Thursday, March 19, 2009

Productivity, not Bailouts

More than fifty years ago Toyota learned that it was possible to survive tough economic times by facing them head-on; by dealing with drastic reductions in resources through drastic increases in productivity.

If you have fewer resources to do the work at-hand, and the amount of work can't be reduced, then productivity must increase. Reducing waste is a huge part of increasing productivity, but waste reduction on the scale necessary to dramatically increase productivity doesn't happen without organizational and cultural changes.

People must become inter-disciplinary and cross-functional during periods of lower prosperity; times like right now. We can survive and even thrive in tough times by increasing productivity, and we can increase productivity by reducing the amount of time lost to hand offs between individual specialists in a workflow, and by capitalizing on the increased knowledge that comes from people having a greater understanding of the work going on around them.

Greater inter-disciplinary work leads to greater productivity, and greater inter-disciplinary work means challenging our assertions about our entitlements to our particular comforts with remaining generalists or specialists. Rather than continuing to toil in a paradigm that pits generalism and specialism against each other in a constant, irreconcilable tug of war that itself causes more lost time, we need to extend the reaches of individuals into the disciplines that surround their present areas of operation.

We tend to get a bit lazy in times of greater prosperity. We feel entitled to our comfortable, walled gardens. And from this entitlement we generate ever more waste and slack; waste and slack that isn't much of a concern relative to the prosperity that we enjoy. When the prosperity goes away, we're faced with the inefficiencies inherent in the hand offs between walled gardens that accrete along the workflow.

Becoming inter-disciplinary doesn't merely mean trading specialization for generalization, though. It means purging the entire paradigm that pits specialization and generalization against each other as natural opposites.

Specialization and generalization can only exist in relatively pure forms when we can afford the waste that they cause. The waste comes when we have either specialization or generalization. This either/or model is unsustainable. Sustainable productivity is created by a workforce that is both specialized and generalized within the context of someone's area of operation, with the understanding that a person's area of operation will continue to expand over their career.

Failures to reproduce Toyota's successes in the west were originally blamed on the cultural differences between Japanese and western workers. Western companies ultimately learned that the real reason for the failures was that they had missed the essential and immutable organizational imperative of Toyota's methodology: the creation of a learning organization through the fostering of a learning culture. Western organizations consistently failed to replicate Toyota's successes because they often merely adopted Toyota's processes as process improvement efforts.

The world sits on the cusp of the greatest opportunity we've had to rid ourselves of the antiquated mass production methodologies that we continue to wring ever decreasing returns from. At no time in this workforce generation's life have we needed a revolutionary boost in productivity.

Before we had this massive financial crisis, we had a massive productivity crisis. It has been with for years; looming, ever-present, waiting to be triggered. And here we sit in the midst of it. Nothing is so immoral at this time than the continued protectionism of our petty specializations that do nothing but exasperate the productivity crisis that we find ourselves in. And nothing reinforces the entitlement to these specializations like an organization that has little understanding of how profoundly an organization's productivity can be transformed by meaningfully committing to becoming a learning culture, and bending all procedural and organizational imperatives to that goal.

And once we've made the meaningful changes to our organizations and culture to bring about dramatic and sustainable changes in productivity, those new habits can be sustained through the prosperity that follows. We have an opportunity to learn not only how to thrive during crisis, but also how to bolster our society against the cultural rot that regularly brings us to the brink of productivity ruin.

Whether or not the bailouts will serve us in the long run, productivity certainly will. And the productivity that we need is likely not the productivity that comes in a box with a major software company's logo on it. We need a culture of productivity holding together a society of productive people, empowered by vigilant awareness and knowledge.

It's my great great hope that we look to the revolutionaries of human productivity of our time and seize this opportunity as if our society depended upon it.

Ampersand GT

Working with software developers and organizations to help realize the potential of software product development through higher productivity, higher quality, and improved customer experience

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