How to create productivity in an unproductive world

Fünf Schritte der erfolgreichen Softwareeinführung
2. Juli 2022
Produktiv sein in einer unproduktiven Welt
15. August 2022
Fünf Schritte der erfolgreichen Softwareeinführung
2. Juli 2022
Produktiv sein in einer unproduktiven Welt
15. August 2022

Long befo­re we star­ted to use elec­tro­nic gad­gets to dis­tract our­sel­ves pur­po­seful­ly and per­ma­nent­ly the war for pro­duc­ti­vi­ty was lost.

At the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry, peo­p­le were still paid by the pie­ce and were the­r­e­fo­re inte­res­ted in their per­for­mance, as this direct­ly deter­mi­ned their inco­me. With gro­wing com­pa­nies and strong imba­lan­ces in the labor mar­kets, the­re was a ten­den­cy to squeeze pie­ce rates fur­ther and fur­ther, so that they were soon per­cei­ved as unjust.

When Ford came along and paid by the hour, the solu­ti­on see­med to be found, and many fol­lo­wed his exam­p­le. Within the last 100 years, hour­ly pay beca­me the stan­dard and inte­rest in mere atten­dance repla­ced inte­rest in value and pro­duc­ti­vi­ty. This is rein­forced by slo­gans like „reward effort, not results“ (Goog­le CEO Sun­dar Pichai in 2022), prin­ci­ples like equal pay, and skill-based stan­dard pay sche­mes that ensu­re the very last per­for­mance com­po­nent is remo­ved from salaries.

Today, only in sports and enter­tain­ment we obser­ve peo­p­le being paid for the eco­no­mic value of their work and with hour­ly pay­ments being the stan­dard we often regard the­se excep­ti­ons as unjust, too. In the­se sys­tems, howe­ver, pay­ment accor­ding to extra­or­di­na­ri­ly high eco­no­mic values is neces­sa­ry to moti­va­te a suf­fi­ci­ent num­ber of peo­p­le to take on the long-term per­so­nal invest­ment and thus to fil­ter out the best.

Simi­lar to ath­le­tes, the remu­ne­ra­ti­on of com­pa­ny owners and free­lan­cers depends less on their time spent than on the qua­li­ty and popu­la­ri­ty of their results. At least indi­rect­ly, as demand for their pro­ducts and ser­vices fluc­tua­tes accor­din­gly. As they grow and hire employees to help them deli­ver their pro­ducts or ser­vices, they face the same chall­enge: how to main­tain the pre­vious level of inte­rest in qua­li­ty, ser­vice excel­lence, and productivity.

The first and uni­ver­sal solu­ti­on that Ford appli­ed was fixed work cycles. His assem­bly line moved at a cer­tain speed so that each worker was forced to do the work assi­gned to him in the time available. Anyo­ne who repea­ted­ly fai­led to achie­ve the spe­ci­fied results was remo­ved and repla­ced by someone else. In fact, in sys­tems with stan­dard work cycles, the fear of losing one’s job is the main moti­va­ti­on for gene­ra­ting pro­duc­ti­vi­ty. Nowa­days, this prin­ci­ple is also used for every recur­ring and time-calculable acti­vi­ty such as order picking and par­cel delivery.

With incre­asing auto­ma­ti­on using robots and com­pu­ters, people’s work is shif­ting from stan­dard tasks to chan­ging tasks such as pro­blem sol­ving and crea­ting new. For the­se tasks, the­re is no upfront work plan­ning, nor do stan­dard cycle times app­ly. Some­ti­mes per­for­mance can­not even be mea­su­red or is sub­ject to con­stant dis­cus­sion. In the­se envi­ron­ments, the link bet­ween per­so­nal inte­rest and job per­for­mance has beco­me dan­ge­rous­ly weak. And the­re is no inte­rest in chan­ging any­thing. Cle­ar­ly, workers would have to bear the effort of chan­ging work prac­ti­ces or col­la­bo­ra­ti­on, with no per­so­nal bene­fit if the input-output rela­ti­onship chan­ged for the bet­ter. On the con­tra­ry, hig­her pro­duc­ti­vi­ty could lead to less paid over­ti­me and would the­r­e­fo­re even redu­ce their inco­me. At the end of the day, the most inte­res­t­ing topics for 99% of employees are ear­ning a living with as litt­le work as pos­si­ble, get­ting home on time, and secu­ring their annu­al bonuses.

