Yes we can!

Synopsis: People can be productive! What most often holds them back is management’s failure to take ownership of the concept of “efficiency”…

It is amazing how fast humans can respond to a situation when they need to!  A recent story from Japan helps illustrate the point. When a 30M wide sinkhole destroyed a road in Fukuoka, Japan, the problem was resolved and the road fully repaired in just 7 days. As the video below illustrates this was no minor pothole. This was a 15M deep crater that cut through the cities underground infrastructure and brought a major intersection to a halt. As they say: “give people a crisis and you’ll see what they can really do”.

As most working professionals will know however, most projects aren’t like that. Even relatively simple activities in a traditional office can take inordinate amounts of time.  Getting a decision made, getting a plan approved or even just arranging a meeting can absorb a significant amount of time and energy. Those inefficiencies slow projects down, add unnecessary costs and can have a knock on effect on morale.

Although it’s not always easy to establish hard data on the cost of inefficiencies in organizations, I do have an interesting illustration. Early in my career I was a Project Manager leading software development teams in Canada.  The group was reasonably well organized and productive.  In my time there I collected a lot of data and used it to build an estimation tool that we could use to help forecast how long projects would take and what they would cost. The tool had proven to be relatively accurate and hence had become the benchmark used to establish the team’s productivity.

Eventually I left the organization, but in one of those career twists I briefly rejoined the same group about ten years later. During those ten years the core people on the team had remained approximately the same, but the organization had been taken over by a much larger competitor. The new owners had totally changed the culture of the organization, disrupted workflows and implemented their own rather heavyweight processes. In watching work getting done it seemed as if things were taking significantly longer than they had before, so with that observation in mind I started to track the level of productivity. Sure enough the team was approximately half as productive as they had been ten years earlier. Same people, same technology platform, but different culture, different processes and much more reliance on email than there had been before. Inefficiencies had gone up dramatically and the effort needed to a line of code was double what it had been.

Such stories point out that inefficiency is a very real presence in today’s work environment and leaders who genuinely want to achieve results need to have their radars tuned into the common sources of inefficiency that plague today’s work place. Common sources of inefficiency include…

  1. Indecision and unfocused decision-making
  2. Unnecessarily drawn out approval or review processes
  3. Poorly managed meetings
  4. Poorly expressed communications that result in confusion or misunderstandings
  5. Ineffective use of communications tools (e.g. relying on email where other forms of communications would be more effective)
  6. Physical separation of people who would be more efficient if they were collocated.
  7. Silos and barriers that hinder collaboration
  8. Ineffective processes (e.g. either a lack of organization and structure or overly bureaucratic processes that are themselves inefficient)
  9. Inattention to quality (resulting in high failure costs and the associated penalty incurred in addressing the resulting problems)
  10. Having more people or groups involved in an activity than are really required
  11. Low staff morale and corporate cultures that tolerate inefficiency, non-contribution or other workplace maladies
  12. The failure to invest in training
  13. Being disorganized, the failure to plan or the use of poorly thought through plans
  14. Lack of pressure to maintain momentum or conversely putting people under so much pressure that their make too many mistakes
  15. The failure to think!

Although some people may not want to admit it, all of these sources of inefficiency point back to a single root: leadership failures. Long ago productive organizations (especially the Japanese) recognized that management is responsible for “efficiency”. Management in those organizations took ownership of “efficiency” and recognized that if they could squeeze inefficiencies out of their systems they could raise productivity, improve quality, build morale and increase profit. The revolution that happened in Japanese manufacturing is testament to the successes they achieved. Those same ideas have of course been accepted by manufacturers around the world and many business are indeed focused on keeping things “lean”.

Sadly that is not always the case (even in organizations that claim to have adopted “lean” principles). In many organizations inefficiency is still alive and well. I fact in the economy as whole inefficiency is still thriving. Ask around your friends and colleagues and it usually doesn’t take long to find people who can share dark stories of gross inefficiencies. In that darkness there is however some good news.  The good news is that because there are so many inefficiencies out there it doesn’t take much effort to find them.  Similarly, the number and variety of problems often mean there are quite a number of low hanging fruits, so often, it’s not that hard to find ways to make quite significant improvements.  So if you’re a leader who wants to demonstrate their capabilities, one great place to start is by squeezing out some inefficiencies. So to all the leaders out there: what are the sources of inefficiency in your team and what are you doing about them?