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

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:

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