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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The Future of HR

man with steel artificial arm sitting in front of white table

In a future where many jobs will be lost to automation the question arises as to both the future of the workforce and the need for traditional departments such as HR.

The reality though is that whilst automation will encroach further and further into the workplace removing swathes of jobs and assisting with others, AI for all its hype, has its limits.

To understand where the watermark rests is not quite so simple, but there are guiding principles. Machines are capable of processing huge amounts of data instantly and identifying patterns, trends and correlations. This provides enormous benefit to decision makers who can leverage this data to make informed decisions.

However, decision making at a high level is often the result of considering not just one data point however well evidenced, but many and from different disciplines. Computers often can do one thing very well and fast but can rarely assess the bigger picture.

Neural Networks are capable of learning, but again this is often domain focused. We will see in future the rise of self-driving cars and literally billions of pounds are being spent each year to make this a reality. Whilst there is a high degree of confidence that this huge investment will succeed, the code behind it won’t be able to diagnose cancer in a patient.

Humans are never born to drive or diagnose a patient but have the unique ability to learn completely new and unrelated skills. Given the rapidly changing world and technology, this is a good thing, and it is ironical that whilst we are rapidly adapting to new technology, technology itself is not very good at adapting.

So, what does this all mean for the workplace, the new world of work and HR? Computers and AI will be focused on “narrow field” activities and tasks, those that require speed, accuracy and analysing big data. On the other hand, humans adapt rapidly, have holistic and “outside the box” thinking, multi-disciplinary knowledge and creativity.

Whilst HR contains a lot of administrative tasks which can be automated, there is much that cannot. HR requires a whole range of diverse knowledge and insight from understanding the Law to the values and culture of the organisation, from the needs and objectives of both company and staff to respecting union rules and the wider culture of society in which it operates.

HR acts not just to re-enforce polices and values, but also a change maker within the organisation. In fact, to do HR well, you need to understand that you are working with human beings; A statement so obvious it is often missed when discussing how a computer (with no sense of self, empathy or deep understanding) could replace people in role that requires deep interaction with others.

Computers can learn but learning without context can be at best a disaster, and at worst, catastrophic. For example, Microsoft took down Tay, an AI Chatbot on twitter only 16 hours after launch because – through learning – had started tweet offensive and racist comments. It had no moral compass or understanding of the wider culture to recognise that there is good learning and bad learning.

Imagine you are driving your car 60 mph when a child crosses the road in-front of you. There is no time for you to break without hitting the child, so you can either swerve the car up onto a pavement and hit a wall (with the potential you will incur life changing injuries) or kill the child. This is not hypothetical but a real moral and legal dilemma for the manufacturers of self-driving cars. Is their legal responsibility to the owner of the car or to other road-users? There is no legal requirement for a driver to risk or sacrifice their life to save another. Supposing the car is programmed to risk your life rather than kill the pedestrian, but now the person running across the road is a terrorist with a gun whom you are trying to stop with your car.

You might think this is going off-topic, but having a moral perspective, values and a big picture view are all important for the right decisions to be made every day.

Even the best AI lacks these things and for those who believe these issues will be sorted in the future, the answer is that we might not need to wait after all. Many in the AI field believe these kinds of issues can only be solved if AI moves to a biological architecture (rather than digital), that it requires consciousness, self-awareness and intentionality. If correct, then these attributes already exist in what we currently call humans.

The Money is Not Enough

silver and gold coins
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Whilst we often avoid the cliché’ it is generally recognised that the combined knowledge, skill and talent of your workforce is the engine of corporate success. Attracting and Retaining talent is a relentless task that will become even harder as employment levels continue to rise and competition for talent becomes greater.

However, I suggest that simply offering Money is not enough nor is it a sound strategy for attracting or retaining the talent of today.  The first reason is obvious; money isn’t unique or special. Any company can simply match or exceed your offer. The second reason is just a reflection of our times; The 80’s dream that students would retire in their 50’s and live a life of leisure for the following 40 years has disappeared. Today they can expect to be working for 50+ years and want to do something meaningful and rewarding not just in work but outside of work. They value time as much as they value money.

The problem may seem daunting but the solution is very much alive within the public sector where pay is often very limited and they have no option but to explore other means of attracting and retaining staff.  Their solution is Flexitime – providing staff flexibility around what times they work during the week. This popular approach helps attract and retain staff who otherwise might be attracted elsewhere through the promise of extra money.

Flexitime is a “integrated” solution because staff can blend their work patterns and home patterns, and this is more beneficial than simply a pay rise elsewhere that would disrupt their home patterns (whether that be dropping the kids off to school, going to the gym or a myriad of other activities). It fully integrates staff to the organisation whilst providing the work-life-balance they value.

THE NUT IS BIGGER THAN YOU THINK

This will often lead into a discussion about whether the solution is a sledgehammer and the problem being just a nut. Staff turnover varies from organisation to organisation but the average is 15%. In general, you feel the pain less because attrition occurs over a year – imagine the pain if 15% resigned in a single week!

In general, it will cost you one year’s salary to recruit and train a new member of staff. This does not allow for all the knowledge lost that cannot be quantified though figures. But the numbers add up.

Of course, not all attrition is due to conflicting work patterns which is why staff exit interviews and surveys are important so you can assess the issues and impact of solutions.

But what if you could decrease attrition by a third? What impact would that have on productivity, reduced recruitment and training costs?

Then there is staff recruitment. Do you survey those that decline a job offer? Are you losing the best candidates because of inflexible work patterns? Does when people work matter more to you than how well they do their work?

How many staff take sick days because of personal diary conflicts? Almost impossible to measure but almost certainly it occurs in every organisation with inflexible work patterns.

THE VALUE OF TIME

The final discussion is often about how valuable flexitime is to staff. The answer of course is that depends on the individual, but only by extent not by absolute.

An employee on £10 per hour will earn about £19,500 per year (gross) and spends 2 hours a day commuting to work during rush hour. By working flexibly, he can cut his journey time from 2 hours to 1 hour a day by avoiding the rush hour. That’s worth (deducting his holiday time) £2,400 per year NET. The equivalent in gross salary would result in an 18% increase.

In another example, an employee that commuted by train to work could save between £500 and £1,500 a year by traveling off-peak.

So, benefits for staff are not just about fitting in personal plans but also saving time and in some cases saving money.  And in these examples, many companies would struggle to match the cash value that translates into flexitime.

ITS ABOUT TIME

Whether the discussion is about how to reward staff when times are commercially tough or how to attract and retain staff when times are good, it’s about time to start discussion now.

Some tips to get you started;

  1. Analyse the figures for staff turnover and categorise the reasons. Your exit interviews need to be carefully constructed to gain genuine and informative information.
  2. Similarly, you need to follow up your application rejections to gain insight.
  3. Get a deeper view of sickness. Not just occurrences but durations.
  4. Implement the Bradford Factor to get another layer of detail.
  5. Identify the staffing groups that easily map to flexitime
  6. Be clear about what times are flexible and what are not.
  7. Create a policy with clear and transparent rules.
  8. Ensure you have a system in place that eases administration, provides transparency and helps demonstrate the benefits.

 

Flexitime – Attract and Retain Talent

Organisations that deploy flexitime create a strong bond with their employees through personalised schedules that meet not only the employers business needs but also the employees preferences. This blended and personalised relationship not only retains key talent but also attracts new talent in a highly competitive market.