Return to Book – ‘Productivity Knowhow Revisited’

Book – Official review

By Martin Wadsworth, a senior manager:

Dick Smythe is extremely well placed to write such an erudite text. His early career was in the steel industry, with OR, planning and cost reduction becoming his speciality. Moving into consultancy, he homed in on productivity, being highly regarded for his “feet on the ground” approach to such as the UK record in this area. Such expertise displayed in a tome, showing, to this amateur interested reader, astonishing detail, mixing theory and practice, is particularly relevant as June saw even more woeful figures being published

Smythe states in his foreword “productivity improvement is the biggest issue facing any manager at any level in any organisation in any sector – and the biggest issue facing any government too.” Some may see this as a touch hyperbolic, but there is no doubt Smythe addresses a major problem for UK Ltd, at an increasingly difficult moment in time. One reads Sir Howard Davies’ views in a recent Guardian article that “policy-makers should act before the lack of productivity and real wage growth leads to political upheaval.” There is much proof that the UK position is bad and worsening – significantly under where pre-financial crisis trend would have us; 9% below OECD average in 2007, now 18% below. The ONS report confirms UK has particularly weak management. Davies suggests a lack of consensus as to what to do – Smythe’s book surely offers a user-friendly presentation of a persuasive set of options that could, maybe should, be followed.

The structure of the book takes us over a score of chapters from basics to drivers and process, via a look at historical revolutions. Plans are weighed up and essential “cardinals” are then considered in detail. Using an analogy from one of his passions, sailing, where cardinal buoys are key for skippers navigating from A to B, avoiding dangers and plotting a safe course, his cardinals are the essence of generating the eponymous productivity knowhow. Targets and measures of improvement follow, and the whole detailed piece has 18 appendices, as if to highlight what a deep and comprehensive offering this is.

The style of all chapters is, unusually, that of bullet points, meaning such a specific and vast offering is nevertheless accessible. One can easily agree with other commentators that this is an authoritative, impressive and instructive book for anyone involved in improving productivity in their line of business.

A delightful quirky aspect of the writing is that, at the bottom of every page, there is a pertinent quote from an astonishing array of sources – on adjacent pages we “hear” from Ronald Reagan and Anne Frank, from G K Chesterton and David Brailsford! These could almost be worth their own booklet.

Smythe reminds us that management guru Peter Drucker has suggested managers have always sought something which lets them do their job with “less effort in less time yet with greater impact”, and suggests his aim is to help managers and government ministers improve lives.

This book can clearly help with that vital impactful improvement