Over the years, I have asked many executives the question: “how can your business become more efficient in the short term?” and I typically get one or more of the following three answers:

1) Work faster
2) Work to look busy
3) Work with less people

While these can have some short term impact on productivity, it may not be positive and any gains rarely last long. In this first part of my two part BLOG on efficiency and how to improve it, we’ll evaluate each of these traditional ideas on improving operations to see why they don’t work as well as managers might think.

1. Work Faster

Maybe this should be called the “Run! Don’t walk!” strategy. This is popular among demanding leaders who want their staff to do what they always do but just do it quicker. This promotes two side effects. First, people stop “thinking” and concentrate on “doing.” The atmosphere is one of a person acting as a “chicken with their head cutoff” or a robot. The second effect I commonly witness in such companies is that associates start working as individuals and less and less in teams. This ends up undercutting any of the gains achieved by working individually quicker. Third, the tradeoff between speed and quality gets seriously challenged; some employees decide that “speed” can be achieved if this constraint is loosened.

The results from “work faster” are not sustainable. By end of the day your workers are exhausted and have a feeling they invested a huge amount of extra effort with little or no accomplishment. They do not look forward to coming to work and repeating the same process again. The business begins to experience more employee turnover, lower quality, and lower still morale.

2. Work to look busy

This sounds similar to the “work faster” approach; however this really focuses on solving another productivity issue that many managers rightly sense about their organization, i.e. that the team is not staying busy all the time , i.e. this idea gains traction after managers witness employees standing around talking, coming back from break late, waiting for work, Etc. It is assumed by the manager that all these “breaks in the action” are under the control of the associate. But without some investigation, sending the raw message to “Stay busy!” can lead to a less than desirable outcome. This can send a message to employees that they have to show effort to their boss –not results. Frustrated associates will interpret this more to mean to “look busy and find busy work; don’t stand around”. Don’t worry about, quality or profitability or why they didn’t have enough work to keep them busy in the first place..

3. Work with less people

This is the typical cost cutting / downsizing approach that outwardly tries to force efficiency upon an operation by making them figure out a way to do the same amount of work with less people. This ignores sustainable results, quality and employee morale. The side effects here can be just as damaging as the other two common approaches. First of all, the adage “do more with less” has a negative message that profitability will be achieved despite employees and not because of employees; this drives up employee turnover. Second, this is commonly done in operations that are not performing well to begin with. This is because often do not have good measures of everyone’s productivity. Therefore, instead of letting go the poor performers, they do it based on some arbitrary measure like an employee’s number of years of service, supervisor reviews, high-level, inaccurate productivity metrics, etc. Consequently, we have seen where productivity has actually gone DOWN after these sorts of initiatives rather than up. There are places where this does work, but rest assured there are probably just as many where it does not.

In my next BLOG piece, we will talk about what does work, i.e. a “fourth path”. This one doesn’t generate the negative side effects of the more traditional methods. It also has a lot of advantages.


This piece was first published by Ask Research and Development in October 2015. 

As of September 8, 2020, Crimson & Co (formerly The Progress Group/TPG) has rebranded as Argon & Co following the successful merger with Argon Consulting in April 2018. 

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