Easy Come, Painful Go: Four Wrongheaded Productivity Fads We’re Better Off Without

“Never underestimate the human capacity for self-delusion.” – Roger Cohen, American journalist and author.

Business fads come and go just as surely as fads in music and fashion, and I’ve seen too many organizations unwittingly hurt themselves with the latest flavor-of-the-year. The smart ones reverse gears as soon as they start hemorrhaging profits; however, it can take years for some to change course, even when they see the writing on the wall.

In this article, I review a representative sample of such fads, some of which you’ve probably experienced yourself. You may even be a fan. But here’s the thing: no matter how shiny something looks, all that really matters in business is productivity and profit. Ultimately you must determine if earning colored belts or making sure every document follows a standard organization’s detailed rules is valuable or a waste of time. Without further ado, let’s review.

  1. The open-plan office. This fad has infected American organizations of all types for decades. It’s usually touted as increasing communication and camaraderie, allowing for freer exchange of ideas and an increased sense of belonging. But let’s get real—open-plan offices are implemented because they’re cheap. Every worker I’ve ever talked with hates them, and any benefits in teamwork wither under an avalanche of noise, distraction, and the pervading sense that upper management don’t give a flip about the commoners with their private offices (they kept due to “privacy” reasons). Research shows collaboration tends to plummet in open-plan offices, and individual workers become less productive, which completely reverses the stated intention and the money-saving benefits. Worse, it’s easier for people to get sick in an open-plan office. All it takes is one Typhoid Henry bringing a hardy flu strain home after Christmas break to clear out most of a floor for a month. How’s that for profitable?

  2. The ISO-9000 family. Certification from the International Organization for Standardization (1SO) was once something to conjure by, as it supposedly provides much-needed standardization of terminology, methodology, process, and documentation. Many companies sought ISO certification in the 1990s and early 2000s, and they highlighted it in their advertising. Nowadays, not so much. Some large organizations, like the federal government, still require it of their service providers. The problem is, it’s only as good as management’s commitment; it’s difficult and expensive to implement; it results in excessive oversight and often-oppressive workplace conditions; and it’s practically applied only to documentation. In the long run, the ISO family most often results in unnecessary paperwork detracting from actual productivity, as well as larger management and bureaucratic frameworks that drain profits.

  3. Forced Ranking involves classifying every person in a team, office, or business from best to worst. GE’s former CEO Jack Welch famously used it to fire the bottom 10% of producers every year, and still recommends other executives do so. (One must wonder how many former top-producers lose their jobs because of a single bad year.) But forced (a.k.a. stacked) ranking kills motivation for anyone low on the totem pole, fails to consider individual strengths in favor of the broad perspective, and damages the ability of people to work together. It encourages office politics, gossiping, and personal attacks, corrupting company culture as people fight for higher rankings. Favoritism runs rampant. Depending on the executives doing the measuring and the metrics used, it may even result in racism and/or sexism.

  4. Six-Sigma. If you create your own unique set of statistical metrics, train a limited number of people in their use and oversight, and then set those few people up to review everything everyone else does, what have you done? Invented an elite group for others to resent, for no real reason. Give them colored karate-style belts and turn them lose to supervise people in meeting after meeting doesn’t necessarily make your organization more productive or more profitable than another. Instead, focus on having an organization filled with high performers and teams that is nimble and ready for the next big market opportunity.

Get Along, Little Dogie

I realize I’ll probably get pushback from those wedded to management fads… but for everyone like that, there are a hundred long-suffering workers who hate those fads and have suffered damaged productivity as a result. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not hating on useful guidelines, style guides, automation and efficiency, company policy, reasonable best practices, or proven processes. But if a faddish practice reduces productivity, it’s useless.

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

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  1. Binet, Danielle says:

    As a former practitioner in the automotive, appliance and transportation industries, I Just want to let you know that the statement you mention about ISO leading to more paperwork is no longer true. Currently, the version of the ISO 9000 standard has evolved to be strictly driven by risks and efficiency. The information you are mentioning was true, in the 2000 version of ISO. The need for documentation has melt-down to the strict necessary elements and efficiency is the key target of the standard.