What my kids taught me about Productivity

What my kids taught me about productivity

Firstly, I confess I made a mistake; we needed to write letters to just under half our customer base (650) before Christmas. This was part of our commitment to inform customers of new developments within our group.

We chose a letter (snail-mail) as these days email is more likely to hit the spam than get into the hands of the people you want to reach. My mistake was haste; Had I taken the time, I would have saved about 10-20% of the cost (about £60) by using a 3rd party.

However, I decided to do the mail merge and post in-house and was faced with the task of folding 650 letters and putting them into envelopes. My solution was to invite my children (I have 4 ranging from 8 to 13) to complete this task rather than burden my colleagues.

I calculated that it would take about 5 seconds per envelope and offered my children 5p per item. I was at first sceptical that at such young age they would grasp the potential prize (£32.50) if they completed whole project.

Initially I invited my youngest daughter Arabelle and her older brother Blake to the challenge. Enthusiastically they got to task immediately and within 5 minutes my oldest son joined the party.

Arabelle, independently came to the revelation that it was more efficient to fold all the letters first and then put them into the envelopes after, rather than switch tasks for each letter. She is only 8 years old yet came up with a way to optimise the task and improve her productivity.

Zach and Blake took this further by copying the idea and teaming up together (they agreed to share the rewards equally). They recognised the benefit of collaborating.

Halfway through my other son Jed turned up (he would normally spurn such an opportunity) but was inspired by the enthusiasm of his brothers and sister. He immediately joined the team. Arabelle being generous of heart agreed to team up with him and share the rewards even though she had already done a large amount of the work. She determined that she would fold whilst Jed would put in the envelope (another smart move) thereby focusing each on a specific task.

Naturally given it was now a competition and a limited number of opportunities (650), there was a pressure to cut corners and so I introduced a quality control process; The address needed to be fully visible in the window of the envelope. If it failed that test, then the envelope (and reward) would be handed to the other team for rework. From that point on quality control was embedded in the team and any queries were flagged up to me immediately (I took on the role of Quality Control Officer).

I was literally taken back by how quickly a group of kids could organise themselves, collaborate, optimise their activities and improve productivity without any direction.

With UK productivity still anaemic, there are some powerful lessons we can all learn from this;

  1. If you want productivity improvements, ask those who are doing the task – they know far more than you.
  2. Create a culture that encourages rather than frustrates the innate potential in people to improve efficiency.
  3. Improvements in productivity can be achieved very quickly if there is focus and incentives.
  4. Ensure quality control is embedded in the process not simply at the end.
  5. Measure and track the entire process to ensure continuous learning.
  6. Never underestimate the contribution of women in the workplace; my youngest daughter came up with the majority of productivity improvements. It is no surprise that the Mckinsey report identified that organisations with 30% or more female executives, are on average 15% more profitable (For more info watch our COO, Nicola Smart interviewed by the Telegraph Business Reporter)

For those interested in statistics

Arabelle and Jed achieved 259 with a failure rate of 0.77% (e.g. 2 that failed QC)

Zach and Blake achieved 311 with a failure rate of 1.93% (e.g. 6 that failed QC)

The failure rate was significantly below the industry average for manual processes.

Finally, the reason for the discrepancy (570 completed vs 650 letters) was down to management failure (me) to provide enough envelopes (I guess the final lesson here is to always invest in planning)

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Time to Reboot Productivity

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Time to Reboot Productivity

One thing is clear from the myriad of UK statistics; A huge number of UK companies just aren’t productive. They may be working hard for their customers and stakeholders, but they just aren’t working Smart.

productivity

And here is the evidence;

  • Productivity (measured as output per hour worked) is as a huge 18% below the G7 Average (ONS) and the widest since 1995.
  • If we compare the UK to EA/EU productivity growth (2016) we are just above Italy and Greece in the group of 32 countries.
  • Historically our productivity growth was 2% per year. Since 2007 growth has evaporated and as of 2017 (Q2) we are .5% below 2007 levels.
  • To put this into perspective we are 20% poorer due to productivity stagnation than we would have been had productivity continued to improve at 2%.
  • These figures are bad enough but when you remove London (home to the Finance Sector and 32% higher than UK average) from the figures productivity is even worse than the headline figures.

How does this affect your business?

The statistics reveal that the problem of poor productivity is not a problem that affects “some other business” but to some extent and degree most businesses. Poor productivity results in loss of competitiveness, reduced profits, wage stagnation and skill/staff attrition. If any of these resonate then you too may be one of the many and not the few.

Whose fault is it anyway?
Whilst it is true that national infrastructure (Rail/Roads/Broadband) contribute towards productivity (something the government is “working on”) this is just one factor which is outside of the control of business. The other critical and contributory factors remain with the CEO and the company board.

Management.
A task too often focused on maintaining the status quo rather than constantly striving to improve the efficiency of their area of responsibility.

Skills.
Ensuring your staff are fully trained to perform their tasks at optimum performance. Improving skills not just increases output it also reduces rework though improved quality.

Processes.
Outdated paper-based and unwieldy processes that simply burden staff and reduce their productive time must constantly be identified, reworked – or eliminated – and automated.

Technology.
The ability for technology not just to automate processes but transform them is no longer a vision but an everyday fact for most high-tech business. Both process transformation and (technology) automation should be viewed as a single inseparable goal and activity.

Planning & Measurement.
The transformational impact of technology enables not just improved planning but also real-time measurement enabling a business to close the loop on productivity initiatives and implement continuous improvement easily and cost effectively.

Where do I start?

For many businesses the answer is obvious and that is to measure the output per hour worked.

One of the biggest costs for businesses is staff and highly productive companies have the following information at their fingertips and often in real-time;

  • Where are my staff?
  • What are they working on (activity/task/client/contract/customer)?
  • Are my staff working patterns aligned to business demand?
  • What changes must be made to align staff to business demand and avoid unnecessary downtime, overtime or unproductive time?
  • What is my staff’s overtime, absence and unproductive time today/this week/this month?

If you cannot answer these questions simply and quickly about your greatest and most expensive asset (your staff) then you cannot even start to identify issues, implement improvement plans or measure the effectiveness of those plans.

Nor have you laid the foundations for continuous improvement.

The biggest mistake companies make with improvement projects is that it is a one-step process rather than a continuous never-ending cycle that is impacted by technology, methodology, tools, training and materials.

Above all, its time to measure, not once or twice but constantly to ensure improvements are not one-off but continuous. The UK needs a Productivity Reboot and businesses should not wait for the government to make it happen but make the changes only business can make. That time is now.