Productivity Improvement Steering Wheel

March 31, 2020

The topic of productivity improvement has fascinated me for the biggest part of my life.  I recall reading as a young college student about a factory that continued functioning after all its employees went on strike.   The supervisors ran the plant quite successfully for a period of many weeks.  (My question was why they couldn’t continue doing that permanently if it worked well for a few weeks. I wasn’t thinking about maintenance and repair issues.)  But the fact of the matter in decades past was that many organizations simply had more people than they needed.

During the Second World War, several shipyards constructed cargo ships in a fraction of the time it had formerly taken them. That phenomenon was primarily driven by the fact that the need for these so-called “Liberty Ships” was so great.   The success of the war effort depended on having these ships available and the management figured out better processes and the front-line workers rose to the occasion.

I’ve been struck by Jack Welch’s comment about the potential of people to be more productive.  He said, “There is an unlimited amount of juice in that lemon.” While the amount of juice may not be truly unlimited, the fundamental point that people are often capable of producing at a far higher level continues to be true.  Research has shown that there are huge differences in the productivity of people in any occupation and the more complex the job, the larger the difference between top performers and those at the bottom. I currently serve on the Board of Regents of the State in which I live.  One startling fact I’ve encountered is that five percent of college faculty members produce 80% of the publications.  So while huge differences in productivity exist in many occupations, this is especially true for those involving the application of knowledge.

This long-term interest in productivity improvement has led me to ask two obvious and practical questions:

  1. What is it that leaders do to create a climate in which people go the extra mile and perform at remarkably high levels? and
  2. What causes people to put forth extraordinary discretionary effort?

Following are some of the most important elements our research identifies:

  1. Redefine work.  You often hear people say, “I’m going to work,” as if work was a destination.  One way of obtaining higher performance from people is to move from viewing work as a place to instead viewing it as results that need to be accomplished, and for which someone is responsible.  The Best Buy organization has found that productivity increases by approximately 35% when you take this approach of holding people accountable for outcomes, not merely to be “at work” for a certain number of hours.
  2. Make the targets highly visible and clear. Nothing confuses people more and reduces productivity to a greater degree than murkiness about the objectives being sought.  The simple process of reminding everyone of the target and asking team members to describe to each other their interpretation of the big goal is extremely powerful.
  3. Emphasize continuous improvement. Everyone in the organization needs to know the organization aspires to continuously improve and to reach ever-higher levels of performance.  Adopt new technologies that enhance productivity, such as videoconferencing that dramatically cut travel budgets and allow key people to utilize time more effectively.
  4. Convey infectious enthusiasm about your projects. Emotions are highly contagious.  A leader’s upbeat enthusiasm for a project causes others to put forth extra effort on its behalf.  If the leader’s goal is to increase discretionary effort, then the organization needs to feel enthusiasm emanating from their leaders.
  5. Treat colleagues at work with great respect. The leader who poses important questions to subordinates and who listens to the answers will obtain higher levels of productivity than one who doesn’t.  The leader who invariably seeks a subordinate’s opinion before expressing his or her own is far more likely to have high productivity from that individual.
  6. Express appreciation and provide recognition. These simple acts take small bits of time, yet pay huge dividends.  Frequent expressions of sincere appreciation from a leader create a positive work environment and have been shown to have a direct link to greater productivity.
  7. Take an active role in the development of subordinates. Carving out time for ongoing coaching is highly correlated with the highest levels of employee productivity.

We could add a number of other leadership acts to this list, but we hope the point is clear.  Rising to higher levels of productivity is the outcome of straightforward behaviors that are within the grasp of every leader.  There are no big secrets.  These are not obscure or complex behaviors to execute.

Yet productivity improvement lies at the heart of our ability to maintain a high standard of living.  The most effective organizations are those whose productivity gains exceed their competitors.  The most effective nations are those whose productivity gains eclipse other nations.

Sadly, however, productivity improvement has had a rocky past as an area of focus.  Historically some labor unions fought the idea because they interpreted it as a slap in the face of the front-line worker.  The underlying message from their perspective was management saying to the workers, “You aren’t perspiring enough.” “Work harder.”  “It’s your fault the organization is not doing better.”

Most management scholars, however, were quite clear that the big gains in productivity have come from management’s streamlining systems and ensuring that the culture was conducive to higher performance.

If you would like to learn more, you can find an archive of our webinar, How to Be an Exceptional Performer: 5 Ways to Build the Strengths of Individual Contributors, in the resource section.

—Dr. Jack Zenger