Saturday, 27 December 2014

Wake Up!

Most people are more effective workers in the morning - when fresh.  As the day goes on ,most of us tire.  The problem is that we don't always recognise this - and we take decisions, do important work, hold important meetings when we are not at our best.

Does this work for teams and organisations.  Should we choose the activities we undertake in the morning and what we leave till the other end of the day.

Do new stuff - initiatives, development work, innovation - in the morning.  Do routine stuff, the chores at the day's end.

Try it - let me know if it helps!

Saturday, 20 December 2014


Approaching the end of another year is a time for reflection - personal reflection and, if you are brave enough, organisational reflection.  What have you - and your organisation - learned this year that will make you better next year.

It might be something about your products, your processes, your customers, your competitors ... or your own approach to managing your own area.

It may not revolutionise what you do - or how you do it ... but there must be something.

If not, what have you been thinking about all year?

Saturday, 13 December 2014

What happens next?

Labour productivity is all over the place for many Western nations.  It rises, it slows, it plateaus.  It is hard to predict as these countries struggle to climb out of recession.  Productivity fuels economic growth - but then employment and wages catch up and productivity levels off.

Many organisations are spending all their attention on just 'staying alive' - they believe that productivity can wait ... or that it will take care of itself.

It won't.  We all know the problems that can accrue if you spend your time on the urgent things and forget to address the important ones.

More organisations need to be thinking NOW about their future performance.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Local clusters?

Clusters have been proved to a useful development tool - bringing together companies - and people - from similar industries/activities - to share knowledge and  experience, and to collaborate.

A similar effect can be created locally by bringing together employees from within the company to discuss problems, issues, projects, developments - sharing perspectives from designers, engineers, administrators, and so on.

Such 'bringing together' could be formal - company project days, for example - or could simply be the result of shared relaxation/refreshment space.

Think about how you can get your employees to interact with one another - if only 10% of that interaction is directly work-related, you will reap the benefits.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Just occasionally ...

This blog is concerned with regional, national and organisational productivity. Rarely do we 'stray into' personal productivity - largely because I think it is more or less irrelevant in terms of raising those other productivities - they are based on the effectiveness and productivity of processes and systems - not individual people,.

However, I read recently that an air passenger - on a  plane with a new WiFi service - had been landed a hefty bill (over $1500) for what he thought was fairly modest usage.  It set me thinking about 'strategies' to use that travel time to good effect.

Of course there are the 'air warriors' who reach for their laptop 5 minutes after takeoff and clatter away for the rest of the flight.

Not me!  I use the time for .... thinking, .... even daydreaming.  I find such quality, free time very rare - but it is a precious resource and shouldn't be wasted on menial e-tasks such as email, spreadsheeting or the like.

So think before you take your laptop out - then put it away and continue thinking.  It will pay dividends.

If this still sounds too much like 'work', try ... resting.  That also pays dividends.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Give Me Some Distractions

I recently had a day off - by 'off' I mean no fixed appointments.

I decided to work from home - but I found I got little done.

I found the peace and quiet, the lack of telephone noise, the absence of colleague chatter quite disconcerting.

Is it because I need those things to remind me I am 'at work'?  Or do they, in some more meaningful way, change the 'atmosphere'.

Is it like teenagers who prefer to 'study' to the sound of loud music.  Do such obvious 'distractions' blot out real distractions and help us focus?

Saturday, 15 November 2014

What do we mean by ...

I was in Italy recently ... and I used public transport quite a bit - trains and buses.  All the journeys I made were on time, and to schedule.

Of course, public transport is subsidised in most European countries - by governments as part of the national infrastructure.   This set me thinking about the nature of 'productivity' at this national, overarching level.

For example, the national railway could be 'inefficient' but could contribute to productivity in other sectors (by moving goods and people efficiently to/from factories and workplaces).

Similarly, at organisational level, we must not take decisions that are sub-optimal - that look to be 'right' in a smaller context, but might be 'wrong' when looking at a 'bigger picture'.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Do things differently

At the end of your next day at work ask yourself ... "If we carry on working like this on these tasks, how will we be different - and better - in 5 years time?"

If you cannot answer that, you need to do some things differently - or some additional things. Otherwise nothing is driving change.

Organisations that stay the same get overtaken.  The best organisations have a continual programme of review, change and improvement - making incremental (and occasionally large) improvements to processes, systems and tasks - and to the skills of their people.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Productivity or Quality?

I have been in discussions many times with businessmen and advisers about whether firms should concentrate on their productivity or their quality - which has the biggest impact on success?

