Saturday 19 June 2010

Inputs and Outputs

I worked for a boss once who gave me a very simple definition of productivity. It is, he said, output divided by input. The more output you get from a given input, the more productive you are.

Then there was another boss who told me that I made my job look really easy. I took it as a tremendous compliment and thanked him. He probably thought that I was compounding my sins with sarcasm - because with the benefit of hindsight, I came to realise that it was one of the most stinging criticisms he could make.

The company concerned had a strong culture of 'presenteeism'. Turning up after the boss or going home before him was a big no-no. What I was supposed to do, apparently, was work much longer hours, achieve less, and complain loudly about being overworked. Only then could they be certain that they were getting the most out of me. (And I've subsequently discovered in other contexts that doing less and complaining more generally leads to a higher level of recognition.)

I exaggerate – but only a little. There are far too many organisations which think that sweating their assets means getting the maximum input from them, rather than the maximum output. It's a deeply-ingrained culture, which is leading to higher and higher levels of stress-related absences. (It's also part of the rationale for the opposition of some people to things like the working hours directive.)

When the government talk about saving money in the public sector by not filling jobs (or by getting one person to do the same job in more than one council, as the Local Government Minister suggested this week) it can sound, superficially, like an easy answer. But unless the total workload reduces, it simply means that the individual workload goes up, and those left must do more to fill the gap. At a macro (organisational) level, that may well look like better efficiency or productivity; but at a micro (individual) level it's likely to result in the individuals having to work significantly longer hours for no gain in personal productivity.

Is that really the basis on which we want to run our public services?

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