Productivity: How Do We Get More of It?

We can harness natural resources, machines, animals and ourselves to produce goods and services. If we're talking about the productivity of a natural resource, we might think in terms of crop yields per acre, or BTU's per cubic meter of gas. The productivity of machines is more often expressed in terms of throughput per hour. The productivity of people ranges from pure labor - the number of pieces you can make in a shift, to more subtle production - like how many great ideas you have in a lifetime.

Over the centuries, people have become more and more productive. Where one farmer could feed maybe 4 people 100 years ago, he may now feed 90. One coal miner might produce 16 tons in a long shift 100 years ago, he now produces over 1000 tons.

Productive companies tend to win out over less productive competitors, since their costs are lower for the same level of output. So... how can management act to increase productivity?

1. Make sure that the overall direction of the organization is correct and clear. If you're taking a circuitous route to your target, you're wasting time and energy.

2. Make sure that communication is clear, thorough and open. If everyone is aligned, you waste less time and energy.

3. Make sure you detect problems early, and nip them in the bud. The lookouts on the Titanic didn't have binoculars.

4. Make sure you don't spend people's time and energy reacting to imaginary problems. If you use control charts to track key processes, you'll be able to tell the difference between real changes in your environment and processes, and normal variation.

5. Harness the minds of your people. They usually know what is constraining them from doing better work. Ask them, listen, and involve them in the solution.

6. Systematically remove barriers to progress. Get rid of scrap. Get rid of rework. Reduce inspection as much as possible.

7. Understand your real costs. What does a person really cost? What does a machine really cost? Can a process be done better outside the organization?

Almost all the methods described in this section are here because they contribute to some aspect of improved productivity. They are not mutually exclusive, either. All these methods can be combined into a cohesive whole, which, at bottom, is just good management.