Of course the quick answer is "Both" - they are not mutually exclusive!

But I remember listening to my colleague Tor Dahl who used to suggest that productivity initiatives release energy and innovation (they unfreeze the organisation); quality initiatives standardise systems and processes to 'lock in' quality (and they freeze the organisation).  Another way of putting it is that quality initiatives help cement the gains realised by a productivity initiative.

So, we do need them both - but not necessarily at the same time.  There seems to be a natural sequence of productivity-quality-productivity-quality.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Does education productivity matter?

We occasionally see reports or thoughts on the productivity of education - but it is a tricky situation to get to grips with ... partly because it is so hard to define outputs - and especially effective outputs.

Does it matter?  Isn't education something we just have to provide?

Well, it matters.  Just take a look at the investment in education of any advanced country.  Millions or billions of dollars.  If we could improve the productivity of that investment, we could release some of that funding for other purposes - social development, cultural development, better healthcare -  or whatever.

So, next time you see a debate, join in - add your views to the structured discussion necessary to advance thinking on how we address this tricky - but important - issue.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Natural Connections

There are lots of sites and blogs on the web which purport to be about productivity.  Many of these are about what might be termed 'personal productivity' - time management, self-motivation, etc.

This set me thinking.

Is there a natural connection between national productivity, organisational productivity and personal productivity?

My own view - based solely on my experience, but not on any formal, structured research - is that national productivity could broadly be regarded as the aggregate of organisational productivity, but that organisational productivity has little to do with any aggregate of personal productivity.  Organisational productivity is much more a function of the effectiveness of processes, systems and procedures - over which individuals have little control.

So, by all means encourage your employees to manage their time and their own workflow within the limits they do control - but don't expect that to have a significant impact on the performance of your organisation.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Secret of Productivity is ....

I can be as guilty as the next person is hailing specific concepts and practices as being important determinants of higher productivity.

But we should stop searching for the 'secret' - the panacea - and concentrate on the basics.

Productivity is about good organisation, good planning, effective design of facilities, systems and processes, effective motivation of staff and all those other things the management textbooks tell us about.

So, the real 'secret' is about doing all those things well in pursuit of a clear and shared organisational mission.

If someone comes offering you a simpler 'secret', they are selling you 'snake oil'.  There are few shortcuts in life. 

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Don't Break the Chain

A personal 'productivity' tip sometimes referred to as 'Seinfeld's Chain' after Jerry Seinfeld, the US comedian is a useful reminder of the need to 'keep at it'.  The story is that, when he started writing, Seinfeld would mark each day he had spent his planned time actually writing by putting a big red cross through that day on a large wall calendar.  After a few days he would have a chain of crosses - and it required him to keep putting in the effort so as not to break the chain.  Even when he had 'better offers' or when he felt ill, the motivation to keep the chain going was very strong.

The same approach can be used for anything which requires regular effort and activity - exercise, program coding, learning to play a musical instrument, etc.  it is not one long practice session that makes improvement - it is regular, incremental performance gains resulting from regular action.

The productivity professionals amongst you will recognise that this is the fundamental concept behind kaizen - regular, small improvements leading to a major impact on performance over time.

But it also applies at a more general level.  We all know we should ask 'Why?' regularly.

'Why do we do it like that?'
'Why do we do it at all?'  
'Why is it done here?'
'Why is it done like that?'

If we keep asking, we keep coming up with suggestions for change - and improvement.

So, tomorrow make sure you observe some work and ask questions about it ... and come up with some (perhaps very) small suggestion for improvement.

Then mark your 'Why X' on a calendar and START the chain.

Repeat daily until you have a chain of at least 5 Xs.

Now look at your calendar.  1 working week - 5 improvements.  If you don't break the chain, that will be 250 in the year  ... and a potential transformation of productivity and performance.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Discretionary Efforts

Employees work - and work hard  - for various reasons.

Obviously there are contractual reasons - they take the money and have to 'put in the hours'.

But above and beyond what they are contracted to, most employees put in 'discretionary effort' - over and above the minimum, perhaps because they like what they do, perhaps because they like the company, perhaps because they value being a member of the team they belong to.

Our job, clearly, is to maximise this discretionary effort.  We have to address the motivational factors that 'persuade' them to offer more; we have to give them the skills they need; we have to inform them about why things are important, involve them in key decision-making and respect their views.

