Lies – Productivity is Output Divided By Input – DBR 012

The lie here is that outputs divided by inputs is the right way to measure our productivity.
I believe that we’re thinking about productivity in the wrong ways. Particularly when it comes to knowledge workers, we use similar thoughts and equations for knowledge worker productivity that we use for factory productivity or efficiency. I want to dive into some of the differences that may indicate that we’re thinking about this whole thing the wrong way.
A clear problem statement is, we seem to be attacking the productivity problem the same way we attacked, and frankly, solved the efficiency problem in factories. We see productivity equations for knowledge workers that are the same as productivity equations for factories: productivity or efficiency is defined as outputs divided by inputs.
Well, there are a few problems with that, based on differences between knowledge work, and the product of knowledge work, versus factory production, and the product of factories. So the argument is, efficiency, which is some ratio of output to input, is not the right way to think of knowledge worker productivity.
Factory models probably don’t apply to knowledge work
  • repetition
    • process design and engineering in factories
    • process is an outgrowth of multiple iterations of solving the same problem – medicine
    • knowledge workers really don’t do repetition (more later)
  • measurability
    • factory inputs are measurable because they’re physical
    • quality is directly measurable
    • A clue: knowledge work is the hardest input to measure in factories
Factories don’t really use time anyway
  • time is an outcome, not an input
  • factories can buy more ‘time’ – its expandable
Fundamental differences in work, but we use the same productivity equations
Compare knowledge work
  • knowledge work inputs are less tangible – experience, learning, creativity
  • knowledge work is not ‘manufactured’; problem solving as exemplary knowledge work
  • we don’t know much about the problem-solving process
  • any solution is potentially a good result
  • medicine as an example of problem solving
  • medical diagnosis as applied experience – reasoning by analogy
  • primary knowledge work difference – Never solve the same problem twice
  • portability of knowledge work solutions
Challenges to using time as the input
  • knowledge work outputs are not manufactured
  • ideas and solutions are the result of trial-and-error
  • billing for time as a knowledge worker – an accommodation
  • formerly knowledge workers got paid by controlling the medium of delivery of information
  • writers don’t bill for their time
  • modern erosion of media as transmission
  • information consumption is largely free
Billing for results
  • the Henry Ford story/legend
  • knowledge workers should be able to bill for results more often
  • lawyers bill for solutions, but people get upset
  • authors do it this way
Productivity has a lot to do with avoiding waste
  • waste one – task switching
  • waste two – over-producing quality, knowledge workers need to control quality
  • waste three – Re-finding previous solutions
Symptoms of not having good productivity measures, of not understanding productivity
  • Multitasking
  • Working too many hours
  • moving tasks along Symptom: no clear priority
  • deadline-driven
The other mindset – focus is the number one input
  • result one – break habits associated with symptoms
  • result two of other mindset – protect our focus
  • result three – grow our focus Wrap up results
Tools to support the new mindset
  • timer
  • more mindfulness (reading is a good start)
  • more thinking -> greater mindfulness -> greater focus
  • backlog of tasks
  • psychological tool – confidence

A primary takeaway is to be careful to not overuse time as an input in measuring your productivity. Time is only useful as a container for focused effort. Work on your focus and your time might just take care of itself.