Improving Organizational Productivity
 
Many middle and senior managers that I have spoken with in recent times in St. Lucia, all seem to echo the same complaint - "you canít get workers to do anything!" Good workers are hard to come by they say. Workers are lazy, they want more money for less work, they always want time off, they talk considerably on the job, and they transact personal business on job time. These are just some of the expressions used to describe the attitude and style of the St. Lucian work force. Productivity levels appear to be so low, that a well-known politician recently had workers in an uproar, when he claimed that the public sector could be downsized by 50% without any appreciable loss in productivity. If you talk to people quietly enough, you will find that there really isnít much disagreement with that claim. What the statement highlights for me, is the possible existence of a national crisis with respect to worker productivity, and the need for businesses and the public sector to do something about it.

Unlike many of those managers and supervisors, I would not be so hasty to blame workers for low productivity levels. That is synonymous with blaming the phlegm for the cold that you have. Low worker productivity is often symptomatic of inefficient managerial systems. If a shoe machine is poorly designed, no matter how good the leather, it will produce bad shoes. It is not impossible, however, to produce bad shoes from loading a good machine with bad leather. One would hope that the machine operator would inspect the leather before loading the machine so as to avoid making bad shoes from bad leather. If we extend this analogy to organizations, then we see workers are inputs. Interviews are conducted to select (inspect) "good" workers. A logical question, therefore, is what happens later on that turn potentially "good" workers into bad ones? Either the worker selection (or inspection) process was faulty, or the organization is a badly designed or badly functioning machine. A quality management guru by the name of Edward Deming, claimed that 85% percent of organizational problems can be attributed to management. Workers are responsible for only 15% of the problems. We may debate the numbers, but the point is, that most problems are caused by faulty systems which in most cases fall under the purview of management.

A simple mathematical formula for productivity is the ratio of output to inputs. Hence we can increase productivity by keeping inputs fixed and increasing output, keeping output fixed and decreasing inputs, or increasing output and decreasing inputs simultaneously. This simple formula, however, can be misleading, as not all of the important factors that affect productivity are easily quantified. There are closely-linked technical, social, psychological, and cultural dimensions to productivity. Failure to examine these dimensions in any productivity analysis will more than likely lead to the failure of productivity improvement efforts.

Productivity improvement analysis can be conducted at the task or micro level, or at the structural or macro level. Task level analysis focuses on accomplishing a specific task as quickly and efficiently as possible. Structural level analysis takes a "big picture" approach and examines the vision of the organization, the business strategy and philosophy, the culture of the organization, core business competencies, management systems, and so on.

A what, why, when, and how framework can be used to assist in task level analysis. Both worker and management must share common knowledge of precisely what needs to be done, why and when the task needs to be completed, and how the task ought to be carried out. Many workers are given tasks to complete without any notion of why the tasks are necessary or their relative importance in the scheme of things. A simple task such as entering transactions in a general ledger may seem unimportant, but is in fact a critical function in any organization. Work methodology is a significant aspect of productivity. Poorly designed methods often lead to poor performance and low worker morale. Work methods that are not culturally sensitive can also impact on worker motivation. For example, people of African descent are a highly social people. Hence work methods which call for worker isolation will result in poor performance. Also, methods which employ regimental approaches may not work very well. In summary, method analysis calls for close examination of procedure, inputs, output goals, philosophy, and of the underlying cultural value system.

Structural analysis focuses on desired achievements based on the organizationís broad aims and objectives. Not only is productivity this level multi-dimensional, it is also difficult to analyze quantitatively. Inputs such as business strategy, management philosophy, and organizational culture, all major determinants of organizational productivity, are not easily quantified. Hence the reason why so many management philosophies have been proposed: management by objectives (MBO), zero-based budgeting (ZBB), total quality management (TQM), business process reengineering (BPR), activity-based management (ABM), management by project (MBP), team-based management (TBM), etc. Unfortunately, there is no universally accepted model for organizational productivity improvement, just guidelines, the success of which depend heavily on the nature of the organization and the approach of the individuals attempting to implement them.

The following are some guidelines for conducting a productivity improvement exercise: 1) Establish what needs to be improved and why; 2) establish an appropriate productivity measure and a corresponding measuring system; 3) assess the current level of productivity and set stretch productivity goals; 4) identify key factors impacting on the productivity measure; 5) form and train a multi-functional productivity improvement team; 6) conduct a critical multi-dimensional analysis of each impacting factor focusing primarily on the underlying processes; 7) establish new policy and procedures in keeping with recommendations for improvement; 8) sell the recommendations to all stakeholders within the organization and conduct training sessions on the new procedures where appropriate; finally, 9) establish a system for the monitoring and review of the new procedures.

In a highly competitive environment with shrinking global markets, St. Lucian organizations have little choice but to search for innovative ways to improve productivity. In doing so, managers in these organizations must be mindful not to take out their frustrations on workers, but should rather attempt to use workers as an asset along the journey to a new and improved organization. TQM, BPR, and ABM, all employ techniques that can be very valuable in a productivity exercise. I would encourage those unaware of those techniques to persue them.

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