To Raise Productivity, Stop Putting Lipstick on Pigs

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To Raise Productivity, Stop Putting Lipstick on Pigs

Despite unprecedented increase in the amount of digital labor-saving technology applied to our commercial processes, the U.S. rate of productivity growth has effectively been sawed in half over the last decade. You heard that right, microchips and poor productivity in the same sentence. Federal Reserve Board Chairwoman Janet Yellen has declared this trend “a key uncertainty for the U.S. economy.” That’s about a 6.3 on the Fed-speak Richter scale.

While many are in pursuit of the next gleaming digital means to cut humanoids further, or even entirely out of the process in the interest of raising productivity, we’ve been stumbling around looking for (and finding) what world class process observer and branding expert Martin Lindstrom might term small data solutions… scraps and insights that are lying right at our feet that can be picked up and applied right now, many of them for free.

Like what? How about better ways of leading people so that they actually want to part with some of their discretionary effort in the workspace and thus contribute at a higher level. No capital expenditure involved. Here’s one:

It’s widely accepted that one of the best paths to more and better innovation (read, productivity) is to “fail faster”, to tolerate (even encourage) learning by trial and error. That’s all well and good, but for it to happen, someone has to have the courage to blow the whistle (earlier is better), stop the train momentarily, ID the failure and extract the learning.

We have built up so much fear and self-absorption in our workspaces that no one wants to risk being voted off the island or becoming the branded owner of the “failure” du jour, for being the Obama in Obamacare (which, though imperfect is not a failure, but that’s for another day).  But we have gotten very good at masking mistakes by putting lipstick on pigs, or averting the organization’s eyes to a flashy bauble elsewhere, and moving on.

This begs better, more confident leadership. We’re desperately in need of leaders with the courage and good sense to create an environment where someone can say, “I / we have screwed up” and live to tell about it. Here are three rules for getting started, with snake analogies borrowed from Jim Barksdale one of the best business leaders I’ve ever worked around. (Please, no PETA protests.)

  1. When You See a Snake, Kill It – For too many of us, our first instinct when an error is discovered is to obfuscate or avert our eyes, and immediately run in the opposite direction, causing others to believe that that’s how we handle errors around here. Few things are more powerful than a good example. Be quick and clear in recognizing and owning your mistakes. Encourage others to do the same, and make it safe for them to do so.
  2. Don’t Play With Dead Snakes – When an error has been identified, dispatched, and harvested for learning, move on! Don’t tolerate piling on or gotcha games. You’re running a business, not running for Congress!
  3. Remember That Many Opportunities Start Out Looking Like Snakes – Extract learning from unlikely sources. As a case in point, witness the discovery and development of myriad therapies (including one that may have saved my life) from one of the deadliest substances on earth, Botulinum toxin. Whoda thunk it?

This is not an either / or proposition. We can (and must) pursue both technological advances and better leadership habits to raise productivity to a level that will afford us, and generations to come a better lifestyle. Let’s get on with it!

Your thoughts, as always are welcome.

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