How Can A HR Plan And Strategy Improve Productivity?

1st July 20

For many HR leaders, looking at how to improve productivity within the workforce is key. Leaders must work through their people to achieve the objectives of the organisation. Productivity is a challenge for the UK economy. Since 2008, the Office of National Statistics has reported that UK output per hour has flatlined after more than 10 years of solid growth. This seems counter-intuitive, given recent technology growth, yet there are underlying reasons why:

  1. The rise of the robot – Robot technology has had the biggest impact in industries where it has replaced people. The car industry is a good example and Mini provide tours of their Oxford factory that is full of robots supported by a small human workforce. And, while robots seem a recent phenomenon, the reality is that precision manufacturing started introducing automation years ago, which fuelled the productivity rise before 2008 and has had little impact since then.
  2. The services economy – When Queen Victoria opened the Great Exhibition on 1st May 1851, her country was the world’s leading industrial power, producing more than half its iron, coal and cotton cloth. There has been a structural shift in the UK economy as other countries have industrialised and embraced manufacturing. The Office of National Statistics report that, in 2018, the service industries accounted for 81% of total UK economic output and that services accounted for 84% of workforce jobs in September 2019.

There has been a time and motion industry around manufacturing that measures every single movement required to produce a widget. To date, that measurement ability has not been widely applied to services. This means that most businesses don’t have the evidence base they need to know which productivity levers to pull.

  1. Technology tools – The technology applied to the service industry has been revolutionary for customer experience. Just think of all the apps, chat lines and websites that give us access to the information and services we want as consumers. The trouble is that the other end of that tech, where it meets a human worker, hasn’t had the same thought invested in it to make it easy to use and transformative in how it gets the job done. Always-on email, communications apps and glued to our phones means that for many in the service economy, work has just spread into every waking hour. Most of us now work longer but can we really claim to be working smarter? Many new tools are changing how we get tasks done but are not increasing productivity.
  2. AI is the future – AI has the potential to be as transformative for the service industries as machinery has been for manufacturing. The ability to use all the available data to make smarter recommendations and reduce the chores involved in data analysis and speed up decision making could be truly game changing. And we aren’t there yet. There are some amazing examples of AI used in medical imaging diagnosis and fraud detection in financial services. Yet these examples are still quite rare and a google of the impact of AI will show much of it developed so far is to help us do new things rather than do what we already do more productively. For example, toys that can talk back to kids, algorithms that can write a new piece of music or Chef Watson that can suggest new recipes.

So, given that we have added technology without the smartness of AI, what can we do to improve productivity?

Using time and motion study techniques in a modern way to give organisations a diagnostic view of what is impacting colleagues’ productivity and an evidence base for better decision making, is one of the best ways.

How long does it take?

The old principle of know how long it takes to make a widget can be easily applied to the service industry. And how long it takes to do something matters because then you’ll know exactly how many hours and colleagues you need to compete the work to meet your targets.

For example, a multinational technology sales support team carried out studies to understand how long it took to prepare a quote, process an order and resolve invoice queries. From there, the business was able to calculate how many hours it needed in each market. And the finding was that some offices were way over-staffed, whilst others so tightly resourced, they were struggling to provide the quality service that is essential to build customer confidence and revenues. They have used the analysis to right size their teams and ensure they have the levels of resource in place to achieve their growth targets.

This approach seems incredibly simple and obvious. Yet, do most businesses really know how long their team takes to do specific activities? And without knowing this, how can they know for sure if they have the right resources in place?

What is getting in the way?

The easiest way to identify what is getting in the way is to ask your team what frustrates them in how they do their job. Many companies use customer experience programmes to understand every step of the customer journey, yet few apply the same diligence to their colleague experience.

Our studies have shown there are some common issues that get in the way.

System delay is the workstudy term for when a colleague is held up because the system they work with goes more slowly than they do. We’ve seen it in warehouses where pickers can assemble a parcel faster than the system can print the label for the box, and in a call centre, where call agents were so used to waiting for the system to catch up with them that they used the time for customer chat. So, if you are ever on the line with a call centre and they start a general chat with you, you’ll know the real reason is they are watching a wheel spin on their computer screen.

System delay can also occur when systems are not fully integrated, so users have to switch between systems, dual enter data or sign in and out between screens. It might only be a few seconds a time, yet add that up across every agent, every team and every day and it can make as substantial difference to the time required and frustration levels of your teams.

System changes to eliminate delay often need time and money to address them and there are also other common barriers that don’t need IT to sort them.

If businesses measure the time spent on calls and emails, most of them are shocked by the amount of time spent. Emails grow like knotweed in many businesses, usually due to a mixture of culture and systems issues. For example, we studied a team of sales-based account managers who, after a day out on the road with their clients, faced on average of 60 emails a day. Many of them were to double check that their central support team had done what they promised or to share information on an account. Most of them could have been prevented by more complete customer records and a more consistently reliable service from their support team.

The business also realised that they have no collaboration tools in place, so multiple email messages became the default to resolving issue or bringing resources to a client. We’ve seen collaboration tools such as google hangouts, HeySpace and Slack used well, and we’ve also seen them become another chore and an additional thing to manage on top of all the emails. As with all technology, how it is utilised and woven into the company ways of working often influences the benefits delivered more than the software features it offers.

Simple barriers like time differences between markets can be addressed by time slipping teams and/or effective collaboration tools.

The hardest part is spotting the problems. Once they are identified and quantified, providing a solution that increases productivity is often the easy bit.

What management structure do we need?

A good management structure has differentiated roles with clear accountabilities. A day in the life study with different management roles within a business, often finds that the differentiation has been lost over time and overridden by local variance and personal preference. In a contact centre study, it was found that client-operated teams, where team leaders spent 40% of their time coaching the agents, were more productive and produced better commercial results. In the outsourced contact centres, the team leaders spent their time monitoring the KPIs that were at the core of the service contract and significantly less time with their team.

My belief is that the biggest challenge in addressing productivity is getting a robust evidence base that quantifies where the challenges and opportunities are. It is the step change that moves service-based teams from gut feel and insistence that their local variations make them special to better decision making and higher productivity.