Management In Real Life

Number One Productivity Improvement Tool
by: Kevin Herring

When one of my sons was in college, he wanted to be a student assistant to one of his professors. I asked him why he didn’t look into it. He said that even though he had been a top student in the professor’s class, he hadn’t taken enough classes to qualify. I asked him what was the worst that could happen if he asked. Of course, it was the possibility of having to hear “no.” Deciding he could handle the worst possible fate, he gathered up his courage and took the plunge. When I saw him after his meeting with the professor, he was grinning ear to ear. It wasn’t hard to guess what happened.

We all have moments when we balk at doing something even when doing it would give us something we want. In fact, it happens every time I run a certain workshop. In it, we get team members working on a mock assembly line. After doing several rounds of the activity, participants get pretty good at producing more product with less waste and fewer rejects. At some point they think they’ve hit their ceiling. When I ask what it would take to produce more, the answers are always the same: More people, more equipment, or more of both. They won’t believe that a team smaller than theirs produced three times the result with the same equipment, and they get stuck convinced they’ve gone about as far as they can go.

It’s the same in most production teams. Team members feel they are already working hard and the only way to produce more is to work even harder. They’ve been doing the work long enough that they’re convinced they’re producing about as much as they can, so they’re not too motivated to talk about productivity improvements.

That’s why when I once suggested to a team that they could more than double throughput with the same number of people, they looked at me like I was from another planet. They figured that if there were better ways to do things, they would be doing them. They had to see things differently before they would take me seriously.

One way to give them new perspective was to help them see how the system they worked under made the work more difficult. That made it easier for them to recognize how they could produce more. Once they saw what was possible, they stopped limiting themselves and were able to wipe out bottlenecks and redundancies that had been killing productivity for years. In just a few months, doubling throughput was a goal they saw in the rearview mirror.

Teams that produce remarkable results like these don’t let their experience keep them from trying something new. That’s pretty important considering that somebody will find the breakthrough every competitor wants. It’s just a question of who trusts enough to try and be the first to do it. If teams don’t believe it’s possible, why would they want to try? That’s why among the myriad of process mapping, cause analysis, and redesign tools, the number one productivity improvement tool is changing the belief.

Take any current productivity situation and ask why it isn’t better. Help team members see greater possibilities by asking why—why they are doing things the way they are, why things break down, why things aren’t located or organized better, and why bottlenecks occur. Help them challenge the system, and be a champion for them improving the process. Then give them the support they need to make the improvements, themselves.

Send an email and let me know what you learn from your experiences. I would love to hear from you!

Kevin Herring

Kevin Herring is co-author of 'Practical Guide for Internal Consultants,' and President of Ascent Management Consulting, Ltd., a firm specializing in performance turnarounds of work groups, business units, and leaders.
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