For this reason, some sub­sti­tu­te mecha­nisms have emer­ged over the past 100 years in an attempt to pro­mo­te productivity:


  1. Dead­lines

Dead­lines in pro­jects or for the deli­very of a result prac­ti­cal­ly crea­te pres­su­re on employees to increase their work pace. This is espe­ci­al­ly the case when the dead­line is approa­ching or alre­a­dy in the past. The effec­ti­ve­ness is due to our human inte­rest in being relia­ble, mee­ting our obli­ga­ti­ons on time, and being reco­gni­zed as a good employee. In prac­ti­ce, this mecha­nism is most effec­ti­ve when it is alre­a­dy too late and the due dates are in the past. Due dates in the past are par­ti­cu­lar­ly dama­ging becau­se any plan­ning based on the­se dates is phy­si­cal­ly impos­si­ble and leads to misun­derstan­dings and addi­tio­nal com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on. When com­pa­nies opt for con­sis­tent plan­ning and move due dates back into the future, the side effect is to sys­te­ma­ti­cal­ly redu­ce the pres­su­re to work effec­tively and achie­ve high pro­duc­ti­vi­ty. The prac­ti­cal thing about the focus on dead­lines is that the num­ber of tasks with a dead­line in the past also gives us trans­pa­ren­cy about the respec­ti­ve capa­ci­ty requi­re­ments. If we are fle­xi­ble enough, this is suf­fi­ci­ent for a func­tio­ning organization.


  1. Work over­load or ver­bal pressure

The most com­mon method of ensu­ring a hig­her work pace is to increase the pres­su­re by incre­asing the indi­vi­du­al amount of work. This prin­ci­ple also addres­ses the workers‘ need for reco­gni­ti­on. To be a good worker who relia­bly does his job and is important to the com­pa­ny. To achie­ve this goal, they will always try to get their work done and the­r­e­fo­re work fas­ter and fas­ter. The dis­ad­van­ta­ge of this method is that it is usual­ly not used in such a tar­ge­ted way that the moti­va­ti­on of the employees is main­tai­ned. In most cases, it is rein­forced more and more, so that at some point the effect is used up and the moti­va­ti­on gets lost or the employee lea­ves the company.


  1. Work plan­ning and time estimates

A third method is to use refe­rence values from pre­vious tasks and esti­ma­tes of how long it will take to com­ple­te a task. This way, the­re is a bench­mark against which someone can compa­re their pro­gress in order to adjust their work pace accor­din­gly as soon as they noti­ce a devia­ti­on. The dis­ad­van­ta­ge of this method is that esti­mat­ing times, boo­king and che­cking is quite labo­rious and an alre­a­dy exis­ting inte­rest in work speed and out­put can be streng­the­ned. For gene­ra­ting the basic inte­rest at all, it is usual­ly too weak.

Unfort­u­na­te­ly, this method is not used for inter­nal self-control, but for exter­nal con­trol by supe­ri­ors, so that impro­per use, such as cri­ti­cal ques­tio­ning, often impairs moti­va­ti­on. In addi­ti­on, two limi­ta­ti­ons rest­rict the effect of this method: esti­ma­tes for first-time tasks can be sys­te­ma­ti­cal­ly wrong or only appro­xi­m­ate­ly cor­rect. Insis­tence on com­pli­ance is per­cei­ved as unfair. And if moti­va­ti­on is alre­a­dy dama­ged, the pace of work is redu­ced to pre­cis­e­ly match the stan­dard times and not stand out eit­her posi­tively or nega­tively. In this way, stan­dards overful­fill their con­trol­ling effect and beco­me self-fulfilling prophecies.


  1. Par­ti­ci­pa­ti­on in results

The gene­ral pre­re­qui­si­te for high pro­duc­ti­vi­ty is to streng­then the link bet­ween per­so­nal inte­rest and per­for­mance. The easie­st way to do that is by addi­tio­nal performance-based pay com­pon­ents. Or with addi­tio­nal free time, when someone can go home as soon as they’re done. The pro­blem with such varia­ble approa­ches is that they are seen as event-based and not con­troll­able by the worker hims­elf in the long term. The­r­e­fo­re, they are usual­ly not strong enough to relia­bly and sus­tain­ab­ly influence work behavior.


