Productivity levels have consistently remained below average
The productivity of organizations in the UK has for long been a cause for real concern as productivity levels have consistently remained below the average of G7 advanced economies (the gap now stands at 17%, the largest since 1992). Many reasons have been given for this, solutions postulated and blame apportioned, especially by political leaders, but one argument that does not appear to have been given serious consideration is the prevailing mindset through which the productivity debate is being conducted.
No successful business would dream of neglecting routine maintenance and servicing
Let us travel back in time for a moment to the ‘industrial era’ where wealth was primarily created through the manufacture of goods and machines were the engines of production. No business that had aspirations to be successful would have dreamt of neglecting their machines and allowing them to fall into disrepair or of running them into the ground – the risks were too great and the cost implications horrendous. Machinery, for the most part, was the most expensive investment that an organization made and as such it needed looking after – machines were not run continuously beyond recommended tolerance limits for fear of burn out, regular downtime and maintenance was scheduled to ensure that equipment life was prolonged and quality standards maintained and the maintenance and servicing routine that each piece of equipment was subjected to was appropriate for that machine – utilizing the wrong lubricant could be just as costly as failing to lubricate in the first place!
Contrast this with the current 21st century environment in which we find ourselves. The economic balance has shifted and we are now in the age of the so called ‘knowledge economy’ where people are the most expensive cost in many cases and the primary source of wealth creation – or more specifically their minds and brains are. This statement is in no way intended to decry the hugely important and valuable contribution made by those that create wealth and provide value through physical labor, but the reality is that, unlike in Henry Ford’s time, we now hire predominantly for brains rather than brawn!
And yet many of our organizational and management practices are still rooted in those of the industrial era with human beings being treated as ‘resources’ which need to be closely managed – the command and control management style is still very prevalent in many organizations with its consequent negative impact on employee engagement. Ironically however we have conveniently dispensed with the notion of ‘maintenance’ as an essential prerequisite for productivity – we appear to believe that this is a concept that only applies to machinery – and in this we are profoundly wrong! We don’t engage in practices which help maintain peoples brains in peak condition, we adopt ‘one size fits all’ solutions as opposed to treating people as individuals and we continually expect people to work beyond sensible, and healthy, tolerance levels!
We do not create the conditions whereby our brains can deliver peak performance!
although the field of neuroscience is still relatively new it has provided valuable insights into how our brains and minds operate. As a consequence we now have a much better appreciation of the conditions that need to exist in order for us to be fully functioning, productive individuals who have the wherewithal to sustain our efforts over time. Our brains need ‘maintenance’ in order to perform – nutrition, rest, appropriate stimuli etc – but all too often the way we design work and lead and manage people ignores these fundamentals. We pay a huge price for this ignorance, not only in terms of the burn out and stress that we inflict on people (and the associated costs that organizations and society as a whole has to bear) but also in terms of the quality of decisions that are taken – we do not create the conditions whereby our brains can deliver peak performance!
We therefore need to be prepared to fundamentally rethink the importance of ‘quality decision making’ in securing competitive advantage and in closing the productivity gap; we need to assess what we need to do in our organizations in order to bring this about and equally importantly draw attention to what we currently do that prevents it happening. We know that when people are under pressure several things happen – their IQ drops, they become narrowly focused and have difficulty in seeing the bigger picture, become less collaborative, are more prone to biases and unwarranted assumptions, become less creative – in other words they make poorer quality decisions, become less productive and are less engaged. Add in the effect that elevated levels of cortisol (which is produced in conditions of stress) have on health and wellbeing and in industrial era parlance we are ‘running our machines to destruction’!
Just as failing to maintain our machines would have been seen as an act of commercial folly in the past, so our failure to maintain our brains should be regarded with equal incredulity nowadays. The evidence exist s in abundance but we all too often choose to ignore it as ‘inconvenient’ – after all we are continually being asked to ‘do more with less’ so multitasking, endless meetings, fewer breaks, reduced time for social interaction, longer working hours etc all on the surface play to the ‘productivity agenda’. But the reality is very different – these practices come at a huge cost in terms of decision making effectiveness, health and engagement and unless we acknowledge this and are prepared to change some embedded thinking and practices, the productivity gap is unlikely to ever diminish!
About the Author
Doug Crawford is the Managing Director of Cerus Consulting and a specialist in employee engagement and performance management. He has over 20 years consulting experience across a wide range organizations, both in the UK and internationally. He is a member of the Engage for Success Guru Steering Group and actively involved in the London Practitioners Group, the Engagement in the 3rd Sector sub group and the special interest groups on neuroscience and engagement, performance management and leadership. For further information contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.cerusconsulting.co.uk
Office for National Statistics February 2015
Henry Ford allegedly said ‘Why is it that every time I ask for a pair of hands they come with a brain attached?’
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