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Make It Work: A Fresh Perspective on Productivity


We know what you’re thinking.

But before you park this piece because you’re confident you know all there is to know about productivity, think again. Do you really?

The New Zealand Productivity Commission recently released a report on measuring and improving productivity in public services. (Now, the thought of this report may make you feel less like being productive and more like having a lie-down, but bear with: there’s more interesting material to come.) Organisations may be all over the word “productivity”– but do we really understand what it means? “The word ‘productivity’ is so frequently and randomly used these days,” observes PEPworldwide managing director Kathryn Anda. “But as a manager, how do you know your team is working productively? If your boss says that the company’s focus this year is to have people working more productively, what does that mean? As an individual, when people ask you if you’re working productively, can you say ‘yes’?”

What it all comes back to, says Anda, is that everyone in an organisation should understand, with absolute clarity, what their organisation wants to achieve, how they want to achieve it and, most importantly, how they as an individual are contributing to the attainment of these goals. “Yes, productivity is about ensuring that everyone is working on the right things, at the right time, in the right way, in order to achieve what they’re employed to do. It’s that 80-20 rule: 80% of your time should be focused on the key aspects of your role,” she explains. “But to be truly productive, every individual also needs to understand how the key aspects of their role are driving the business forward.”

In other words, this goes beyond hours worked or tasks ticked off. So as promised, instead of stupefying you with state sector stats, we thought we’d elaborate by sharing three rather nice little stories instead:

"The word ‘productivity’ is so frequently and randomly used these days. But as a manager, how do you know your team is working productively?"

The story of St Paul’s Cathedral

The story goes that one day, during the construction of London’s famous St Paul’s Cathedral, Sir Christopher Wren (the cathedral’s designer) went for a walk around the site. Unrecognised by the workers, he stopped to ask one what he was doing. “I’m cutting a piece of stone,” was the response. He put the same question to another tradesman, who replied, “I’m earning five shillings twopence a day.” He continued on his way, asking a third man the same question. But this time the response was: “I’m helping Sir Christopher Wren build a beautiful cathedral.”

The story of JFK and the janitor

When President John F. Kennedy visited NASA headquarters for the first time in 1961, he was given a tour of the facility. Legend has it that at one point during this tour, he encountered a janitor who was mopping the floor and asked him what he did at NASA. The janitor replied, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

The story of Sir Peter Blake and the America’s Cup

This one’s a bit closer to home. For Team New Zealand to win two successive America’s Cup competitions (in 1995 and 2000 – was it really that long ago?) was no easy feat. But so the story goes, Sir Peter Blake and his teams achieved these impressive victories by filtering every single thing they did – whether it concerned design, training, crew composition or equipment – through one simple question: “Will it make the boat go faster?”

Now, these anecdotes may possibly be apocryphal, but we think they illustrate our point about productivity rather nicely. (Like every good story, there’s a moral at the end.) So here’s a little exercise for you to try. Think of yourself as JFK’s janitor or the St Paul’s tradesman. If someone asks you what you’re doing, what will your answer be?