  1. Reco­gni­ti­on of performance

The unpaid equi­va­lent are rewards that direct­ly address the employee’s need for reco­gni­ti­on, such as an employee of the month award. The pro­blem with the­se pri­zes is that per­so­nal achie­ve­ment does not exist in shared work envi­ron­ments. In the case of varia­ble tasks, it is also dif­fi­cult to mea­su­re and compa­re per­for­man­ces, so that eva­lua­ti­on is not infre­quent­ly sympathy-based, which deva­lues the method.


  1. Mere intrin­sic motivation

A com­mon argu­men­ta­ti­on is that com­pa­nies only need to ser­ve a good pur­po­se with which employees can ful­ly iden­ti­fy, then they would also be inte­res­ted in ful­ly com­mit­ting them­sel­ves to the company’s goals. Pro­vi­ded the work envi­ron­ment is free of demo­ti­vat­ing influen­ces through well-dosed chal­lenges and reco­gni­ti­on, trust and appro­pria­te pay. For sure, this can be a goal to work towards for assu­ring as much intrin­sic moti­va­ti­on as pos­si­ble. But it will never be able to ser­ve as a suf­fi­ci­ent gene­ral rule. Becau­se not all jobs can be meaningful or are per­fect­ly fil­led by the right employees in the sen­se that a 100% cou­pling could auto­ma­ti­cal­ly take place. Also, com­pa­nies and or owners will not act con­sis­t­ent­ly per­fect every day and every hour. After all, at work peo­p­le are deal­ing with peo­p­le and peo­p­le are never perfect.


The domi­na­ting lack of inte­rest in the best pos­si­ble use of one’s own time in 99% of all employ­ed peo­p­le shows that so far none of the methods men­tio­ned can alo­ne, sys­te­ma­ti­cal­ly and ful­ly remo­ve the decou­pling of per­so­nal inte­rests from per­so­nal pro­duc­ti­vi­ty at work.

At the same time, in the face of incre­asing com­pe­ti­ti­on from ever lar­ger and more finan­ci­al­ly powerful com­pa­nies, it will be ine­vi­ta­ble to focus more on value crea­ti­on and pro­duc­ti­vi­ty in future. At the latest when fur­ther growth is no lon­ger pos­si­ble becau­se no more qua­li­fied workers can be found, we will be sur­pri­sed how hel­pful it is to make bet­ter use of the pro­duc­ti­vi­ty poten­ti­al of exis­ting employees.

All respec­ti­ve acti­vi­ties dis­cus­sed in this artic­le are not meant to be used to the dis­ad­van­ta­ge of the workers. It is not about crea­ting pres­su­re to work even fas­ter as most of todays’ prac­ti­cal­ly appli­ed methods do. It is about crea­ting a joint inte­rest in the qua­li­ty of time spent, effi­ca­cy, com­pa­nies out­put and cus­to­mer satis­fac­tion. And then in redu­cing the was­te of time together.

Time is the only tru­ly limi­t­ed resour­ce on earth. It should be an edu­ca­tio­nal goal to make the best use of it, in the inte­rest of our own deve­lo­p­ment and achie­ving the best results, whe­ther we are paid for it or not. Becau­se only if we stri­ve for good results, we can learn as much as pos­si­ble and have a sen­se of achie­ve­ment. And then pro­duc­ti­vi­ty should beco­me the cen­tral the­me in the inter­nal com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on of every com­pa­ny. For this, it should be clear that pro­duc­ti­vi­ty hap­pens in the space bet­ween peo­p­le, through the way they inter­act or com­mu­ni­ca­te. And to make real pro­gress tog­e­ther, the nai­ve methods of pres­su­re and con­trol used today must be aban­do­ned and new ways found.


Find our uni­que gui­de to eli­mi­na­ting was­te, accom­pli­shing more and beco­ming hap­pier in your pro­fes­sio­nal life:

Ger­man ver­si­on:

Main page:


Pic­tu­re: / kris