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.

Don’t Blame the Workers

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!

Be logical

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.

Build trust first!

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.

Work with Nature

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.)

Don’t Change 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.


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.

What do 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!

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.

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.