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;
- If you want productivity improvements, ask those who are doing the task – they know far more than you.
- Create a culture that encourages rather than frustrates the innate potential in people to improve efficiency.
- Improvements in productivity can be achieved very quickly if there is focus and incentives.
- Ensure quality control is embedded in the process not simply at the end.
- Measure and track the entire process to ensure continuous learning.
- 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)