There are basically two dimensions of productivity. The productivity on a process level and the productivity on a human level. Looking at an organization we often focus on the process level, e.g. how productive are we in manufacturing an airplane, processing an insurance claim, or providing us with a candy bar. Productivity on a human level is either mathematically defined (e.g., output per # of people) or very tricky to get a handle on.
Great Progress on Process Productivity
We have made tremendous progress in process productivity and yet we still see room for improvement. This can be witnessed in countries that transition through a development stage, like China. The productivity in the Chinese automotive industry has increased by about 340% in the last 10 years. During most of that time the number of employees stayed fairly stable, which suggests the work got automated and more output was created with the same number of people.
The above example shows that process productivity can easily be mistaken with human productivity. If you don’t know the details behind the number you could also argue that the Chinese workers in the automotive industry just all got so much better at their work.
Human Productivity is Complex
Productivity on a human level is focusing on the individual. It is especially tricky as you can’t really separate processes from people. In the case of the Chinese automotive industry you need to analyze deeper (e.g., that the number of people employed stayed fairly stable) to see that automation caused the increase in productivity and not individual performance.
Processes are made more productive by eliminating idle time and automating steps in the process. To understand why this is so hard you might want to look at one of the most unproductive moments in our business life: travel. For most of us sitting on an airplane, in a train, or a car is not really pleasant and most likely not very productive. Yet, we all do it. In fact more than 70% of executives and business travelers believe that business travel is very important to increase sales and profit.
You can easily replace travelling with ‘meeting’ or any other non-quantifiable activity people do at work but travelling is just such a great way to illustrate the case. My point is that you can’t quantify every job, especially if there is a creative component involved like with most knowledge-based jobs.
Give Me More Time
I believe the next big wave of productivity is to automate many human tasks and to minimize idle time. Looking again at travelling (and meetings) all those minutes or even ½ minute idle moments in front of elevators, between flights, or the walk from the customer building to the car are currently not used to be productive.
A sales person prepares for hours if not days for a customer meeting, a manager attends lots of meetings, etc. All of those activities have one thing in common: they take time. Another commonality is that all of those people have to deal with a lot of administrative overhead. Travel requests, travel expenses, time recording, meetings notes … things that add nothing to their jobs and cost precious time.
If you’re looking to increase the productivity of your creative people you really have one very easy mechanism: give people more time. One way to do this is to optimize all of their tasks to fit into those bit-sized moments; we have so many during the day. Imagine all of your approvals, time recordings, quick dashboard checks, or your requests would happen “in between” – at the elevator, on the way to the car, waiting for the colleague in a meeting that is always late. Suddenly idle time will turn into micro-moments of productivity.