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Productivity: Cut the Slackers Some Slack, Organizations Share the Blame

Did you ever have one of those days where it doesn’t seem like you’ve accomplished anything? You might shrug your shoulders and tell yourself that every one has an “off day” occasionally. If you’re anything like the average U.S. worker, however, you have off days more than just occasionally. You have 33.5 off days per year, to be precise. That’s the average amount of time wasted per worker through inefficiency, according to Proudfoot Consulting’s 2006 Productivity Report. All told, those wasted days are costing the economy $598 billion per year.

Don’t feel bad, though—it’s not entirely your fault. (Besides, you’re not as bad as your Australian counterparts, who are guilty of a world-worst 56 unproductive days per year.) Goofing off might account for some of those lost days, but according to the survey, the greatest culprit for lost productivity is inefficient management planning of work and organizational structure.

The survey’s finding will come as no surprise to Performance & Profits readers. When asked “What one thing do you think would most improve your productivity?” in our most recent monthly poll, readers selected “more clearly defined responsibilities and priorities” as their top choice. Coming in as a close second was “a clearer next step in my career path with my company,” which could also be seen as a consequence of poor or chaotic management. Taken together, these answers indicate that productivity suffers when workers are unsure of their day-to-day tasks and the long-term outlook of their roles.

As with so many other workplace issues, the management shortcomings that lead to a decline in productivity have much to do with a disconnect between knowledge workers and traditional organizational systems. Simply put, organizations are still largely structured according to precepts that date back to the Industrial Age and are not designed to accommodate the needs of the contemporary work force. “Knowledge workers depend on collaboration and the constant swapping back and forth of information, analysis, and expertise,” as Mark Vickers of the Human Resource Institute puts it in his article “The Organization’s Fault.” Many organizations, however, impede collaboration and communication, creating a frustrated work force that lacks the tools needed to get the job done.

To put it another way, lost productivity isn’t the fault of anyone in particular, which is part of the reason it makes for such a bedeviling problem. It would be so much easier if the cause could be identified and rooted out. When the organization itself is the cause, however, the challenge of improving productivity becomes immensely more difficult. That leads us to the second greatest barrier to productivity according to the Proudfoot survey, “poor leadership in terms of management demonstrating and leading change.”

“There is a general lack of good management and the appearance of a disconnect from the reality of what’s happening,” according to Miklos Klempa, executive vice president of business development at Proudfoot. “Management always matters where people are concerned especially given the complex, global nature of modern day corporations. Another aspect of management is to know where you are today. Most don’t understand the baseline of where they are today. To set a target to change, you must have a clear starting point. Continuous communication among top management, middle managers and employees is necessary to implement and maintain behaviors that fuel productivity increases.”

Organizations don’t change overnight, of course, but there are steps you can take to improve the productivity in your workplace in the short term. This issue of Performance and Profits features articles that examine the issue of productivity from several different angles. You’ll read about how redesigning the office space can lead to increased productivity. Steve Trautman, author of Teach What You Know, offers insights about how sharing knowledge can help reduce time-wasting rework situations. Finally, Todd Harris of PI Worldwide explains how personality tests can tell you who’s productive, who’s not and how you can tell the difference.