At work but not working

According to the CEBR (Centre for Ecoomics and Business Research) UK businesses don’t know how to maximise their human capital despite the vast majority being ‘concerned’ or more about their people productivity – indeed, a survey they conducted found that:

    • Some two thirds have not looked at ways to boost employee well-being and so motivation levels
    • Some 60% have not looked at improving business processes and decision-making
    • Some 70% have not invested in technology to automate repetitive tasks


But, important as such initiatives are, a bigger source of ‘human capital improvement’ they should all address is the huge waste of employee time when at work – plenty of studies show that, most of the time, people are busy at work but ‘are they productive during that time?’

At present, most managers still equate long hours at work with dedication, commitment and loyalty

This is why, in the early days of Microsoft, Bill Gates memorised employee license plates: “I knew everyone’s licence plates so I could look out in the parking lot and see when people came in, and when they left”

But this attitude is ineffective nowadays, as Gates soon realised – what matters is results, not hours worked

This particularly applies to brainworkers as they steadily replace brawnworkers in workplaces – the former are people who have to use their brains more than their hands to complete their work – people whose outputs and results are less easily countable and often subjectively measured

Brainworkers can look extremely busy when they’re actually unproductive

Indeed, one recent study claims most employees only work about three hours a day – they fill the rest of the time following Parkinson’s Law and surfing, chatting or complaining about being overloaded whilst accomplishing very little – they’re at work but not working

Hence, the increasing calls for most to work only six hours a day or four days a week – or flexitime working, often from home – all  in the expectation of producing much the same if not more and better output

The problem with this is most managers would feel a loss of control over their charges – they find hours input are easily countable and so controllable,  whilst results are less so – hence many managers stick with their old ‘command and control’ ways and manage by time inputs mainly

Fortunately, more enlightened managers recognise their need to move with the times – actions they are taking include:

  • Hiring people they can trust – then trusting them – and this is usually reciprocated
  • Setting expectations and targets for each of the people in their charge – expectations of each team member include not only deliverables on time and of acceptable quality but also coming up with new improvement ideas and helping each other
  • Letting their people decide when they work, where – they know they will be judged on what they get done so they plan accordingly but this allows them to manage their work/ life balance requirements better – an important motivation factor nowadays
  • Not endlessly contacting individuals when not in the office, unless absolutely essential – most problems/ thoughts can wait until tomorrow or later


Better results inevitably follow – and all started by the manager managing differently


Further UK education needs

“The new prime minister will have to rise to the skills and productivity challenge, and make sure that everyone, no matter where they come from, can get a chance to have a great job”, says Anne Milton, UK Minister for Skills and Apprenticeships

The following is an article she wrote in FEWeek

I want the next prime minister to make sure the work on technical and vocational education continues to be a priority and that we build on what we have already achieved.

Significant progress has been made on our technical education reforms: the first T-levels are on track to be rolled out in 2020; the first Institutes of Technology will launch later this year; and we continue to see more people starting on apprenticeships.

I want the progress we have made to be a step change in how FE (Further Education) is viewed in this country. People are finally waking up to the need for a rebalance between FE and HE. There is much more recognition of the huge impact our further education sector plays in supporting more people to gain the skills they need to get a good job, get on the path to great careers – and for the country, boosting productivity.

This week we published the findings from our review of level 4 and 5 qualifications – or Higher Technical Qualifications – and we launched new proposals to make sure more people and employers can take advantage of them in the future.

All the evidence from our review highlights that higher technical skills (the type that many level 4 or 5 qualifications can provide) are increasingly in demand from employers, but the uptake remains worryingly low. Only 1 in 10 adults in England have studied for a qualification at this level, despite the prospect of better wages and job prospects.

The skills our economy needs now and in the future are not always aligned with the qualifications on offer and we need to make sure that we change that. Young people need to be better informed when it comes to studying for jobs and careers in key sectors such as science, technology and engineering.

Some of this is about all of us continuing to bang the drum about the benefits of technical education. We need to dispel the intellectual snobbery that still exists which dissuades some students from choosing this route in favour of a traditional academic option.

There is no overnight fix for changing the way technical and vocational education is seen by the public, but we can make sure that the qualifications and options that are available are high-quality, are valued by students, parents and employers and ultimately get more people on a path to a good, well-paid job.

That is at the heart of everything we are doing – from the introduction of new T-levels, our reforms to apprenticeships, as well as consulting on changes to post-16 qualifications at level 3 and below, and our new level 4 and 5 proposal. It is all about providing a choice of high-quality options as well as logical, clear training routes that everyone can understand.

These are once-in-a-generation reforms and while I don’t imagine that we are going to get everything right at the first time of asking, if we want to make a success of them in the long term, we need a strong sustainable and coherent technical education system. This will help unlock untapped potential and boost our economy.

The new prime minister will have to rise to this challenge if we are to have the skills we need to increase productivity and make sure that everyone, no matter where they come from can get a chance to have a great job and fulfilling life. This will be critical to the future prosperity of individuals and the country as a whole.

