Now that we’ve got the hard bit out of the way, let’s talk about the behavioural issues and opportunities on our journey to deliver a productivity miracle. Obviously, there are higher level drivers of performance such as the organisational culture, a safe environment, sound and flexible work practices, a clear purpose and authentic leadership style etc. I won’t cover these as there are many more learned commentators on these topics than me.
What I will focus on is what the individual leader can do. As you know, one way to improve productivity is to improve the process. All of the points below will deliver significant performance improvement without improving the underlying process. Imagine what would happen if you did both!!! So in no particular order, here’s some food for thought:
- Terminology: as Neil Bentley explained to me, there are issues with the terms themselves. For some reason people tend to be suspicious when the term “efficiency” enters the room, assuming it’s close relative “retrenchment” is not too far behind. On the other hand, talk of “productivity” and it’s like you never asked. For those of you who paid attention to the first part of this blog, you will know that calculating efficiency is both more common and more practical, but people prefer the term productivity, so a simple solution is to use the formula for efficiency but call it productivity.
- Anchoring: The second one is really an anchoring bias. Because we calculate efficiency as a percentage i.e. as a fraction of a whole, we struggle with the idea of a percentage greater than 100%. As we have seen, efficiency is based on a standard time, which, in a services world, is anything but precise. The actual time taken for a task may be more or less than the standard, hence the formula will yield a result that is either less than or greater than 100%. We need to make sure everyone understands this to avoid the “you can’t go faster than 100%” trap.
- Target Setting: setting a standard that is hard to calculate precisely does provide some leeway for the level at which we set the standard. Set the standard too high and the resulting efficiency percentage will look silly given the anchoring bias e.g. 170% and team members are less likely to strive for more, given they are so far above 100% anyway. Set the time standard too low and a resultant efficiency level sub 50% will leave the team thinking they have an impossible target. The ‘Goldilocks’ number maybe around 85-95%, but remember, what you are chasing is performance improvement over time. Every time you change the standard you distort the history. Once a year, around budget time or after a major process change, should suffice.
- Small Step or a Giant Leap?: this may seem to be a trade-off but it is really aligned to ensuring long term goals are locked in to shorter term plans. To make significant performance leaps, the team need to think differently and this needs to be done in a safe environment, where it’s ok to ask “silly” questions and accept that it’s better to under-deliver by 3-5% on a 40-50% improvement than over-achieve by 0.1-0.2% on a 3% uplift. However, once you’ve set a target, create a plan to deliver it incrementally. If you set a 20% annual improvement target, plan to lift performance by 2% per month – based on an 8 hour day, that’s only 8 mins per person to find.
- Short Interval Control: having a plan is one thing, having a means to stay on track is another in a service environment. It’s so easy for the day to get away from you and to find yourself scrambling to get the work done. Breaking the day down into multiple control points eg every 1-2 hours, just to check you are on track, helps maintain focus and allow early intervention if there are issues.
- Remove Hidden Barriers: one of the most common constraints is the role played by other departments. A great example is when a leader works hard to gain the team’s trust to give up capacity (because they have a surplus at that time) only to be left with egg on their face when the finance department refuses to approve additional resources if there is a shortfall later.
- Trust: trust arrives on a tortoise and leaves on a hare. Launching an initiative to build empowered, self-directed teams, creating capacity to re-invest in cross-skilling and taking on new work will not only collapse immediately you announce the 20% redundancy program three months later, but it will have far longer lasting impacts on your ability to get the team to outperform. If an objective of your productivity drive is to reduce headcount faster than natural attrition, be open and communicate this directly to the team.
- Shift Patterns: “use it or lose it” is a great term to reflect the challenge of scheduling staff. I have lost count of the number of teams that I have seen all arrive at the same time in the morning and then incur overtime costs as the work continues to flow beyond their standard shift. Profiling a typical day’s work inflow and then aligning the shift pattern to it gives a relatively quick win – great for the team, not to have to stay back and great for productivity, not having idle resource sitting around when there’s no work.
- Human Potential: this is one of the eight lean wastes and usually gets discussed in the context of team members coming up with ideas for improvement. There is another element – the capacity to be productive. People are not calibrated like machines, they do not have a dial on their forehead to tell you they’re running flat out. If you give a team member more challenging work to do, it’s important to stay in constant contact to ensure they’re not feeling overwhelmed, skipping lunch, staying back late etc. The other way is to check back on the performance stats after a crisis e.g. a business continuity planning event or a bout of illness running through the office. You’ll be amazed at how much more productive the team were at this time. It may not be sustainable in the long run, but will give you a very good understanding of the possible.
- Individual Productivity: a team’s productivity may be relatively smooth, but hidden within it will be enormous variations, based on individual productivity. The ideal is for people to be working at a steady rate and progressively improving their productivity performance. Closer inspection may reveal wild swings – understanding why an individual can perform like a superhero one day and the bottom of the class the next is one of the most challenging aspects of being a team leader. Figuring our how to reduce individual variability and ensuring the bottom performers are learning from the better performers is fundamental to building a champion team.
- Work Mix: most teams perform a variety of work and the productivity metric will reflect the mix at the aggregate level. At the individual level, it’s very easy to for the team to argue that the best performer had all of the easy tasks and the worst performer all of the more complex tasks. It may be true sometimes but by no means always – know the team and know their work.
- Know Your Team: once again, it’s amazing how much productivity is lost through poor team dynamics. With long-tenured teams there may be simmering feuds. I had a team many years ago where two people just didn’t get on but were “forced” to sit next to each other. I’ve had teams where quality deteriorated at the end of the day because resources were rushing to leave to catch the only train home in the evening. For another team the main source of discontent was the lack of knives in the cutlery drawer in the staff kitchen. All easy to fix but you need to know your team.
- Pacing: most experienced managers would have seen this, where a new team member settles in, starts to demonstrate that they can do their work quickly and accurately and then suddenly slows down. This is usually driven by the more outspoken team members encouraging the new hire to slow down, so as not to show other team members up. Finding out who the influencers are, what’s causing them to throttle productivity and how to unleash their potential (the most experienced operators, should be the most productive), is once again a critical task of the aspirational coach of a champion team.
- Self-directed Teams: empowering your teams to make decisions on how best to deliver their objectives has always been a bit of a “no-brainer” as far as I’m concerned. Those people closest to the work are far better placed to know what to do to get the work done in a timely manner than a manager sitting in an office or another location. Set clear guidelines, objectives, provide adequate training in the relevant tools and techniques, provide a safe and supportive environment when things go wrong and then watch the magic happen.
Get these factors right and you’re well on your way to leading a champion team. A team which will deliver a significant and sustainable performance uplift that far exceeds your expectations, far faster and more cost-effectively than many large-scale transformation initiatives. Good luck!