Discretionary effort is almost free - we would be stupid not to try and release it.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Gamification (revisited

Last week I talked about gamification - and whether it could be used to help improve productivity
If you weren't thinking about it then, I hope you are now - Ambient research suggests that game-based learning will grow from $1.5 billion in 2012 to $2.3 billion in 2017.  This is important.  I am regularly int  touch with productivity centres around the globe who want to educate youngsters about productivity issues - whilst they are still young enough to be positively influenced.  This is part of many national productivity campaigns.
Adding gaming elements to such education might work.
Let's remind ourselves about what gamification means - and what it doesn't. 
Asking the learner a series of questions, along with multiple options, is NOT game-based learning. 
Game-based learning is the application of gaming elements to a non-gaming context - such as learning or training ... and by gaming elements, we mean such things as:
  1. Challenge
  1. Motivation
  1. Rewards
  1. Feedback

- the elements that 'hook' gamers and keep them coming back for more.  Build these elements into your learning and you might just 'hook' learners into your learning and their progression ... and you might stand a chance of creating a generation informed about productivity before they enter the workplace.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Gamification - can it improve productivity?

We've heard quite a lot about 'gamification' recently - especially in the context of online learning.

I read the term many times before I sought to understand it ... so I thought some of you might be in the same boat and would appreciate an executive summary'.

If I'm right (after several minutes of research), gamification refers to taking processes (such as learning) and applying games-related functions like repetition, competition, rewards and recognition to make them more engaging to the participants.

Many industries have had some of these elements for a number of years, but gamification seems to mean taking these things to a new levels and integrating them more thoroughly. Organisations like TripAdvisor which give you credit for reviews you write (and regularly remind you of the number of readers, especially those who 'liked' one of your reviews) are 'gamifying' their websites.

In productivity terms, it ties up nicely with a number of the tenets of the lean philosophy.  For example, visual management can provide information as the basis of competition between work groups, departments and so on - and as the basis for rewards and recognition programmes.  So, whether you are ready ot go full steam ahead with gamification, it might be worth considering how you can use the functions referred to above to better engage your customers or your employees

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Good decisions can turn out badly

Recently a colleague was bemoaning the fact that he had taken a bad decision.

When I questioned him about the decision, and about the outcomes, I formed the view that he had taken a 'correct' (or sensible) decision given the information he had available at the time.

As an example, consider the decision to make a bid in a game of bridge or make a move in a game of chess.  You make your move based on the experience you have of likely outcomes from the state of the game (or the cards you have been dealt) as it lies when you take the decision.  What happens subsequently will then depend on a number of additional factors - including the relative ability of you and your opponent(s).  You may lose the game.  However, if the same decision has to be made in the future, the likelihood is that you will make it in the same way - unless and until the number of times it turns out to be 'wrong' becomes statistically significant.

The same is true in business.  You must not confuse the outcome of a decision with the wisdom of the decision you took.  You must continue to take decisions based on the information you have available (though you might want to find out more if you can) and the experience you have of similar situations.  Then whatever happens, happens.  The outcome might not be favourable because of prevailing conditions - or due to plain chance.  But the decision was still the correct one.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Germany needs higher wages?

"For about 10 years now wage increases in Germany have not kept up with the development of productivity, by a long stretch" said European Employment Commissioner Laszlo Andor in an interview with German newspaper Welt am Sonntag recently.

This, of course, makes Germany highly competitive compared to other European states.

Is this a problem?

Is this unfair?

If you are German, it might not seem like a problem (unless you think that those who have helped create the improved productivity should share in the benefits it brings). 

If you are a European, perhaps it matters more fundamentally - a trading imbalance (and a competitive advantage for one state over others) harms the European economy.

Presumably it is difficult to 'blame' Germany for its good performance and its 'prudence'.  We might urge them to take off the brakes and spend a little more .... but, much more importantly, we have to urge other European states to address their own productivity - and 'fight back'. 

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Recognising the Counterfactual

When we make changes to (try to) improve productivity, we subsequently measure results and assess impact.  (Or we should if we want to evaluate our own performance and impact.)

However, in many complex situations, we cannot be clear that what we have done has resulted in the changes we observe.  What would have happened if we had not intervened?  This is the 'counterfactual'.  How do we measure it - so we know the true impact of our changes?  Well, often, of course, we can't.  But sometimes we can extrapolate from observations we made earlier - and make an informed (and hopefully intelligent) 'guess' at what might have happened.

Sometimes, we might have a 'parallel' situation elsewhere we can continue to observe (rather like a 'control group').

