How to Improve Knowledge Worker Employee Productivity – a Case Study of Modern Industrialization

The Lab Consulting

Just because a business has been doing something the same way forever, doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it. In this article, we’re going to challenge three misbeliefs that chip away at employee productivity in the world of white-collar, or knowledge, workers.

Laying the foundations for employee productivity

We used the word “foundations” as a pun. Because the following discussion of employee productivity is all about laying bricks. Seriously.

You might assume that bricklaying has been perfected over the years. Ancient civilizations did it. And their “classical” approach didn’t change much. For centuries.

Enter Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. Back in the early 1900s, they believed there had to be a better way to improve productivity—even if it was hiding in plain sight. And so they conducted a study of bricklaying. Using then-new motion-picture technology, they filmed bricklayers at work. Then they analyzed the results, frame by frame.

The bricklayers were busy. Yet they were wasteful. They weren’t wasting bricks or mortar. Rather, they were wasting time and effort. It’s a type of waste which we at The Lab call “virtuous waste.” It’s well-intentioned, yet harmful to productivity—and profitability.

Back to the Gilbreths. They realized that by introducing many little changes—such as reducing the distance between tools and the amount of arm reach required—they could make a huge improvement in productivity. And they were right: Using the Gilbreth’s techniques, workers went from laying 300 bricks a day to 300 bricks an hour. That’s an astonishing increase in employee productivity that was hiding in plain sight, for centuries.

How to improve employee productivity in the office – a fresh perspective

Today, most workers aren’t sweating in the sun, laying bricks. They’re toiling away in the office. White-collar, or knowledge, workers make up the majority of the workforce. And like the bricklayers, they believe they’re as productive as possible.

Yet the productivity of these employees is being sapped by virtuous waste. They’re spending 35 percent of their day doing things like correcting errors. Duplicating work. Or over-servicing clients.

Not only do they not realize they’re wasting effort, but they believe their work is unavoidable, even valuable.

Why? This impediment to employee productivity is due to three stubborn misbeliefs:

1. Employee Productivity Lesson 1 – The Misbelief: “Our business is unique”

Pardon us, but “No it’s not.”

Compare a group of businesses to the buildings in a city skyline. Each building—and each business—is unique. But they’re all composed of comparable components:

  • Every building is made up of windows, doors, walls, and floors.
  • Every business has its organization structure, business processes, and work activities.

2. Employee Productivity Lesson 2 – The Misbelief: “Knowledge work can’t be standardized”

We disagree.

Today’s business leaders commonly perceive that, when it comes to employee productivity, their knowledge workers routinely solve non-routine problems. Each challenge requires new, creative thinking. Or so they believe.

That’s what factory workers thought, too—before their work was standardized. Early factories were collections of skilled craftsmen, whose “tribal knowledge” of work methods was stored primarily in their heads.

But once manufacturers took a Gilbreth-like “frame-by-frame” look at their workers, they detected huge opportunities to improve employee productivity. Just think of today’s factory and the standardized operations along its assembly line.

Now think of today’s office. Did you know that two-thirds of knowledge workers’ activities are similar and repetitive? Don’t believe for a minute that knowledge work can’t be standardized.

3. Employee Productivity Lesson 3 – The Misbelief: “New technology will automate our knowledge”

Again, let’s compare manufacturing to office work.

When manufacturers automate their plants, they begin by making products and tasks simple and standard for assembly-line machines to perform. (Certainly, the machines won’t figure this out on their own.)

This has proven a tremendous success. Over the past century, manufacturing worker productivity has increased up to fiftyfold.

Now think about knowledge work. A century after the introduction of office-automation machines (starting with things like punch-cards), economists are still unable to measure a meaningful productivity gain from office automation.

Why not? Think back to the manufacturer, and the initial work that preceded the automation. A similar situation exists when it comes to white-collar employees: Fully 75 percent of knowledge work improvements require no new technology. They require standardization. It’s the prerequisite to automation.

Improved employee productivity in just four minutes

Learn more about this subject in The Lab’s intriguing and informative video, on which this article was based. It combines fascinating historical footage with state-of-the-art animation and graphics to illustrate how these three misbeliefs stand in the way of employee productivity gains. Watch the video now.

Or, explore how The Lab Consulting can boost your employees’ productivity, without the introduction of any new technology and backed by our unique self-funding, money-back-guaranteed engagement model. We’d be delighted to help you improve.

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