×

Why focusing on productivity isn’t productive.

One thing that comes up time and again from senior managers is “My focus or priority is improving Productivity”.

Early on in my career I worked on a number of ‘productivity improvement inniatives’ and sometimes they would seem to make some improvments, sometimes they wouldn’t, but they never really solved the issues and there always seemed to be more to do to ‘improve productivity’, so I began to wonder whether these projects were ready adding any value.

Nowadays when I talk to a manager to understand why they are prioritising any productivity initative, the answer is usually something like, “we can be more productive, it’ll help us cut costs and deliver a better service.” If I then ask how they plan to do this, the answer is generally “by improving our processes/ transforming our service/ getting more staff”.

Anyone who has ever been responsible for transforming processes or services acknowledges that when you introduce a change or a new way of working productivity drops, at least for a short time. This is a truth pretty much universally acknowledged. In fact lets repeat that, just to be clear, when you introduce any new change to processes, technology or ways of working productivity will drop. This can be as much as 30% while people learn the new processes, or get up to speed with any changes. This drop generally doesn’t last for too long, but it will happen.

Next, when you hire more staff, your existing high performing staff are often the ones tasked with training them and building capability. So, for those staff at least, productivity will drop while they help support and build the capability of your new staff. There’s evidence that it can take new staff 6-12 months to fully get to the same capability and productivity levels as existing staff, and that the productivity of the staff responsible for training and coaching them will be impacted as well.

This is all fine, as long as it is acknowledged upfront. If we tell people that we know their productivity will drop while they get up to speed with these new changes, or help train new staff, then we are helping to reassure them, and managing our own expectations.

But the biggest mistake I often see is a reluctance by senior managers to face that truth. We refuse to change people’s targets, we expect them to still meet the previous demands, and what happens?

First morale drops, and then productivity drops, morale drops more because people are struggling to meet unrealistic targets and then they leave or go off sick, and productivity drops further. In the end the change we’ve introduced fails or we have less staff than we did to start with and we’re actually achieving less than we did before not more. It is almost Oedipal in it’s obviousness, you can see it coming a mile off. So why do Managers do it?

For me this conversation comes down to Managers rather than Leaders, and a failure to look at the actual problem we are trying to fix.

When I work with organisations to understand the outcomes they are trying to reach, or the problems they are trying to fix, productivity is often mentioned, especially in operational delivery spaces.

But by working with both the leadership team and the people delivering on the front line, productivity itself is never really the problem. It’s the IT, or the processes, or the checks and balances we’ve put in place creating multiple handoffs, or generally a mixture of all of the above. So, we’re back to changing processes or introducing new tools or ways of working, but we’ve already said that doesn’t help, right? No.

Changing the tools or processes is absolutely the right thing to do, BUT, we have to really understand why we are doing it. Equally investing in people and training them is absolutely the right thing to do, but, we can’t solely make it all about upping productivity, because that forgets the people who are at the heart of getting things done, treating them solely as resources rather than individuals with thoughts and feelings. By telling people we’re trying to improve productivity we make it sound like they are not already being productive. By imposing change on them to simply improve productivity we are treating them like cogs in a factory and demotivating them before we even start.

Instead we need to talk to them to really understand the problems they are facing, and what blockers or issues they are having to work around to do actually their job. We need to consider their views and ideas and involve them in the process of making any changes. By empowering our people to talk to us about the issues they are facing and consulting them we are hopefully getting them motivated and invested in any changes we make, rather than making the change happen to them we are doing it with them.

We also need to look wider than one particular function or area, it’s likely that what looks like a productivity issue in one function, is actually a more systemic issue. By just trying to improve productivity in one area we are not considering the design of the whole service, but instead working ourselves into a silo.

While we may have assumptions about what changes will work, we we have to accept we may need to try out different options to really improve things, and we have to acknowledge this out loud. Again, it’s important to manage everyones expectations so that people don’t feel disempowered and like the change is happening to them.

And finally we have to reassure people that we know that for a short period of time productivity will drop and that is ok. And you know what? It is ok. Yes, we all have targets to hit, but if for 2 or 3 months every case worker out there processes 13 cases rather than 15, that is acceptable, because within 12 months’ time, if we as change leaders have done our job right, they’ll be processing over 20 cases rather than 15. And they’ll feel listened to, they’ll feel supported, and in the end productivity will go up.

But it’ll be a biproduct of successful change. We’ll have taken people with us, we’ll have learned from the work we have done, and probably given ourselves a nice backlog of things we can do to keep improving things, so that productivity can keep improving; but more importantly our organisation will hopefully be a better place for everyone in it.

So please, next time you hear a senior manager say “My focus is improving Productivity” just ask them how? And if you are that Senior Manager, ask yourself, “Why?” What is the problem you are really trying to solve? Is it really just about productivity?

We need to lead people, not simply manage productivity.

Originally posted on Medium