Identifying Gaps in Productivity – A Case Study

A certain new subdivision of a company managing a 5-year project approached me recently.  They had been formed 6 months previously, and were in the process of setting up administrative and operational systems in order to support the implementation of the project.  This involved establishing all office systems including administration, filing, communication and logistics.  They needed me to provide guidance and support to the project staff in setting up the required administrative systems.

Their brief was to

  1. Review the current project administrative systems
  2. Work with their headquarters to compile Standard Operating Procedures
  3. Assess the administrative staff capabilities and needs against job functions/responsibilities
  4. Recommend changes and additions to current systems and staff functions
  5. Provide on-the-job training in establishing the project administrative systems.

What was clear to me from this brief was that they had identified both systems and training as areas of reduced productivity, which needed to be addressed.

After reviewing the company documentation to find out what the goals of the organization were, my first step was to consult with the administrative staff to find out exactly where they stood regarding their systems and training.

What emerged during the interviews was very interesting.  Although there were areas of reduced productivity in their current systems which I identified and addressed, it seemed that there was a much larger problem:  the management.

The problems experienced were the following:

  • The manager of the subdivision was the typical example of a micromanager.  Although a very intelligent and competent individual, he could not trust his staff to do their work without his continual interference.  His frustrated staff, instead of supporting him and the goals of the organization, did everything they could to undermine him.
  • There was confusion among the staff as who to report to, as the existing reporting structure was not adhered to.
  • The administrative staff had no job autonomy.  They were constantly interrupted as line staff had “emergencies.”  Some of these “emergencies”  had nothing to do with the goals of the organization, but were of a personal nature.  The administrative staff had been reduced to running personal errands for fickle staff, and the core administration was not being attended to in a timely and efficient manner.
  • There was no means to evaluate the job performance of staff, resulting in some staff being overworked while others had nothing to do.  The staff had no motivation to perform well.

To remedy the management problem, I suggested that a team building exercise be held.  Each staff member could give a short presentation of what they do, as well as what they don’t do, what a typical day looks like, what is working/not working, what admin support they required, etc.  My idea was that this could lead to greater understanding and respect for each other’s roles in the workplace, and clarification as to who to go to when certain matters need addressing.

With excellent team building facilitators, the results of the team building was fascinating.  The managers realized what they were doing to their staff, and a process of forgiving each other and finding ways to work together more productively resulted.  It emerged that there was also conflict between the various managers, which impacted the staff, who were in turn forced to take sides.  To address this, a management platform was created, where the managers could get together and support each other on a regular basis.  They also had guest speakers on occasion, to help train them informally on how to manage their staff more effectively.

Examining the management was not part of my scope of work.  I examined the management because if there is insufficient management, no matter how well the systems work and how good the training and implementation thereof are, there will still be areas of reduced productivity.  It was clear that the productivity of the admin staff was directly impacted by the insufficient management.

My evaluation of the systems, training and management were not done in isolation to the real people who worked within the subdivision.  The subdivision was very fortunate to have staff who were highly qualified, loyal, dedicated, and goal-directed, and who, despite the problems they experienced, tried to make the best of the situation.

Once the management improved, overall productivity improved and the project could finally take off.

Tweaking your system can have a huge impact on productivity!

When you examine your business with the eye on increasing productivity, remember that it is seldom necessary to make major changes.  Rather look at what you have, and then find ways in which to streamline it.  The illustration below is an example of a small change that made a huge difference.

In an open groove mine in Johannesburg (South Africa), the production manager was not satisfied with the rate at which ore was brought out of the mine.  He was sure it could be improved on.  Sitting in his beautiful office with a view over the city, he decided that the problem was in the equipment, which was rather dated at the time.  So he ordered new loading equipment and new trucks.  It was a tedious process because of all the red tape in the organization, but a couple of months later the new equipment arrived.

The production manager eagerly awaited a report of increased productivity.  He was surprised and disappointed when he realised that there was no significant increase in productivity with the new machines.

Sitting behind his desk, he decided that the problem surely must be with the operators of these vehicles.  They probably did not know how to operate the new heavy duty machinery.  He then arranged training courses in driving and operating heavy machinery for all his mining staff.  The mining staff enjoyed the break from work, with the accompanying free meals and tea-times during training.  Once back on the job, they tackled their jobs with enthusiasm.

The production manager eagerly awaited a report of increased productivity.  His rage boiled over when the report showed only a slight increase.  He flew out of his comfortable chair, left his plush office, donned a working outfit and visited the mine for himself!

At the open groove mine, the problem was evident immediately.  Because of a rock jotting out on the side of the road in one place, only one vehicle could go either up or down at a time. Traffic going up and traffic going down had to wait for each other at that spot.

The surprised production manager had the rock blasted away immediately, and the traffic started flowing freely.  His next productivity report was very rewarding.  Production had more than tripled.

What “rocks” are preventing you from achieving optimal productivity?

My productivity journey


In 1998, I started working at a newly formed directorate within a government department. The first day I walked into the office, there was not even a pen or computer available for me!  Yet, our director was an excellent leader with a very clear vision.  She was able to motivate the growing staff in such a way that the directorate became one of the most productive within government!  In fact, the staff were so motivated that they even spent some weekends working (unpaid), wanting to reach the goals of the directorate.  Close friendships formed between the staff members, and there was a general feeling of fun and goodwill at the office.  Most of the staff members were given merit awards and raises for their outstanding work yearly.

