Boosting productivity in challenging times
The economic climate is challenging. Covid recovery, Brexit, energy crisis, disrupted supply chains, rising inflation and interest rates, the list goes on and on. It paints a very bleak picture. Many businesses, including the traditional Great British Pub, say they don’t think they’ll survive the winter. Over the last decades, we’ve already seen a massive decline in the Highstreet with the loss of well-known brands that failed to adapt, such as Woolworths, Thorntons, and Debenhams. It’s not just the Highstreet. Digital businesses will vanish too.
The economic measure of success is the nation’s GDP, or how much we produce, this magic figure affects everything. The more GDP, the more the government can tax, spend, and borrow. Lower GDP, and you get the opposite.
So, the answer is simple. We all need to work harder and longer. Or at least that’s what you might hear from some parts of the House of Commons. I’m not sure that is the answer for the millions of disempowered and disengaged workers.
“Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early, and our productivity is poor.” – Britannia Unchained, Truss et al.
“Just nine percent of UK workers feel enthused by their work and workplace today” – Gallup
How many of us have heard the saying “work smarter, not harder”? Many even try to apply it. But most organisations are riddled with inefficiencies that slowly grind out any ability to deliver anything. Review after review—approval after approval.
It’s clear how organisations have got themselves in a tight spot. Every time something went wrong, such as when a customer complained or a product was returned, they did a bit of root cause analysis, found the cause of the issue and added an extra bit of process or bureaucracy to ensure it didn’t happen again. Dave Brailsford of British Cycling was fond of saying after the 2012 Olympics that success is the aggregation of marginal gains. Sadly, the opposite is true. All these additive bureaucratic elements aggregate the reduction in productivity, leading to stagnation.
But productivity is achievable, and there are straightforward steps organisations can take, whether you’re a giant supermarket or a high street florist.
Not so much in vogue these days is the idea of lean thinking. Sadly so, as there is much wisdom in lean philosophy. One core idea is the relentless elimination of waste from your product and processes. There are many forms of waste, and it is not always obvious. It accumulates over time and binds itself to valuable elements. Some common examples of waste are:
- Building features into your product that users never use or purchase. Not only is it a waste of time and money, but it also makes your product more complex, making it harder to support longer-term, more challenging to innovate, and more complicated for users to use. The Standish group has estimated that over 60% of features are rarely or never used in tech products. All that effort to build and support those features could have been better spent on more valuable things.
- In the 1940s, the OSS (now the CIA) published its simple sabotage field manual, which describes techniques for undermining Axis Power infrastructure. One of the many recommendations to grind production to a crawl was introducing extra bureaucracy. I’ve recently seen an organisation requiring five review and approval steps by increasingly more senior managers before they send out a customer document. Each additional approval adds no value, makes no substantial correction, and causes massive delays to delivery and customer experience.
- You can’t inspect the quality of a product, said Harold F. Dodge. We’ve all experienced poor-quality products where the organisation building it hasn’t paid the requisite attention to quality as necessary. But I’m often astounded by how few businesses set any sort of standards at all. At least restaurants in the UK must display a food hygiene rating enabling you to avoid anyone with a blatant disregard for health. Sometimes that substandard product is delivered to customers causing customer complaints, refunds, and loss of business. Organisations that remotely care about their customers end up reworking the product and fixing defects at additional cost and time. Subsequently, costs are increased, and time to market is slower.
The industrial revolution was a massive exercise in automation. Want to go faster from Bristol to London? Brunel built the railway. Want to spin more yarn? Hargreaves created the Spinning Jenny. All of the industrial revolution advancements were attempts to create machines to do what people did in a faster, cheaper, and more consistently higher quality way. Then In the 1900s, Ford took the idea a step further, automating the production line.
Automation is now considered expensive and out of reach for most organisations. Sometimes I hear things like, “We can’t automate our deployment pipeline; we don’t have a sufficient budget”, but that all-or-nothing mindset won’t get you anywhere. There are lots of opportunities for micro-automation that anyone can do.
- Rather than writing a fresh email from scratch each time you need to send a reminder to a customer, you can create a standard templated reply.
- Instead of having several people proofread documents, you could add Grammarly to your process
- Need a reminder to follow up with clients, then using tools like boomerang can automate that
- Fed up with going backwards and forwards to agree on a meeting time; Calendly has that covered.
- Fed up with copying data from one app to the next, Zapier is an app that automates that.
- Need to do a repetitive task on a website? Selenium is a free tool that supports browser automation.
How much is your time worth? Let’s imagine a CEO on 100k per annum, which is about 50 pounds per hour, assuming they do a 40-hour week. How valuable would it be to have the CEO clean the toilets when someone on minimum wage can do it? Anyone can clean bathrooms, but only that one person can fulfil the accountabilities of the CEO.
One of the best things about staying in a good hotel is using the concierge service. Honestly, I’m capable of booking a table in a restaurant. Still, if I’m on holiday, my time is better spent sipping a margarita and maximising my vacation time rather than ringing around, dealing with voice mail, etc. Why not get someone to do it for me, allowing me to maximise the thing that only I can do. Personal concierge services might fill the need for a senior leader who needs extra time with family or to get that deal over the line.
You may think low-value work might be a foot on the career ladder for a young person giving them vital skills to enter the market. Maybe you’re a small business that needs to post pictures on social media. Getting an intern or student to do it gives them career capital while you can get on with your core business.
Don’t build things customers don’t want/need just because you think it’s a good idea.Set high standards of workmanship to eliminate the need for rework and excessive approvals.
If you do anything more than three times, automate it.
Think of giving someone else activities to do that are not core to your value proposition that can be easily explained and executed by someone else.