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Productivity is Not a New Idea. But It’s Still Very Hard.

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People seem strangely excited when I mention I do productivity consulting. They act as if finding ways to work smarter is an esoteric new field. But it isn’t, and understanding that matters a great deal.

A writer for Fast Company’s Co.Design seems very excited about process improvement techniques from ages past:

Why Designers Are Reviving This 30-Year-Old Japanese Productivity Theory

Toyota’s 5S principles, which ushered in lean manufacturing in the 1980s, are experiencing a renaissance.

Decades before Marie Kondo became the go-to Japanese organizational guru—transforming her name into a verb and selling more than 6 million copies of her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up—another declutter philosophy became one of Japan’s biggest exports.

Called 5S after its alliterative core tenets—sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and sustain—the methodology originated on the Toyota assembly line, then went on to become a foundational element of the lean manufacturing wave that swept the world in the 1980s. Its underpinning idea is as simple as its steps: Namely, that a well-organized workplace yields a safer, more efficient, and more productive system.

Sounds like pretty obvious stuff, doesn’t it? But if that’s the case, why are we still talking about productivity?

Factory Floor

© Flickr user Ted Drake

It’s not as if this stuff was all invented in the 1980s. That article references the Just-In-Time system from the decade before and the Toyota innovations that followed World War II. And if you’ve read The Methodology Blog for a while, we’ve talked before about the Hawthorne productivity experiments and about the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor at the turn of the last century. And if you want to go even deeper, the idea of being more efficient was studied by the philosophers John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832).

So why are we still talking about productivity? Because the key tenets of getting more done are at often at direct odds with human nature and social systems.

Point and Counterpoint

Let’s run through a few examples:

  • A core idea in productivity is to do one thing at a time. But we tend to get drawn away easily and falsely believe we can multitask, or are expected to manage multiple responsibilities at the exact same time.
  • Likewise, we know interruptions kill productivity. This is a major area of research in positive psychology. And yet, we tend to interrupt others because of our ego. We want to get our needs met and it’s hard not to bug people.
  • Clean workspaces are safer, make it easier to find things, and help us to focus. Yet, many of us don’t enjoy tidying. When we are deep into a project we often make a huge mess.
  • One of the best ways to learn, grown, and produce the best result is through repeated failure. But, we don’t like to make mistakes. And managers are often concerned about the cost of errors.

The Answer Hurts

How do we resolve these age-old conundrums? It’s simple to describe, but nearly impossible to implement. The solution to almost every productivity problem is trust and respect.

Think of what happens if you trust people to do their work and respect them enough not to interrupt them unless it’s necessary. They are either going to find a way to succeed, or they are going to lack the internal motivation to move forward. There’s not a lot of room for anything else.

But as easy as it is to say “trust and respect” it’s hard to do in practice. We want our employees to come into the office at certain times and we want to see them getting things done. We worry about fraud and abuse, because it does happen.

And that is what much of the history of productivity shows anyway. It is a slow and plodding progression of increasing respect for individual contribution. In the past, almost everyone was being supervised. Now, much of the world’s work is happening independently without direct oversight, and increasingly we see individuals coming up with ideas to do that work better.

Productivity is not a new idea. It’s an old one. And what makes it difficult is embedded into who we are. That’s a painful truth, but discomfort often leads to change, and change often leads to growth.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter


Troublemaker and productivity/workflow expert. Slightly more complex than 140 characters will permit.
@lorraineball First probably depends on the business. But second is likely training, especially with regard to sales. - 1 month ago
Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter

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