Please distract me

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?

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’.

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.

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 (and former president of WCPS) 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 sat the same time.  There seems to be a natural sequence of productivity-quality-productivity-quality.

Does the productivity of education 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.

Vertical Links?

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.

And the secret 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.

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.

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.

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.