The important point is to realise that in complex situations,we have to be careful about assuming (or claiming) that all change has resulted from our actions. Otherwise we can over- or under-estimate the impact we have ... and subsequent decisions might be based on this imperfect - and incorrect - knowledge.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Controlling Interest

In my recent discussions with PAPA (the Pan African Productivity Association), the topic of the Ebola virus came up.  Just as Africa seems to have recovered from the great HIV/Aids crisis (having largely got the 'epidemic' under control), the continent is hit by another great health problem - likely to have severe implications for those economies where the virus is rampant.

The developed world is only just starting to see this as a global concern rather than as a 'local' African problem - and we might now start to see real resources going into research into both containment and cure.

Situations where we lack control are real drains on productivity.  We have to do what we can to help Africa take control of this situation or the whole continent - and then the rest of us - will suffer.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Balanced Reporting

Well, I’m here in Mauritius and I’ve been having an interesting time.

I spent a few days with the Board of PAPA (the Pan African Productivity Association) discussing the productivity status and opportunities in Africa.  Many of the productivity centres and champions are working under a range of funding, cultural and political constraints but there was consensus about some of the big challenges and around some of the necessary infrastructure elements that need to be put in place to underpin productivity development.  

This is something we should all watch with interest  - Africa’s productivity is important to us all in terms of helping the world solve the 3 great problems of food security, energy availability and universal access to fresh, clean water.

I was then fortunate enough to attend a session led by the great Robert Kaplan, one of the creators of the Balanced Scorecard concept and model.  Amongst other things, it was interesting to see the development of the model from measurement scorecard to strategic planning catalyst. Robert gave several examples of companies that have deployed Balanced Scorecard and used it to transform their understanding of the business and shape its future.  Importantly he cited the use of the Scorecard to support strategy execution and evaluation as key to longer-term success.  My biggest, single ‘takeaway’ message was that ”Strategy is important, but execution is what delivers.”

Tomorrow, I am flying home - to more mundane (but no less important) issues, concerns, projects and activities.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Something in the air

The 'something in the air' i refer to in the blog title is ... ME.  As you are reading this, I should be in the air (if I'm not waiting at an airport terminal) en route to Mauritius.

Those of you who follow this blog know that I make this trip regularly - I have been advising Mauritius on its national productivity strategy, working with the lovely people at the National Productivity & Competitiveness Council (NPCC).

This one is a 'special' visit for two reasons.

First, I shall be giving a keynote presentation to a meeting of the Pan African Productivity Association and I am keen to hear their views on Africa's productivity future - and see how well they chime with my own.

Secondly, while I am there, NPCC have invited the great Robert Kaplan (of Balanced Scorecard fame) to give one of their occasional productivity days with a world-class 'guru'.  I shall get to listen to Robert - and meet him subsequently.

Its not often you get a chance to meet one of your 'heroes'  - so this is quite exciting for me.

And, of course, to do all of this in Mauritius makes it all even more special.  Sometimes you just have to say, "Lucky Me!".

If I wake up from this dream, I'll give you a report next week.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Big data - is it useful?

Big Data in 'in' - its a fashionable topic, its 'cool' and exciting.  But is it useful?

What are the applications where it will 'make a difference' - on a global level.

Well, I've been doing some work in Agri-business recently.... and one useful trend has been to make data available (on yields, prices and so on to farmers so they can take better-informed decisions about when and how to harvest and sell what they produce.

now, however, big data is moving up that value chain - by offering information to farmers - on soil condition, on weather patterns, on past production, on competitors' production.

How do we get the data?  Well, farmers give it to us - it is anonymised - so they can share the data pool ... and experiments are starting to send out drones to observe directly what is happening.  It starts out being small data but soon grow - especially when you do this over several regions.

So, big data can be useful - like most other fields, it just needs someone to work out how to exploit it for commercial gain.  When that gain has social benefits (in terms of giving farmers information which helps them negotiate better with the 'middlemen' taking produce for processing.... so much the better.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Do the measures matter?

I have been doing a little work recently in relation to productivity and performance measures.  The thought struck me after trying to construct appropriate measures for a particular organisation in a particular situation that the measures we use are not as important as the fact that we use measures to track progress against strategy and ensure we remain 'on mission'.

Of course the measures must demonstrate progress in the right direction for our key success factors - but remember the Pareto effect - we can probably get 80% of the effectiveness of a measurement regime with 20% of the effort.

i am not advocating 'abdication' - just careful use of resources and broad targeting rather than surgical precision.  Get people moving against plans - in broadly the right directions and with some momentum and motivation - and the detailed results will look after themselves.

Saturday, 12 July 2014


I was looking at a PowerPoint presentation the other day (not one of mine) and I thought "What a great job this person has done of making a complex issue understandable."  