Conclusion: “Well said, ma’am, as far as it goes

Boeing’s MAX 737 disaster

Stan Sorscher, a former Boeing engineers and now a Labour Representative at the SPEEA (Society for Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace) is the author of a letter, reproduced in full below, which he posted to the Seattle Times

In it he says Boeing’s cost-cutting culture is to blame for production problems with the 737 MAX and other planes:

  • “The cost-cutting culture is the opposite of a culture built on productivity, innovation, safety or quality”
  • “Boeing’s experience with cost-cutting business culture is apparent”
  • “Production problems with the 787, 747-8 and now the 737 Max have cost billions of dollars, put airline customers at risk, and tarnished decades of accumulated goodwill and brand loyalty”

It’s the first time since the grounding of the Max that a senior figure in Boeing’s engineers union has spoken – though investigations into two fatal Max crashes are incomplete, evidence of engineering errors have surfaced – errors that were not discovered in testing

Sorscher points to a major change in Boeing’s internal culture in the late 1990s – before that time, the company was focused on the performance of its products – this was the era of the bold bet on the 747 – it was also a time when a little plane called the 737 got its start, became Boeing’s best-seller and remained so over many iterations

In the 1990s, Boeing put workers at the center of its performance-driven universe – the plane of that era was the 777 – it was a time of partnership between workers and executives as they learned together how to produce the plane, and many engineers speak of this period as the most fulfilling in their professional lives

But all that changed with the 787 program in the late 1990s – Boeing reset the playing field – Washington state would have to compete with other jurisdictions, offering tax breaks to secure production lines – suppliers would have to compete with rivals around the world – and workers would discover their positions were precarious

The atmosphere inside Boeing also changed – Sorscher says Boeing engineers received clear cultural messages that identifying problems was thought of by management as making trouble – “If the message is “follow the plan” and you watch co-workers who raised an objection and the problem isn’t taken seriously or are they’re considered troublesome, then that’s a cultural message you pick up,” he said.

However, from a shareholder perspective, Boeing’s approach to its business had been wildly successful – worldwide demand for airplanes was riding a high and Boeing had diverted cash flow into dividends and share buybacks that helped boost the company’s stock – from 2000 to the present, Boeing’s stock price grew from $44 to $356 – indeed, the stock hit a peak of $440 just before the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Max jet last March

Sorscher’s letter to the editor of The Seattle Times:

Employees come to work to do their jobs. We aren’t usually aware of workplace culture, even over the span of years.

We learn culture from our co-workers and managers when they make decisions and demonstrate problem-solving skills. Leadership messages affect thousands of decisions that add up to success or failure of the organisation.

For many years, Boeing competed with Airbus and other producers for airline customers based on performance of its products. As a recent news report put it, Boeing now competes for investors with Exxon and Apple.

Boeing rose to the top of the airplane business as an engineering company, focused on performance of its products. Boeing made bold decisions that “bet the company,” and prevailed over competitors.

In the 90s, Boeing business culture turned to employee engagement, process improvement, and productivity – adopting the “quality” business culture that made Japanese manufacturers formidable competitors.

In the late 90s Boeing’s business culture shifted again, putting cost-cutting and shareholder interests first.

Graphic by Stan Sorscher, a labor representative at the Society for Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA).

Some business cultures are well-suited to commodity-like products, but are a bad fit to performance-driven products.

Ask a financial analyst, “Are airplanes commodity-like or performance-driven?”

Business instinct is to cast the question as a market transaction. Airline customers worry about price, delivery dates, training costs, spares, maintenance, and other factors, but overall, those considerations come out very close in the end.

The last major innovation in air travel was the jet engine in the 1950s. A business analyst would say the airplane business is “mature,” the products are standardised, innovation is slow, so airplanes are commodity-like.

Now ask a different question. “Are the design, development, testing, and manufacture of airplanes commodity-like or performance-driven?”

Whoa. Tough question.

Actually, making airplanes is performance-driven.

Success or failure of an airplane program turns on productivity. The first airplanes off the production line sell at a loss. Costs come down over time; the quicker the better.

If your business model emphasises productivity, employee engagement, and process improvement, costs go down faster. This was the essence of the “quality” business model Boeing followed in the mid-90s.

The 777 had the best “learning curve” in the business. On the other hand, if your industry is mature, and your products are commodity-like, business school theory says a cost-cutting model is appropriate.

Wal-Mart perfected its particular version of the cost-cutting business model. Amazon adapted that model to its industry. Boeing has adapted it to high-end manufacturing.

These companies are super-stakeholders with market power over their supply chains. The point of this business model is that the super-stakeholder extracts gains from the subordinate stakeholders for the short-term benefit of investors.

Subordinate stakeholders are made to feel precarious and at-risk.

Each supplier should see other suppliers as rivals. Similarly, each work location should know it competes on cost with rival work locations. Each state or local government should compete for incentives against rival states.

In this model, subordinate stakeholders never say no to the super-stakeholder – not workers, not suppliers, not state legislatures.

This cost-cutting culture is the opposite of a culture built on productivity, innovation, safety, or quality. A high-performance work culture requires trust, coordination, strong problem-solving, open flow of information, and commitment to the overall success of the programme.

