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LeadershipThe Daily Paradox

PRODUCTIVITY “Does it matter?”

The speed and security of humankind’s development has been driven by productivity. The word today is sometimes seen as the sequel to slave labour – lashing the workers in whatever way is still permissible to increase their efforts. So bizarre is this worker-management relationship that I have recently read serious articles suggesting that worker membership on a company’s board invokes a conflict of interest. I really thought those days were behind us by about fifty years. Apparently not – in some people’s minds.

A country whose productivity is in decline is seen as becoming slothful. “Dig, dig, dig is the mantra for success.” Clever companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft and the rest in that league know the folly of such a policy. They promote think, think, think first and if governments and regulators don’t follow their examples we will all soon be in the drink, drink, drink. You may, as I do, deplore the quickening pace of life and the loss of contemplation but if you want to pick up your humanity card you’d better accept it. You may still advocate calm for sanity.

Behind the drive for productivity is a worsening and more lethal problem. Look at it like this. A process is being established to set up a production – it may be for a new product or an existing business trying better competitive approaches. The process requires discipline – in the case of building aircraft, pretty strict discipline if people are not to be killed. Checks are built into the process, maybe even double checks. However good those checks, there are points at which personal responsibility can avoid accidents but personal irresponsibility will cause them.

We all make mistakes. We all have the brains to judge which mistakes are unlikely to wound mildly, and which may be fatal. Are we taught to exercise that judgement? Not often, as it happens. Do we look at every step we take and ask ‘if that goes wrong will it cause real harm?’ Seldom. So the trust that an employer should have in an employee has dissipated as pace has quickened and size, increased. I even hear the word sabotage bandied about in connection with major accidents. If true, malpractice gone mad.

The corrective for this state of irresponsibility is thought to be more procedure. It is ‘red tape’ because its effect is to slow the process in the hopeful interests of securing it. Some red tape is necessary. Some procedure is important. Nothing like the amount of claptrap we are served up with now on the human-absent route to make a purchase or refinance a subscription. Indeed, the added red tape itself needs checking which multiplies the procedure to a point where it is ignored altogether for ‘special’ people. Cronies, as we call them.

The problems of personal standard of work, of individual identification and of the qualification of workable security cannot all be answered by process. They may be one day but not in our time. Procedure, necessary as it often is, can also be the death knell of thought.

Filling in yet another internutty form the other day I entered my title as Mr. The form was rejected because the title was wrong (they said). I entered it again as Mr. Repeat rejection. How possible? I called – ‘very busy at the moment – we value your call (but not your time)’. Eventually a charming lady pointed out to me that I had entered Mr when I should have entered Mr. The full stop made it a different title. Really?

Bosses must take much of the responsibility for poor productivity. Uncertain of their own abilities they delegate the hard part of their work to juniors. This increases their worry about a successful outcome and they install a process to check the work that the subordinate probably should not be doing anyway. The whole cycle of checking then builds up to additional cost and lengthened time – the two death knells of productivity.

If anything can exacerbate the scenarios already painted it is the KPI. At best unscientific, at worst whimsical, the KPI is shorthand for “I don’t trust you to do your best, to behave honestly and to cooperate with your fellow workers to make this product or service a success for the consumer and the company, so I am setting a ridiculous target conscious of the fact that you may well fail to reach it”.

Targets set by the boss may be a challenge. Targets set by the individual for themselves are a greater challenge, should produce more rewards and will almost always be met.

Productivity is in the soul of the producer.

Not in the whiplash of the driver.

Good morning
John Bittleston

Comments of disagreement and agreement are as always welcome at [email protected]. Thank you.

2 April 2024