It reminded me that we often have two important, overlapping roles - acting as technical experts to solve problems and make improvements ... and acting as teachers and mentors to persuade others that our technical assessment is sound and offers real benefits.  Where we have different groups of stakeholders with different viewpoints and concerns, this can be the more challenging role.

So, take a break from developing those technical skills and concentrate on your communication skills - both listening and teaching. It might be of more benefit in the longer-term.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

The Mystery is not yet unravelled - but it doesn't matter

A number of you sent me comments to try and unpick the (UK) productivity mystery I referred to in last week's post.  Some of these were backed up by serious analysis.

Yet, after reading them all (which i did - gladly) I remain confused - and the mystery remains unresolved.

It just made me glad I can dip in and out of these sets of national statistics; I would hate to be responsible for creating them - or validating them.

My admiration is immense for the guys (and gals, I assume) who beaver away to give us these benchmarks.

And I am reminded why we benchmark performance anyway - it is to create dialogue and discussion which can lead to improvement.

So, last week's mystery is not a problem - as long as the great and the good don't spend too long attempting to unravel the mystery when they should be focused on creating a better, more productive future.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Its a Mystery

British productivity was growing steadily if slowly in the years before the financial crisis struck but it’s now some 16% below its pre-crisis level. 
The Bank of England has published a paper in their  quarterly bulletin of economic research, examining the competing explanations for the productivity puzzle and has a stab at estimating how much of that 16% shortfall they can account for. At best, the authors suggest they can explain about nine percentage points, but it is clearly a mystery beyond their easy solution.
The bank says errors in measuring output probably account for about two percentage points of the shortfall. A decline in the output of once highly productive sectors, such as oil and finance, might account for another two percentage points.
The paper goes on to suggest that  another three to five percentage points of the shortfall may reflect problems that are the legacy of the financial crisis. These include the idea that damaged banks have struggled to reallocate scarce capital away from “zombie” firms with poor prospects and few customers and towards more productive firms with big ambitions. Cyclical factors—such as idling workers and production lines—probably also account for part of the productivity shortfall, but the authors say it’s hard to say how much.
Perhaps this mystery will unravel over the next few months - the UK certainly has to hope this is a mystery and not an early sign of a real collapse.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Who decides?

Many countries have productivity centres to advise their government of productivity and related issues.

But do they do any good?

Is productivity something that can be shaped and steered by government?

I would say 'YES' from my experience in the UK - but not always in ways that might be expected.

Twenty or thirty years ago, the UK's productivity levels were disastrously low - UK goods were uncompetitive, of poor quality and over priced.

Now, however, UK industry is much better, the economy is growing - and UK goods have a much better reputation.

What happened?

Margaret Thatcher happened!

Like her or loathe her (and there are plenty in both camps), she transformed UK industry - by curbing the power of the unions and de-regulating the economy.

Most national productivity strategies seek to regulate  ... when they should be de-regulating!

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Banana Skins

Most of the time we get things right.... at least if we have the skills to accomplish what we set out to do.

Occasionally, though, we slip on a banana skin - and we get something wrong.

A defect in Lean terms (one of the 7 wastes).

It is almost impossible to avoid all defects - though, of course, we try very hard.

What matters is how we deal with our mistakes - how we learn from them.

So, when you spot a mistake - don't assign 'blame', assign 'responsibility'  - for learning the lessons and making improvements.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Where does the answer lie?

I have been in the productivity' business' for longer than I care to remember.

Sometimes, I feel that the longer I am in the business, the less I know - or the less I feel confident to declare.

I started off as a 'work study engineer' - great training, but I soon realised that studying work was only a partial approach. To often, low productivity stems from 'non-work' system inefficiencies that surround the actual work.

So, I started to look at business processes and business systems.

Then I realised that often it wasn't the system that was broken but the culture of the organisation that de-motivated and disengaged the people.

So, where do I now feel that the answer lies?

I think I have worked my way 'up' the organisational structure and feel that change (for the better) has to start at the top with a 'planning and execution system' that stems directly from the organisational mission.  This must define and support 'excellence' and must translate into systems, processes and procedures - and skilled roles and tasks - which build in individual and team responsibility for that excellence, together with performance measures that ensure we remain 'on track' with our plans and targets.

Can I define and design such an organisation and support system?  Emphatically no!  BUT I can facilitate its design and execution by business owners and leaders who share the vision of a skilled, trained, engaged workforce who know and understand their own roles within the overall organisational system.

