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You Cannot Measure Creative Productivity

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Among the best analogy for business improvement consulting is the field of software development. In both arenas people foolishly attempt to measure productivity.

The idea of business productivity, especially when conducting process improvement or simply analyzing daily operations, is extremely important. But productivity itself is not really what we think it is. Software expert Martin Fowler writes:

Productivity, of course, is something you determine by looking at the input of an activity and its output. So to measure software productivity you have to measure the output of software development – the reason we can’t measure productivity is because we can’t measure output.

This doesn’t mean people don’t try. One of my biggest irritations are studies of productivity based on lines of code…[But] any good developer knows that they can code the same stuff with huge variations in lines of code, furthermore code that’s well designed and factored will be shorter because it eliminates the duplication.

Measuring Productivity: Computer Programmers

© Flickr user Phillie Casablanca

Fowler goes on to explain all of the other ways that people try to measure productivity in programming, and why they don’t work. The reason is that writing software is a creative activity, and anything you produce from the part of your brain which generates new ideas is not easily evaluated.

The same is true for analyzing business processes. It’s difficult to know how much time it will take to make an improvement or to accurately predict the outcome. At best, you can try to measure something about the current state and something about the end state, and compare the two.

The author also notes:

Some people say “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”. That’s a cop out. Businesses manage things they can’t really measure the value of all the time. How do you measure the productivity of a company’s lawyers, it’s marketing department, an educational institution? You can’t – but you still need to manage them

Measuring Productivity: Tape Measure

© Flickr user aussiegall

We’ve talked about the problems of measuring productivity in the past, and the general business obsession with measurement. The most important message is focus on how activity produces results, and how results create value—while not being distracted by activity numbers.

It doesn’t matter how many steps you take or how fast you run. What matters is that you’re going in the right direction, and most importantly, that you know why you’re headed that way.

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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.
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