and creativity are natural bedfellows. 

So it depends on how broadly or narrowly you interpret productivity.  Rigid compliance to standard operating procedures (SOPs) in the name of productivity might stifle productivity unless you give your employees another avenue where they can exercise invention and innovation.

My old friend, Tor Dahl, always used to say that a natural approach to improving productivity is to:
(a) unfreeze the organisation - allow staff the time and opportunity to contribute ideas as to how what they do might be improved
(b) experiment with those ideas to arrive at new ways of working
(c) re-freeze the organisation by creating new SOPs to reflect the new ways of working and lock in the productivity gains.

Some time later, repeat the cycle. 
Then we ensure that creativity is encouraged and that it underpins higher productivity.


Saturday, 31 March 2018

Multitasking drains productivity

Being able to do two things at once might seem like the epitome of efficiency - why waste time doing just one task when you can complete two simultaneously?
However, famously there is a belief (myth?) that women can mulitask but men cannot - hampered by having a 'one track mind'.
In the real world, rather than the world of gender politics, multitasking seems to be unfruitful, since in practice the work style is not multitasking but micro-sequencing of two parallel tasks.  The problem is that the brain switches so often between the two tasks and focus is lost on each switch and there is a delay each time the switch occurs.
So, stick to one task, focus and concentrate, complete it - and then move on to the next task. You will be more productive.


Saturday, 24 March 2018

Look for achievement

We give ourselves a metaphorical 'pat on the back' when we complete another item on our 'to do' list ... and we do the same with our employees. We congratulate them for completing a task or project.

What we should congratulate them for is their achievement - or the impact they have made.

A teacher, for example, who complete a professional development course, has only achieved something if the course results in impact on the learning of students.

The problem is that in recent years we have become more and more compliance oriented - and we have come to delight in tick boxes and 'sign offs'.

Its time to shift the focus - to achievement and impact.  Much harder - but it is what matters!

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Ride the wave of confidence

McKinsey is suggesting that the recent sluggish productivity performance in the developed world might be coming to an end.  We might soon see productivity rises like we did before the economic downturn - of the order of 2% per year.

Are they right?

Only time will tell.  The time is right - but are the conditions right?  Has all that quantitative easing improved the productivity infrastructure and prepared businesses for an upturn?  Have we been developing skills? Are there technological breakthroughs in the pipeline?

(The answers are maybe, maybe and maybe - but, as we know from history, cycles occur for no good reason - ups and downs .... so perhaps the time is right and enough has been done to ride a wave.  So much of economics is down to confidence anyway that if McKinsey can convince enough people they are right, it will probably become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So good for McKinsey.  I'm with them.  Let's all talk higher productivity - and then deliver what measures we can in our own sphere to make it happen.

See you in the boom times.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Act in the spirit of the times.

The world of employment has been changing for some time - especially in developed nations.  More people work part-time, change jobs frequently and have multiple jobs and 'portfolio' careers.

What are the implications for productivity?

One obvious point is that it becomes more important to get people 'up to speed' very quickly - what is often these days termed the 'onboarding process'.  It is imperative that organisations take this process seriously and do all they can to engage employees early and often, giving them the knowledge and skills they need to fill any gaps - but also to motivate them to add maximum value.

Another implication is that retaining knowledge and talent is important - so if the job market is changing, perhaps organisations need to change their practices to reflect this. One approach is to offer employees a 'tour of duty' rather than a job - agree with them the outcomes they are to produce over a given project/timescale.  When the tour of duty is complete, they either move on -or agree another tour.  This retains their talent but still gives them the benefits of a portfolio career -  variety of work and experience, and a degree of freedom.

It is possible to move with the times - and win .... but only when you recognise the 'spirit of the times'  and act accordingly.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Chicken or egg?

Do motivated employees create good work and higher productivity?  Yes!

But this is a 'What came first? Chicken or egg?' scenario.

I would argue that giving employees good work motivates them and leads to higher productivity. 

An effective business leader creates good jobs - and engages employees with regard to their role in the organisation.  The engaged employee now works for an organisation that seems to value them - and they respond by engaging more fully with their role.

The organisation (via higher productivity) and the employee (via greater job satisfaction) both win.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Just do it!

Recently I was writing some course material on improving innovation and I suggested there that to make people more innovative, you need them engaged and you need to give them freedom to explore.

Then I came across Gallup's new State of the Global Workplace report which suggests that only 15% of employees worldwide are engaged in their jobs.

If both of these are correct, then it is not surprising that the world is struggling to improve innovation and productivity.


