It is Not the People; it's the System

We are always trying to improve our productivity, and we try to do the same with our employees. All too often, that quest goes no further than time management training provided by the office. Things like the Pomodoro technique, Getting Things Done, and countless other approaches entice us with promises of peak productivity. But still, people are overwhelmed by work, buried in tasks, and unable to focus on critical priorities; it’s safe to say that these productivity hacks don’t hack it.

The problem isn’t with the intrinsic logic of any of these approaches. They fail to account for the simple fact that most people don’t work in isolation. They work in complex organizations defined by interdependencies among people — and it’s often these interdependencies that have the most significant effect on personal productivity. You can be organized, but with the explosion of email (not to mention instant messages, WeChat, LinkedIn, Slack, etc.), you’ll never be fast enough to deal with all the incoming communication.

W. Edwards Deming argued in his book Out of the Crisis, 94% of most problems and possibilities for improvement belong to the System, not the individual. Personal solutions can be helpful, but the most effective antidote to low productivity and inefficiency must be implemented at the system level, not the individual level.

Make work visible

Most of the work in an office environment it’s buried in people’s computers or their heads. It’s invisible. As a result, it’s challenging to know what people are working on or whether they’re overloaded and unable to take on more tasks. Physical or virtual task boards (Trello, Asana, Airtable), where every job is represented by a card specifying who is handling it, enable a more equitable distribution of work. It also eliminates both countless status check emails and the need to cover that topic in meetings.

Similarly, making downtime visible is equally helpful. In working with the Boston Consulting Group, Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow found that implementing “predictable time off” (i.e., afternoons or evenings disconnected from work and wireless devices, agreed-upon email blackout times, or uninterrupted work blocks) led to greater job satisfaction and better work-life balance without compromising client service. In this case, “predictability” serves the same purpose as “visibility” — it allows workers to see what colleagues are doing and react accordingly.

The “Bat Signal”

The police summoned Batman with the image of a bat projected in the night sky. The bat signal was reserved for times of crisis, like when the Joker was on the loose. As Marshall McLuhan argued, the medium was the message. Unfortunately, most organizations don’t have a similar way of indicating an issue is a true emergency. Without agreement on what communication channel to use, workers are forced to check all digital messaging platforms to ensure nothing slips through the cracks. That’s toxic to productivity. Companies can make work easier for people if they specify channels for urgent and non-urgent issues.