Patching Productivity Holes: New Thinking About Handling Productivity Weaknesses

“Man is most free when his tools are proportionate to his needs.” — Soetsu Yanagi, Japanese philosopher.

“Simplicity boils down to two steps: Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest.” — Leo Babauta, American blogger and journalist.

In 1900, Lord Kelvin reportedly declared during an address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” Just five years later, Albert Einstein burst onto the scene with a unique theoretical approach that helped firmly establish the precarious new field of study we now call quantum physics, and we’re still exploring its ramifications today.

The lesson here? Just because we’ve studied a field intensely for a century or more doesn’t mean we have nothing left to learn. The same thing goes for the study of productivity. While certain well-established basics will always apply, new methods and theories constantly flow in, often through cross-fertilization from other disciplines—making mine a lively, dynamic field.

This week, let’s take a look at three relatively recent ideas about productivity, and how you can overcome the weaknesses they reveal—or otherwise put them to work in your favor.

1. The Productivity Paradox. Since the early 1990s, some efficiency experts have scratched their heads over the fact that dramatic increases in computing power haven’t resulted in similar leaps in organizational productivity. They’ve proposed several explanations, among them human limitations; an unavoidable “lag time” in final results; and the assertion that maximum productivity occurred decades ago, with the initial adoption of mainframes by large corporations.

Then again, this observation may simply reflect the Schlimmbesserung concept: the old German idea that every “labor-saving” invention just results in more work. Instead of beating the carpet clean twice a year, we now vacuum it twice a week—because we can. Since we can now print out a new copy of a report whenever we like, our desire for perfection slows us down…whereas we might have accepted a minor imperfection and proceeded faster when we had to retype everything.

Whatever causes it, the productivity paradox represents a limiting factor affecting anyone who works with computers and other high-tech tools. Rather than let it slow you down, fast-track your adoption of useful new applications, maintain top-notch, well maintained IT systems—and stop playing with all the bells and whistles. Doing otherwise allows tasks to fill and overfill the time allotted to them. For example, unless your work requires it, you can cut off most Internet access and leave reading and answering email to specific times of day. Focus tightly on the workplace benefits a new technology provides; play with it only on your own time.

2. The Theory of Constraints. Initially formulated in 1984, this management philosophy observes that any system is limited in achieving its goals by one or more constraints: e.g., technology, personnel, safety requirements, quality control, legal obligations, etc. There may be tens or hundreds of constraints, though typically only a handful really matter. The only way to increase throughput and potentially “break” a constraint is to:

• Articulate your end goals well enough to identify the constraint.
• Determine how to exploit the constraint to get the most out of it.
• Align your organizational goals and systems to support said exploitation.
• Make any changes necessary/possible to ease or eliminate the constraint.
• When you’ve broken a constraint, go back and start over with another.

Like many aspects of productivity studies, the Theory of Constraints emphasizes a process of ongoing improvement—POOGI for short. (Despite my fondness for creating memorable acronyms, I can’t take credit for this one!)

3. The Lean Process. “Lean,” as its proponents sometimes call it, derives from the tightly controlled manufacturing methods used by Japanese automaker Toyota. However, you can apply the concept to nearly any workflow process. Basically, the lean process defines as wasteful any action or expenditure that fails to add value to the end user, targeting it for elimination. You can generalize it to include things like bad habits, multitasking, excessive dependence on technology, etc.

“Lean” dovetails nicely with my own emphasis on focus, work/life balance, task triage, self-reliance, and strict self-discipline. But beware: as with anything, you can overdo it. Zealous excision of a seemingly replaceable process or person may break your system and cause more harm than good. Take extreme care when wielding the “lean” scalpel. If possible, test the change carefully before taking any irrevocable step. A careless leader can do long-term damage to their organization with a stroke of a pen.

Productive Change

Nothing remains static, even in well-established fields like physics and productivity studies. A single paradigm shift can trigger an avalanche of new ideas, opening up a whole rich vein of “ore” for us to mine. We haven’t entirely explored quantum physics after more than a century; we may never grasp all its aspects. I feel the same is true for my field. So keep an eye out for evolving ideas about workflow and efficiency, and think about how they might apply to you. You might just discover the key to your own quantum productivity.