Developing our people (human capital?) is the single most important thing we can do. Yet, many do not do it.  

Please explain!

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Well-being is good for productivity

In the UK, much attention has been focused recently on mental health issues - with a dawning of understanding of the sheer scale - and the growing impact - of various mental health conditions ... including the impact on workplace productivity.

Now research by Curaiink Healthcare suggest that properly constructed and focused  Employee Assistance Programmes can result in meaningful and lasting behaviour change that decreases absenteeism, increases productivity and improves healthcare outcomes for employees who present with depression and alcohol abuse.

Many of us have known for some time that well-being is an important productivity factor and that programmes that improve employee well-being are an investment rather than a cost.   Evidence which corroberates this view is welcome.


Saturday, 10 February 2018

Peru shows the way

As Peru prepares to celebrate the 2021 bicentenary of its independence, the government has set itself one major goal: to make Peru a full member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
The aim is to adopt public policies that meet established OECD standards and provide Peru with an important opportunity to strengthen its institutions and consolidate the country’s development.  But in order to do so, there remain important industrial gaps that will have need be bridged, especially in terms of productivity.
The most important part of this is the fact that Peru has set a goal and an aim that should motivate the country to perform.
If more countries adopted an aim based on productivity development, we might see some dramatic changes to global productivity - and to the global economy.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Are workers to blame?

There has been a debate in Trinidad yesterday about whether workers (and especially their poor attendance) is to blame for low productivity. Trades unions say 'No'.

I agree with the unions.

In my experience, poor productivity within an organisation is almost always a 'system or culture failure'. Either work is badly organised or the culture of the organisation mitigates against high engagement and high performance by workers.

Managers also, of course, hold the levers for change.  If they cannot improve productivity, they are not managing effectively.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Listen ....

I often say that I have built my career on asking stupid questions. Improving productivity is all about asking questions.  Why do we do it like that?  Who is responsible for this?  Why do it that way? Where should this be done?  Why do we do this at all?

however, I have come to realise that asking questions is not the answer.  The real secret is listening to the answers you are given and sorting out the valid answers from the questionable.  In lean terms it is also necessary to 'go to Gemba' - find out for yourself what is happening.  Observe as well as listen.

None of this is difficult.  But is is amazing how many people don't do it.  They listen to what the manager tells them - and accept it without checking with the guys (snd girls) who actually do it 'on the ground'.

So listen, ask questions and observe reality. Then you might understand.  If you understand, you have the chance to improve.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

More to come from India?

India's economic performance over the last 15 years has been exceptional - matched only by China.

But history is not what matters - how is India going to maintain, or even increase- growth over the next 10-15 years.

Well, it currently performs well in quite a few areas - but not in innovation. its  R&D spend is low - it does not have great technology transfer from academia, and though it has a highly educated workforce, its record on skills development is also poor.

India needs fewer MBAs and more technicians.  The problem is that everyone wants an MBA - and everyone's Mom & Dad wants their child to have an MBA.  India thus needs a shift in education and training policy - but this has to be matched with a shift in culture - so that high level technical skills are valued and coveted.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Growth goes where the skills are

Supercar manufacturer McClaren is to create almost 200 jobs in South Yorkshire, UK manufacturing chassis which are currently made in Europe and sent to the UK to form the basis of the assembly process.  Why did McClaren choose South Yorkshire?  Because South Yorkshire (and Sheffield in particular) has a history of investing in Advanced Manufacturing techniques and skills.

My colleague Tom Tuttle, a board member of the World Confederation of Productivity Science, in his recent book looked at the reasons why some areas in America were more successful in securing inward investment than others - and one key point to emerge was that manufacturers take factories (and jobs) to where the skills are.

So Sheffield snd South Yorkshire are getting a return on their investment and securing a manufacturing future for the region.

It is good to see their long-term commitment bearing fruit.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Public sector unproductive?

Australia's Productivity commission has slated the public sector for its poor productivity. Yet when you read the report what it is really saying is that the public sector, unlike the private sector, fails to measure productivity - and therefore is unable to know whether it is moving in the right direction.

This seems a little harsh.

How does the Australian public sector compare to the US, the UK, Canada or Denmark?

I don't know - but I suspect neither does the Productivity Commission.  Making conclusions on the basis of insufficient information is not what we expect form a body charged with promoting productivity.

So give the public sector a chance. Give them some targets to achieve - and chastise them if they fail to meet them.  But don't criticise them for not achieving unknown targets.