We need to 'flip' the traditional representation of an organisation structure and see the role of managers and leaders as creating and sharing a vision of excellence and then identifying and removing the barriers that prevent 'front line workers' from creating that excellence.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Can 'useless' expenditure be justified

As a productivity professional, I am used to counting every penny/cent spent and justifying the expenditure by the benefits it brings - its (perhaps tiny) contribution to the aims of the organisation.

Sometimes, however, firms decide to spend money on things which have no direct utility - corporate art, charitable giving, etc.  Can such expenditure be justified?  ... in productivity terms.

Organisations are often large, complex, beasts - with many divisions and components. What makes them successful is their ability to co-ordinate all the parts and work together as a complete entity, working to common goals - and the organisational mission.  This ability often depends on leadership - and the way this creates a sense of shared values ... and shared mission.

Often, non-utility expenditure is concerned with expressions of values.  It shows stakeholders the things the company regards as important. As such it helps create cohesion around the message and the mission.

As long as the amount of money spend on such things is not 'out of proportion' to utilitarian expenditure, and, as long as it is not expenditure for a privileged few - artwork in the executive penthouse, for example - it can make a positive contribution.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Today's Mantra is ....

Consultants usually specialise in .... productivity, quality, organisational development, innovation, or some other 'improvement' topic.

This suggests that the business world is full of tools and techniques that must be selected carefully according to the kind of situation - and kind of problem - being considered.

However my experience is that most of the tools and techniques - whether quality tools, productivity tools or whatever - are simply means of exploring the situation - and uncovering hidden 'truths'.

Any consultant worth his/her salt should be capable of addressing a quality problem or an innovation project - using whatever tools they feel most comfortable with.  We pretend to be knowledgeable and 'clever' - and of course we are ... but often our major asset is having time and having an external, disinterested viewpoint.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Fast changing?

I was recently looking at some documents I had created a few years ago.  My first thought on reading them was that they were out-of-date, but on re-reading them, I realised the format and appearance was out-of-date but almost all the content was still relevant.

Sometimes we get confused by, or seduced by, the medium and forget to concentrate on the essential message.  Being up-to-date and looking modern and professional is important - but of no use if the underlying message is not right.

Oddly enough, things rarely change as fast as they are often though to - or claimed to.  Even in the IT  world, most of the 'principles' of computing have not changed in 20 years.  The hardware and software changes but fundamentally, computing is much as it was in the early days of the PC when it moved from the computing department to the individual.

So, review and update - but also reflect on the past and learn the lessons. Change - but because you have assessed the situation and the environment and have determined an appropriate course of action - not because change looks 'attractive'.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Its not that easy

I'm sure that even if you haven't read Thomas Piketty's book, Capital in the Twenty First Century, you will have seen the controversy surrounding his suggestion that we need to substantially raise taxation of the wealthy to force a 'better' redistribution of wealth (or more properly, of capital).

Picketty takes special aim at those with capital who don't have to work for it.

Whatever your views (and this is something about which people feel strongly rather than reason logically), Thomas Picketty has forced a debate on the world and that can only be good.  Those who believe in the free market have to defend the 'status quo'; those (like Picketty) who want to see change have to justify the actions they want to take,

The rest of us can sit on the sidelines, observe and listen.  But this is an important issue.  I urge you to read the book - just so you can take a more informed position in the debate; I also urge you to read the criticisms of Piketty's viewpoint and seek the 'balance' that might steer us through this debate.

We (almost) all want 'a fairer world'.  The question is ...Does Piketty have an approach that might takes us towards one?

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Productivity figures (continued)

I spoke last week about the problems of interpreting productivity figures.

Recent data from the Uk's Office for National Statistics suggests that across the economy, productivity is still 4.3% below the pre-crisis peak and if it had continued growing at the pre-crisis trend, it would be 20% higher than today.

This has some advantages.  Output is up slightly - and this means (because productivity is not rising) that unemployment is down. And the treasury benefits from increased tax revenues and lower benefits payments.

So far, so good.  The problem is that this does not make UK firms and products more competitive -  so any gains might be short-lived.

We should enjoy the 'feel-good' factor; the 'bump' might be nearer than we think.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Explaining productivity growth

Explaining productivity figures needs interpretation and judgement.

For example, the UK has had low productivity growth for the last few years.


Bank of England economists suggest that one reason might be that fewer businesses have collapsed in recent years, meaning fewer workers have moved from low productivity into higher productivity firms.

As the economy improves, some of these firms that have survived and staggered through the last few years may be able to pick up production without hiring additional labour. so, we may see productivity rises in the new couple of years.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Learning from the Past

I’ve recently returned from Greece where I was privileged to visit the site of the oracle at Delphi – a major centre of  world communication in the 5th century BC.  The size and scale of what was the Temple of Apollo is staggering – this was both a communications and commercial centre of real magnitude.

