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Famous Productivity “Campfire Stories”

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Any industry has its tall tales, which are passed along and extended every time. Here’s some of the more famous “campfire stories” from the world of productivity and process improvement.

One such episode tells about a consulting firm that rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s. They were famous for helping mid-sized companies dramatically improve efficiency by introducing computers into the workplace. In those days, technology was both expensive and enormous. Before making the investment, the consulting firm argued, companies needed to “prepare for computerization.”

Consultants would descend and work with everyone from executives to administrative staff. They would help them organize their work, structure documents and forms into neat, orderly systems. They had them practice sharing information and giving instructions using precise, coded sentences. Schedules, budgets, and weekly plans were specified. The offices began to buzz with excitement about the arrival of the computer.

worker productivity increased from first computers

© Flickr user Sunfox

Within a few months, the client was operating like a well-oiled machine. Profits were up, people were arriving and leaving on time, and productivity was at a record high. It was then that the consulting company would suddenly reveal that there was a crisis at another client’s office, refund some of their advance fees, and quickly slip out the side door. They would never be heard from again, but the improvements would stay.

The consulting firm never intended to conduct “computerization.” Instead, they used the promise as a way to inspire positive change in the organization. The excitement about the forthcoming upgrade was all they needed to support process improvement.

Aircraft Carrier Documentation

Another story begins with a conversation between a Navy Admiral and corporate executive in a major government supply company. The two were reviewing the manifest for a aircraft carrier being laid down at the shipyards. They did some some quick calculations, and came to the conclusion that 20% of the operating weight of the vessel was actually on-board documentation! All of that paper added up to a tremendous weight. Surely, overall performance would increase and costs decrease if they could make a dent in these hundreds of thousands of pages.

The admiral created a commission to study the issue. After many months, they determined that the smallest typeface that all Navy seamen could be guaranteed to read would be 30% smaller than the one currently in use. Since it would be years before the next carrier was completed, the commission decided to have all of the documentation reprinted for one of the ships currently in use. That way, they could precisely measure the impact of their brilliant idea.

While the carrier was in port and most of the crew on shore leave, another team came on board and switched out thousands of manuals. A week later, however, the performance of the carrier started to decline. Orders took longer to execute and morale dropped sharply. The entire ship and crew seemed to be sluggish despite the decrease in overall weight. Something had gone terribly wrong!

worker productivity decreased after business transformation

© Flickr user A.Davey

Only after an inquest did the commission discover what had actually happened. It turns out that crewmen throughout the vessel had a habit of memorizing page numbers. They even jotted them down in journals, wrote them onto hidden parts of control panels, and even incorporated them into training programs! It took months for the crew to catch up, and by then the improvement project had been scrapped.

Stay tuned for more campfire stories in future blogs! And to learn more about ways to bring a burst of productivity into your organization, contact the business improvement consultants at AccelaWork today! We know how to ensure that you take the lessons from these stories and use them to better your organization.

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