Quality and Productivity Through Reflection
On April 9, 2009, Computerworld published a highly “Digg-ed” post entitled “Why Goofing Off Boosts Productivity”. This article highlighted some recent research results from the University of Melbourne that demonstrated the utility of occasional Twittering and Facebook-ing from work, and suggested some additional anecdotal reasons why “Internet slacking” might be productive.
Productivity has been described in many ways, for example as the ratio of output to input , task completion through David Allen’s Getting Things Done, or focus on business results using the concept of the Results-Only Work Environment.
But it is easy to forget that quality and sustainability also play a role in productivity as well. Jorgenson & Griliches (1967), for example, explicitly define productivity as the ratio of total input quality and quantity to total output quality and quantity. Hawken, Lovins & Lovins (1999) consider total-resource productivity in Natural Capitalism, a measure that emphasizes the efficiency with which a production process uses its energy, natural resources and other inputs. That is, you can’t be productive if you are creating a lot of waste – and you are optimally productive if the outputs of your process are useful inputs to someone else’s process!
Problem-solving capacity, in my opinion, represents one of the key elements in total resource productivity – and one that we routinely overlook. As a result of the process of working, can you simultaneously accomplish results and emerge feeling refreshed and renewed? The human psyche and capability to achieve is the ultimate renewable resource, and “burnout” is the indicator that you may be sacrificing total-resource productivity for higher levels of “more traditional” productivity.
The same theme was touched on in an April 8, 2009 post by Dan Markovitz called Why Isn’t Thinking Time Part of Your Standard Work? Although it is acknowledged that thought without action may not be productive, he notes that action without thought can be wasteful as well:
Action without thought leads inevitably to one of the seven forms of muda. It’s very hard to actually stop doing and start thinking, but that’s the real way to eliminate waste and create value. There’s a recent story about a computer room at Toyota’s Torrance headquarters that was getting too warm. Most people would get that email and immediately turn up the air conditioner. You know, respond immediately to the email. But these guys did a root cause analysis and found that the real problem was a blocked air duct. The symptoms didn’t go away immediately, but the real problem was actually solved. It just required some time to think.
The lessons here are interconnected: a) quality and “people-sustainability” are factors in total resource productivity, and b) time to think and reflect contributes to quality in the problem-solving process. Not building “reflective time” into a project schedule or a GTD/ROWE process can negatively impact results when the whole system is considered.
Hawken, P., Lovins, A. & Lovins, L. H. (1999). Natural Capitalism. Little, Brown, & Co.: New York.
Jorgenson, D.W. & Griliches, Z. (1967). “The Explanation of Productivity Change”. Review of Economic Studies 34(99): 249–283.