Extra task performance measures

Some interesting ideas follow from ‘Entrepreneur Europe’ on ways to assess the performance of a team – marketing or software development, say – and keeping a finger on their pulse

Four extra performance measures are proposed:

  1. Planned-to-done ratios:
    • How well have plans been executed?
    • What % were completed satisfactorily, or better?
  2. Cycle time:
    • Work is usually completed in ‘iterative sprints’
    • Break down a project into bite-sized small-cycles and optimise each
    • The more quickly each one is done, the quicker the whole project
  3. Attendance:
    • This can make a big difference to the success of the whole project
    • Uncommitted or burnt-out team members – hence missed meetings, sick days, late arrivals – can have a serious effect on project progress and overburden others causing resentment and sometimes mental health issues
  4. Escaped defects over time:
    • Re software teams, how many bugs have been missed in a new product i.e. number of defects that affect the customer?
    • Re marketing teams, how many failed campaigns have there been, or customer complaints?
    • Is quality being sacrificed to meet deadlines – does talent need to be re-allocated?

The team leader’s job is continually to monitor his team’s productivity and connect business goals to project outcomes – and the above would help him make data-driven decisions about future tasks

Winners need stamina

A question managers often ask is “Why do so many big change projects fail?”

It’s not so much the steps they take – all follow much the same basic steps when under way viz:

  • Record facts
  • Examine findings
  • Develop solutions

But where most go wrong is with other steps needed before, during and after the above viz:

  • Badly set up – unclear terms of reference, unquantified targets, lack of obvious senior management support, no links to corporate plans
  • Badly manned – ‘he got us into this mess’ appointments, lack of people with past success – lack of the right skills, experience and attitude – outside consultants put in charge so only they learn ‘what does not work’
  • Badly project managed –  lack of a timetable and accountabilities, little focus on customers’ needs, deadlines allowed to drift, too little or too much time and resources made available
  • Badly implemented – employees told to implement changes without understanding why, nor what’s in it for them – little effort made to ensure changes made work well after day one

With so many pitfalls it’s little wonder so many big improvement projects stumble, even fail – each one is usually announced with considerable fanfare – but initial enthusiasm for them soon wanes, effort becomes half-hearted and any measured results are usually meagre – hence interest moves on

The same applies at national level – over the last two years the UK has set up the following grand initiatives aimed at productivity improvement:

  • PLG – Productivity Leadership Group – aka ‘Be the Business’ (someone thinks this is appropriate I assume) – led by a group of business leaders – it appears their main output will be to inspire the UK’s long tail of flagging businesses with ‘best practice’ stories – it’s now in its second year of existence, but to what quantifiable effect?
  • PIN – Productivity Insights Network – sponsored by Sheffield University and economist Jim O’Neill – no known output as yet
  • Andy Haldane, Bank of England chief economist, recently appointed to lead a new UK government drive to improve UK productivity – but given HMG can only impact maybe some 20% of national productivity via their investment in infrastructure, R&D and training, we believe Andy’s chances of quick quantifiable wins are slim

And New Zealand has announced a similar venture – some of the biggest names in New Zealand business are to form a Business Advisory Council and advise Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on how to supercharge the New Zealand economy

The council is designed to advise the Government on how to build a productive, sustainable and inclusive economy that improves the well-being of New Zealanders

Jacinda said: “New Zealand needs a modern economy that has the investment, innovation and skills required to ensure we can all share in prosperity and opportunity in a sustainable way – to do that we need to work closely with business leaders, share ideas and consider solutions to overcoming barriers together”:

  • A mix of six women and seven men with small to large business experience, from across New Zealand, have been selected to provide advice
  • The council is expected to meet three times a year with the prime minister and her representatives
  • It will provide high-level, free and frank advice on policies that directly affect business, harness the expertise of the private sector to inform government policy and build closer relationships between government and business

“I will also be asking the council to gather advice from their peers in the domestic and international business community on some of the most important issues facing New Zealand including how we best grow and share our prosperity, support regional development, and transition to a clean, green New Zealand”

So, again, it’s a well-intentioned initiative, plus another feather-in-the-cap for those council members chosen – easy to set up and announce, easy to be seen to be ‘doing something’ about a well-known problem, easy for the government to park responsibility elsewhere, but unlikely to make any noticeable difference to the well-being of all, at least in the short term

Why so cynical?


  • The above national initiatives are a start, but improving productivity, even at organisation level, is invariably a long haul, not a quick fix
  • Once major initiatives are announced, few get down to the detail to ‘make the hard yards’ – and even fewer try to quantify what % difference they targeted or made
  • It reminds one of participating in the offshore Fastnet race – there’s much publicity and excitement at the start off Cowes as thousands of spectators watch the 200 or so boats begin their adventure – however, once past the Needles, each boat usually finds itself alone at sea with nearly 600 miles to go – whether they finish the course depends on just the skipper, crew and boat alone – there’s nobody else out there to help – and that’s when enthusiasm can fade fast
  • Everyone loves the upfront glamour of grand new initiatives – few love the hard graft that must then follow to finish the job