Having spent the prior 3 years temping for various companies in various industries, I started wondering how it was that some companies were highly productive and positive, while at other companies there was a high staff turnover with little productivity.  Was it only leadership?

When asked to do a training skills audit and organize the necessary training for the directorate, I started a study into productivity which led me to exciting discoveries regarding workplace productivity.  I wondered whether one could develop a system to analyze and correct areas of reduced productivity in an organization.  Over the next few years, I developed and refined this system and found it highly effective in all the organizations I was exposed to.

Just because something has always been done in a certain way, does not mean that I have to accept that way.  If I can think of a better way to do something, why not?

Having run my own business, I have come to hate any wastage in an organization, whether it involves money, manpower, machines, method or  materials.  To get the highest return of interest on your investment, should you not find ways in which to optimize your input?

I enjoy analysing and pulling apart and restructuring information.  So much more when it helps people to reach their goals of being more productive!

When analyzing an organization for reduced productivity, my report may upset certain individuals because I cannot compromise my integrity by coating the truth.  I do, however, try to tell the truth as gently as possible.

I believe that my system for analyzing productivity in an organisation is unique.  It is not only unique – it works!

I also enjoy overseeing the implementation of solutions to areas of reduced productivity.  I learn to know the people I work with well, and it is wonderful to see the change in morale when they suddenly realize that they are more productive!

Are you slaving your way towards poverty?

Thomas felt very productive at the end of his work day.  He had crammed in 6 meetings, and rushed through a myriad of tasks and phone calls and gotten them done before heading for the gym.  He felt really good about himself.  He was the guy that knew exactly what was going on in the business, and without his input the business would be lost.  That is why he had not taken a vacation in 4 years.  The business simply could not function without him!  However, Thomas did not mind, because he thought that the faster his pace of life, the more value he had as a person.  Thus he desperately tried to cram as much as possible into his days.

Unfortunately Thomas confused being busy with being productive.  He had lost sight of the business goals, and as a manager, had forgotten that his task should have been facilitating the workflow instead of actually doing the work himself.

Ralph Keyes stated that:  “Only by stepping back can we spot … how addictive it is to be rushed and busy.  … Business can keep us from having to reflect, risk intimacy, or face the void.  … We’re never forced to ask ourselves what really matters.

Ernie J Zelinski, in his book titled The Joy of Not Working, defines peak performers and workaholics this way:

A peak performer (ie. someone who is productive)  is someone who…

  • Works regular hours
  • Has defined goals
  • Delegates as much as possible
  • Has many interests outside of work
  • Takes and enjoys vacations
  • Has deep friendships outside of work
  • Minimizes conversation about work matters
  • Can enjoy “goofing off.”
  • Feels life is a celebration.

A workaholic, on the other hand, is someone who…

  • Works long hours
  • Has no defined goals (works simply for the sake of working)
  • Cannot delegate work to others
  • Has no interest outside of work
  • Misses vacations to work
  • Always talks about work matters
  • Is always busy doing something
  • Feels life is difficult.

Unfortunately for Thomas, a year later his company hit the rocks.  No amount of blind activity could save it from disaster.  What a pity he had not taken to heart the words of Plato: In order to seek one’s own direction, one must simplify the mechanics of ordinary, everyday life.

Productivity in the workplace: Are you adding value?

When one thinks of productivity demand, you should ask yourself the following:  Are you adding value?

  • Are you creating wealth (giving more value to something, increasing something, or making something more)?
  • Are you neutral (not adding value to your input but not decreasing it either)?
  • Are you creating poverty (wasting the input so that you have less than you started with)?

A simple example is if you take a piece of paper (worth 50c) and a bit of pencil (worth 10c)  and you make a drawing on the paper.  Your drawing is a masterpiece.  How much is the piece of paper now worth?  If you sell your drawing for $150, you have created wealth.

On the other hand, if you take the paper (worth 50c) and a bit of pencil (worth 10c) and you make a drawing that is useless, what do you do?  You crumple the paper and throw it away.  You thus throw away 60c, creating poverty.

Productivity is all about creating prosperity, welfare, making things better, adding value, or doing necessary things.  Non-productivity is destroying what there is.

5 Ways to Determine your Productivity Level

My definition of productivity is doing the right things right.  But how do you know whether you are doing the right things right?  Here are 5 basic steps to determine your productivity level:

Step 1

Are your activities aligned with your goals?   Are you aware of the goals of your organization, and how are you measuring up?  Have you set personal goals that are measurable and clear?

Step 2

Examine your work processes.  Are there systems in place to streamline the workflow, and are these systems effective?  Are routine tasks being automated as far as possible?  Are there policies and guidelines in place to help staff know what to do when?  Are you using the most effective method of getting each task done?

Step 3

Do you and your staff know how to do the best quality work?  Are you adequately trained to excel at your tasks? How do you measure the quality of your work?

Step 4

Do you have a workflow continuity plan in place?  Do you and your staff know what to do in case of emergency?  Do you have adequate backups, etc. in place in case disaster strikes?  Do you and your staff know what to do when key personnel are not at work so that the workflow remains constant?

Step 5

Do you spend time each week looking back at what has been accomplished, where you currently stand, and where you are heading?

Managing a small business is challenging.  It is so easy to feel overwhelmed with the amount of work you have to do.  There are so many distractions.  It is difficult to stay focused.  However, being productive leads to being successful and reaching your goals.  In fact, being optimally productive will give you the opportunity to take a break from your daily work and to relax.  Don’t you think it is time to focus on your productivity, in order to get the rest you need?