Productivity and Inactivity

Take a tour of a manufacturing facility these days, and there are certain things you simply won’t see. Scrap laying on the floor, wasted time and motion, rework and inventory. These are all the wastes of the industrial era, and they have largely been eliminated by the principles and practices of Quality, Lean and Six Sigma.

On the contrary, enter any office and you will find a new set of wastes that are much more insidious than those of the industrial era — and in many instances no amount of Lean or Six Sigma can change them.

Consider things that happen in many corporate meetings. By design, most meetings are intended to plan for or solve some sort of business problem. But even in an age of stand-up meetings and wellness-conscious walking meetings — design elements aimed to strip away waste and minor disrupters — many of the usual characteristics most dreaded about the medium are poised to show up.

First, there’s the person who called the meeting. Because he or she likes to feel important, a lot of times this person tends to call many more meetings than are necessary. Then there’s the person who loves to hear the sound of his or her own voice and can’t stop talking; the class clown who can’t restrain the need to make wise cracks; the person who shows up late with great fanfare; and those who just can’t put down their smartphone.

There is no clear agenda, no discipline to the conversations, no clear actions designed and thus nothing much gets done — except that, in many cases, everyone goes back to work a bit deflated.

Meetings of this ilk might not happen at every company, but when they do, they serve as an example of things that get in the way of real productivity. This is just a small example of what waste looks like, and there are tremendous financial and psychological costs associated with these silent killers.

But how did these things come to be? What propelled organizations to function in such a way that these modern management disrupters were able to grow into common corporate habits?

Accumulating Coordination Waste

Many trace the roots of such annoyances to the modern management theories and practices first developed in the early 1900s, just as the Industrial Revolution took shape. In those days, work meant going to the factories or the fields. Workers were largely uneducated, unsophisticated and most worked for survival, as there was no social safety net.

Flash forward 100 years. Although the industrial era is far behind, many organizations still think about and practice management the same way. These organizations are essentially working in the net-speed flat world with Model T management practices.

What contemporary management is missing in some cases are the value generators in today’s world of work, “coordination workers.”  Unlike the workers of the industrial area, coordination workers are educated, sophisticated, agile, mobile, creative and innovative, with a penchant to solve complex problems. As such, they don’t respond well to industrial-era management practices based on supervision, control, predictability and standardization, all of which were intended to avoid mistakes, surprises or disruption.

The cumulative effect of these outdated practices is what can be called “coordination waste.” This includes things like unproductive moods; poor listening skills; bureaucratic work practices and structures; marginal leadership competence; teamwork as a slogan but not a practice; inadequate practices for cooperation and collaboration; weak meeting practices; outdated project design and management skills; and a pervasive lack of innovation.

Part of what enables these things to persist is that in a lot of cases our thinking about the nature of waste is still stuck in the industrial era. As a result, companies remain blind to them as destroyers of productivity.

To be sure, there have been many major innovations in the practice of management in the past 50 years. Most have come from Toyota Motor Corp. and its Toyota Production System. Quality, Just-in-Time, Lean and Six Sigma all came from the TPS. These practices were designed by automotive engineers to be effective in manufacturing, where interactions are mostly between machines or man and machine. Each was also designed to eliminate waste. 

However, unlike the wastes of the industrial era like scrap, excess inventory and unproductive time and motion, coordination waste is much more insidious; you can’t necessarily see it, thus their labeling as so-called “silent killers.”

A Deeper Look at Silent Killers

Degenerative moods: A mood is a predisposition for action. Human beings are always living in some mood, as they are an inescapable aspect of life. Moods are the foundations from which people move in the world. Too many organizations today are in the grip of degenerative moods. Some combination of distrust, resentment, resignation, cynicism, arrogance and complacency is all too often the norm.

These degenerative moods become the foundation for a wide range of unproductive behaviors, which in turn consume or waste lots of resources as organizations are forced to work around or attempt to correct them.

Degenerative or unproductive moods are tremendous yet invisible killers of productivity, because people simply cannot or will not perform to their potential when they’re in the grip of them. Current human resources theory has little to offer beyond motivation and engagement work, neither of which is likely to make a difference because they’re treating symptoms, not causes.

Lack of listening: Listening does not mean merely hearing or paying attention, but it is a specific type of active interpretation that shapes one’s reality. Listening is a specific critical skill that is largely unknown and certainly unrecognized as central to the new business environment. By blindly creating or tolerating working conditions in which people do not and often cannot effectively speak and listen to each other, managers kill productivity.

Bureaucratic styles: Bureaucracies pay attention to the correctness of their practices and adherence to their standards. Within a bureaucracy, tremendous wastes may not even be visible.

Current hierarchically oriented structures are relics of the industrial era. They are too slow and rigid for today’s demands. In the emerging coordination era, bureaucratic practices are becoming increasingly dangerous, as they directly kill not only productivity but also the generative moods of ambition, confidence and trust that are essential to building consistent competitive advantage.

Worship of information: As business leaders rush to make their enterprises more efficient, they’ve mistakenly oriented themselves, their actions and their attention around information and information systems. In many instances, business now values data and measurement above people.

Managers have come to tolerate the illusion that the most essential matters of work can be invented, managed and sustained through the creation, storage, retrieval, display and publication of information. But in some instances contemporary information systems are blind to many key drivers of productivity, leaving them to fail in their quest to integrate the diverse operations of a company.

Suppressing innovation: Many organizations have tolerated ways of working that suppress new ways of doing things. In light of this, it becomes all but impossible to develop flexibility and evolve practices for dealing with a changing world.

So what can talent managers do?

Start with the notion that the way to attract and keep top-level coordination workers is by providing them with autonomy, not systems and processes. In bureaucracies everything is about adherence to process. In a coordination-worker company it’s about mobilization, agility and performance, which often means working around or outside of existing processes.

At a more basic level, do away with the annual performance review. This is a throwback to the industrial era. For feedback to be useful, it needs to be timely. Develop a simple dashboard for employees that can be updated and go over it every six weeks. Have clear short-term performance goals as well as long-term developmental goals. These simple reviews don’t take more than 15 minutes and are much more useful.

In the coordination company, work isn’t about making things. It is the effective coordination of action to complete projects and generate results. That means that there is a new set of competencies that managers must learn.

Click here to see how much lack of employee productivity can cost a company.