Businesses are under constant pressure to deliver short-term results. Consequently, productivity is continually being reviewed and scrutinised, whether at an individual, departmental, organisational, industry or national level.
Not surprisingly, the business world has taken on the mantra coined by Paul Krugman in 1994, “Productivity isn’t everything, but, in the long run, it is almost everything”.
Today an important measure of business success or failure is ‘output per worker’. To remain competitive, businesses invest in various technologies to assist in improving output. If that does not work, then staff reductions are sought to improve profitability. The outcome is that workers are increasingly being asked to do more with less. It is a merry-go-round that most businesses find themselves stuck on at one time or another.
Improving Worker Output
At what point does it become apparent that there is only so much juice in the lemon that can be squeezed out?
In this quest to improve productivity the business world has created the perfect storm by increasing stress and dissatisfaction within the workplace, resulting in a spiral of poor workforce performance. What if there was a way to improve worker output? To achieve this, there needs to be a managerial mind shift.
As a manager, the first questions that should be asked are what is the employee there to do? What are they being paid to do?
Then follows the crucial question all managers should ask – are they doing what they are being paid to do?
About 40% of the time the answer is no. Some blame social media or the internet, but that is not where the fault lies. Through their research Bevington and Samson (2012) have identified that what they call ‘interfacing activity noise’. Noise creeps into the various processes, reducing worker productivity.
The Prevalence of Noise
What is this interfacing activity noise? They are the disruptions that sneak into the workplace. They are defined as the non-value-adding activities that need to be rectified before the worker can proceed in getting their part of the job done. It takes various forms depending on the type of business. It can consist of checking received ‘stuff’ is complete and correct, correcting errors, chasing and completing missing information or dealing with the consequences of various errors. It is dealing with stuff that should not need to be dealt with if all went as originally planned. The plan, method, or process with time becomes so far removed from what is actually happening at the operational level that it may as well be fiction.
Some are insignificant incidences and are simply irregularities. Then there are those that invade and spread like a virus until the workers spends much of their day putting out fires. What started off as an aberration becomes embedded in the daily activities, costing money and lowering the output of the worker. In fact, it is estimated on average that this ‘noise’ absorbs about 33.6% of staff and management time (Bevington & Samson, 2012). Translated to a 40 hour working week, it is expected that between 13 to 14 hours are devoted to dealing with noise. That is nearly two working days out of every week. No wonder so many businesses are struggling financially and employees are exhausted, frustrated or both.
If this was an infectious disease, public health authorities would be announcing a pandemic and calling for immediate action.
How does this noise become part of the standard process or daily activity? Bevington and Samson suggest that one of the reasons may be that most organisations do not document the real activity conducted by their work force. Most organisations have job descriptions and KPIs but few document what actually happens day to day. Deming (1986) explains it quite succinctly, “You cannot manage what you cannot measure, you cannot measure what you cannot define, and you cannot define what you do not understand”.
Many managers firmly believe that it is just the way of the world and there is little that can be done. If managers insist on living in the world of strategy, plans and standard operational procedures choosing to ignore the reality of day to day activity, then the daily output will become a minefield of aberrations (noise) and impede business strategies from becoming realised.
No business is immune, but the noise can be managed. Bevington and Samson argue that knowledge of interfacing activity noise, their causal factors, and the significance of their impact is critical to business process management. The message is simple, assisting employees to identify noise issues and recognise potential solutions will have a significant impact on any business’ bottom line and raise productivity levels. And that is just the beginning…
By Diana Perry, Bevington Group & Izabella Kobylanski, Planning Results