It is good to be reminded of past civilisations and their power and influence – and also good, of course, to be reminded that such civilisations often collapse or fail.  ‘Success’ is a fragile commodity – and the world changes around successful organisations – and nations.   Those who fail to ‘read the runes’ and fail to adapt to the changing environment are doomed to fail.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Don't blame the team

On my recent visit to India, I visited a number of organisations and facilities where the senior mangers were critical of the performance of the workforce - citing their reluctance to work harder as a major reason for low productivity.

My many years of experience has taught me that this is rarely the case.

If productivity - and labour performance - is low, it is almost always entirely down to the 'the system' - the processes, procedures, and working conditions set by managers and supervisors.  Workers end up with low performance because they spend too much time waiting for work, using poor tools, dealing with inferior materials and operating unreliable machines. It is rarely because they are not working hard enough.  They are not being allowed to work harder.

So, before you blame the team - take a good look at these factors ... and then take the responsibility (and any blame) on yourself.  Your workers cannot change these things. You can!

Saturday, 5 April 2014

If I can't prove it, it probably isn't true.

In a recent trawl across productivity writings - papers, blogs and so  - which I find useful both just to keep in touch and occasionally inspire me to new thought -  I came across the following..

Decide on a plan, get your supplies and ready your team. This is how you set yourself up to take advantage of the Virgo full moon of productivity.

This was in a respected publication. I was appalled.  Not by the advice, of course.  Though it may be a bit over-simplified, the 'plan and prepare' message is essentially sound.  But to couple that with astrology, suggesting that the alignment of planetary objects somehow affects what you should do to improve productivity, is at best inappropriate.  I am a scientist by background and believe that to make such claims requires evidence of causality.

As a scientist, I am prepared to accept that there are things we cannot explain. But to invent pseudo-science and claim causality where none exists is simply fraudulent.

Productivity improvement can sometimes be as much of an art as a science - after all we are dealing with human beings ... and they can be unpredictable and illogical ... but one has to 'dig deeper' to understand the psychology of individuals and groups - not assume that there are external, controlling forces.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

First build trust

I've been in India for a week talking about a number of issues, including skills development.  India is making a big investment in Sector Skills Councils to try to work with industry to identify and fill skills gaps. Unfortunately, this dialogue is not proving easy.  Industry is not used to being consulted and to participating and is wary of government agencies asking for 'partnership'.

There is a general lesson here - building trust takes time - and takes mutual respect.  Without it, however, true partnership is not possible.  So, as well as investing the money, the Indian government and its skills agencies need to invest time in building that trust.  The exercise of transforming the India skills landscape might take a little longer than hoped for, but it will be built on more secure foundations.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Does nature know best

The UK has had severe flooding this spring – especially in the South West of the country.

The reasons are not fully clear – but the weather conditions have been remarkable and relentless.

Over the last few decades, farmers in the affected area have been encouraged to drain the peat moors to improve grazing for sheep and raise agricultural productivity.  Unfortunately this did not have the beneficial effects expected.

What is did do (as planned) was to restrict the ability of the land to hold water. Excess water runs off carrying silt and the water itself down the moor to the next farm.  We see the effects – flooding.

Too often this happens when we try to control nature. Nature seems to be better at us at keeping several factors in balance.  We might be better served in working with that natural balance.

(It is often the same with people. Thinking we can change their natural makeup leads to disappointment..  we are better understanding them and working within that understanding.)

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Avoid Changing the Paradigm

Paradigm changes are rare - and when they occur, they can be very disruptive and threatening to those with a significant (financial or emotional) investment in the status quo.

They are also unexpected - almost by definition.  'Normal' thinking tends to be analytical and constructive - and we tend to get what we expect to get.  Whoever comes up with paradigm-changing thought arrives somewhere he/she never expected to reach.

Change is a spectrum - with paradigm change at one end and the status quo at the other.   Just 'short' of paradigm change is 'disruptive innovation' - often creating 'winners' and 'losers' by changing some important factor of a process or a whole industry.

If you want to avoid the signifiant disruptive threat that comes at this end of the spectrum, you'd better secure continuous innovation - to give you controlled, stepwise - though still radical - change.

Saturday, 8 March 2014


How many people in this world do you trust?

My answer is 'All of them' until they suggest to me that they cannot be trusted.  If we start from a position of trust, we normally end up approaching discussions and negotiations in a positive and constructive frame of mind.  if you trust employees, for example, then 'industrial relations' can also be positive and constructive.

