The evolution of productivity

Lydia Dishman wrote an article for Fast Company outlining steps taken over time to improve productivity – it’s not comprehensive but interesting nevertheless

According to her, there’s no definitive source for the start of productivity improvement efforts but there are historical mentions of it in Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (1776).

Smith contended that there were two kinds of labour – productive and unproductive viz:

‘There is one sort of labour which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed; there is another which has no such effect. The former, as it produces a value, may be called productive; the latter, unproductive labour. Thus the labour of a manufacturer adds, generally, to the value of the materials which he works upon, that of his own maintenance, and of his master’s profit. The labour of a menial servant, on the contrary, adds to the value of nothing . . . A man grows rich by employing a multitude of manufacturers; he grows poor by maintaining a multitude of menial servants. The labour of the latter, however, has its value, and deserves its reward as well’.

Benjamin Franklin, a contemporary of the Scottish economist, had a simple way of assessing productivity – ‘start the day asking what good shall be done, and at the end of the day evaluate based on what was accomplished’. Lofty, to be sure, but an interesting measure nevertheless.

THE ABUSES OF LABOUR IN THE NAME OF PRODUCTIVITY

A milestone advancing  productivity occurred in the USA during the same era when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793. This impacted the U.S. economy, particularly in Southern states where cotton was grown and picked by slaves. Of course, slave labor was free, and abuse of slaves was rampant, yet the landowners got an additional boost to their bottom lines by implementing a machine that increased their production 25-fold.

The cotton gin wasn’t the only technological advancement to grow out of the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Other machines– from steamboats to sewing machines, light bulbs to telephones – that moved production from handmade in the home to factories sprung up across the country during the late 18th and early 19th century and the frenzy with producing more goods more quickly became something of a national pastime.

Slavery was thankfully abolished after the Civil War, but low-wage factory workers (many of whom were children) continued to toil in unsafe conditions for decades, all in the name of increasing productivity. It took years, but eventually, the organisation of labour unions put measures in place to protect workers from the excesses of the push for productivity.

THE BIRTH OF  CONSULTANTS

Although the 20th century was rocked by two World Wars and the Great Depression, productivity was a focal point for manufacturing goods needed to support military efforts and later, to satisfy the demands of the growing middle class.

So it was ripe for the rise of the earliest efficiency expert, an industrial engineer from Philadelphia named Frederick Winslow Taylor. Nicknamed Speedy Taylor, he would get himself a consulting gig with a company, observe its workers, and calculate how they could do their jobs faster – and then charge a hefty sum for the report.

Peers Frank and Lillian Gilbreth were mining a similar productivity vein by dividing human action into 17 motions and then determining which was the most efficient and effective way to do any task.

From these somewhat ignominious beginnings (Taylor was believed to be a liar who fudged his numbers, and Frank was famous for saying postpartum bedrest was a waste of time–prompting Lillian to keep working after the birth of each of her 15 children) grew a sizeable industry of management consultants who aimed to tackle the productivity problem from every possible angle.

THEN CAME THE PRODUCTIVITY GURUS

Among the more recognisable players is Tom Peters, whose book In Search of Excellence chronicles the productivity practices of “America’s best-run companies.”

Michael Porter wrote Competitive Advantages, also exalting the leadership of productive management practices.

And Bill Smith, an engineer at Motorola, introduced Six Sigma in 1986 as “a disciplined, data-driven approach and methodology for eliminating defects in any process – from manufacturing to transactional, and from product to service.”

According to Six Sigma, “Productivity is much more important than revenues and profits of the organisation because profits only reflect the end result, whereas productivity reflects the increased efficiency as well as effectiveness of business policies and processes. Moreover, it enables a business to find out its strengths and weaknesses. It also lets the business easily identify threats as well as opportunities that prevail in the market as a result of competition and changes in business environment.”

THE CURRENT STATE OF PRODUCTIVITY AND WHAT’S NEXT

The thing is that in the frenzy to be more productive, we as a nation have become a little less so.

Economist Robert Gordon of Northwestern University chalks this up to the fact that we are using methods and procedures that are over a decade old. He told the Atlantic, “We had a great revolution in the 1980s and ’90s as businesses transitioned from paper, typewriters, filing cabinets to personal computers with spreadsheets, word-processing software. And then that revolution was accompanied in the 1990s by the internet, by free information through search engines, through e-commerce, and doing away with paper.” Until we start incorporating more robots and AI to take over our rote tasks, this downward trend will continue.

WORK SMARTER, NOT HARDER

The other obsession with productivity is entwined with a false belief that we need to be working all the time to be our most productive selves. And that’s simply not true.

As Leila Hock, a career coach, points out: “It’s not hard work – work is work, and yes, some work requires more brain power, but most of us smart people like that and want more of it, so let’s stop calling it hard. Let’s call it productive. Effective. Valuable. Anything that speaks to nature over quantity, because that’s what we need more of.”

So maybe Ben Franklin’s to-do list had it right all along.

Work and assess what good was accomplished that day – then the most productive day will have the most good attached to it.

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