A Singular Pillar of Productivity

by Mike Shipulski

A Singular Pillar of ProductivityProductivity generates profit. No argument. But it has two sides – it can be achieved through maximization by increasing output with constant resources (machines and people) or through minimization with constant output and decreasing machines and people. And the main pillars of both flavors are data, tools, and process.

Data is used to understand how things are going so they can be made more productive. Process output is measured, yields are measured, and process control charts are hung on the wall like priceless art. Output goes up and costs go down. And the two buckets of cost – people and machines – are poured out the door. But data on its own doesn’t know how to improve anything. The real heroes are the people that look at the data and use good judgment to make good decisions.

You can pull the people out of the process to reduce costs, but you can’t pull the judgment out productivity improvement work. And here’s the difference – processes are made transactional and repetitive so people can be removed, and because judgment can’t be made into a transactional process, people are needed to do productivity improvement work. People and their behavior – judgment – are the keys.

Tools are productivity’s golden children. Better tools speed up the work so more can get done. In the upswing, output increases to get more work done; in the downturn, people leave to reduce cost. Tools can increase the quality (maximize) or reduce the caliber of the people needed to do the work (minimize). But the tools aren’t the panacea, the real panacea are the people that run them.

Any analytical tool worth its salt requires judgment by the person that runs it. And here’s where manufacturing’s productivity-through-process analogy is pushed where it doesn’t belong. Companies break down the process to run the tools into 6000 to 7000 simple steps, stuff them into a 500 page color-coded binder, provide a week of training and declare standard work has saved the day because, now that the process has been simplified and standardized, everyone can run the tool at 100% efficiency. But the tool isn’t the important part, neither is the process of using it. The important part is the judgment of the people running it.

Productivity of tools is not measured in the number of design cycles per person or the number of test cases run per day. This manufacturing thinking must be banished to its home country – the production floor. The productivity of analytical tools is defined by the goodness of the output when the time runs out. And at the end of the day, measuring the level of goodness also requires judgment – judgment by the experts and super users. With tools, it’s all about judgment and the people exercising it.

And now process. When the process is made repetitive, repeatable, and transactional, it brings productivity. This is especially true when the process lets itself to being made repetitive, repeatable, and transactional. Here’s a good one – step 1, step 2, step 3, repeat for 8 hours. Dial it in and watch the productivity jump. But when it’s never been done before, people’s judgment governs productivity; and when the process has no right answer, the experts call the ball. When processes are complex, undefined, or the first of their kind, productivity and judgment are joined at the hip.

Processes, on their own, don’t rain productivity from the sky; the real rainmakers are the people that run them.

Today’s battle for productivity is overwhelmingly waged in the trenches of minimization, eliminating judgment skirmish by skirmish. And productivity’s “more-with-less” equation has been toppled too far toward “less”, minimizing judgment one process at a time.

Really, there’s only one pillar of productivity, and that’s people. As everyone else looks to eliminate judgment at every turn, what would your business look like if you went the other way? What if you focused on work that demanded more judgment? I’m not sure what it would look like, other than you’d have little competition.

Clearworks

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Mike ShipulskiMike Shipulski brings together people, culture, and tools to change engineering behavior.  He writes daily on Twitter as @MikeShipulski and weekly on his blog Shipulski On Design.

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