This means that - whatever the personal, ethical and social implications, adopting a stance of 'trust first' makes good business sense.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Give them what they need

Our office is quite small - a few desks ... and computers of course.  One of our members of staff is a graphic designer (amongst other things, for of course we cannot afford single-specialism staff) and this week I provided him with a graphics tablet.

He was slightly surprised - but very grateful. More importantly it transformed his ability to do (some parts of) his job.

It is good to be reminded of how important it is to:

(a) have the right tools and technology
(b) ensure we allow all our staff to use their talents to the full.

A simple review of how well we do these things is a useful exercise.  Try it!

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Crossing Boundaries (again)

Last week I talked about the need to cross organisational boundaries - to avoid creating 'silo management' where each department takes decisions on its own information to suit its own ends - resulting in sub-optimal performance for the organisation.

This week I return to boundaries to use very briefly on whether approaches to productivity development are, or should be, different in different geographic regions.

Different regions or nations may have different social, legal, economic, political and technological characteristics.  My own view is that these differences may influence the appropriateness of solutions we may devise, but they do not necessitate a different approach to the improvement/development process itself.

I have worked in enough countries of the world - developed and emerging economies - to base this view on personal experience.

We still have to work through a process that consists of the essential stages of diagnosis, development, evaluation, implementation.  Throughout this process, we may have to adjust how we communicate and explain, but we have to work through these steps.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Crossing Boundaries

Many of us are defined by our academic qualification or professional status - as engineers, managers or whatever.

But most of us have learned that we need to be able to talk to those in other roles ... and need to understand their knowledge base, their expectations, their way of thinking.

How to cross those knowledge and functional boundaries is what we learn after our formal education has stopped (or paused) ... and is at least as important. It is how we make multi-functional, multi-talented teams work in practice ... and how we make business processes effective and efficient.

if your staff cannot cross these boundaries, you end up with 'silo management' where each person understands only their role ... and not how their role contributes to the whole ....and why, therefore, why what they do is important and must be done well.

If they don't understand that, it is unlikely that any degree of exhortation will make them perform ... so you end up with, at the best, sub-optimal performance.

Communicate, by all means. ... but make sure people themselves know how to communicate across role and function boundaries.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Cut down on the productivity sugar

Sugar gives you an 'energy rush' - very useful when you have a demanding task to perform.  That is why we like sugary snacks throughout the day when we're at work or taking physical exercise. The problem is that these short term fixes do not do us any long-term good; in fact, quite the opposite. We can end up overweight, with health problems such as diabetes and certainly unfit.

What we need is a long-term plan for our diet and our body which gives us the energy we need when we need it but leaves us fit and healthy over the longer term.

This mirrors some approaches to improving productivity. Some organisations use the 'quick fix'- cost cutting and labour layoffs. But this can take knowledge and skill out of the business and does little to create longer-term good. A better approach is to concentrate on those measures that create added value for customers and improve the longer-term health of the business.

I know that I have presented this as 'black and white' and that sometimes immediate cost-cutting is needed to ensure short-term survival. However, the principle still applies. A long term view supporting a long term vision is a better way to secure the future health of the business.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

The Quality Revolution

We went through the 'quality revolution in the 70s/80s - now everyone (well all the big guys) has ISO 9000 and some have been through TQM programmes.

Why is it then that it is so difficult to get good' service'.  Service in the UK has largely been off-shored to India and other places - clearly as a cost-cutting exercise.

Customers hate calling these 'service centres' and playing 'telephone tag' until they eventually get someone who doesn't understand the problem and has no authority to do anything about it.

They seem to have forgotten that 'lean' organisations start by valuing the voice of the customer (where voice is spelt VOice, not PRice).

So can we have a REAL quality revolution where quality and productivity (which should both be based on adding value) are considered two sides of the same coin and are not traded off against each other.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Give me space

I want a new guitar. I admit I don't need one (I have 4)... but I want one.

The problems is that my wife says we don't have the space.  She has initiated a new house rule for guitars - one in, one out.  But I'm emotionally attached to my guitars so selling one is difficult.  However, I admit we are running out of space.

We all know that what we have to store continually expands to fill the available space.  So we end up storing 'rubbish', stuff we might need one day when it 'comes in useful'.

The same is true at work. Most workspaces are full of unused tools, equipment, files, papers - taking up space, getting in the way, making us less productive.  This is why the 5S process is so valuable - if we declutter, we work more effectively and more productively.

So, if you take a look at your workspace and declutter it, I promise to think about considering getting rid of one of my guitars.