Organizations spend a lot of time and effort searching for ‘winners’ that will come on board and help drive organizational growth and success. But many of these organizations are left puzzled when, despite their efforts to bring in the best of the best, the company is still operating below the top efficiency. Many leaders have the expectation that having the best individual minds on board would result in the grand total of them all, but what they get oftentimes is something far less. The management then sets out on a quest to improve their employee productivity. Most often, that pursuit doesn’t extend beyond time management training. They often explore the pros and cons of the Eisenhower matrix, the Pomodoro technique, Getting Things Done, Inbox Zero, and many more hacks that promise peak efficiency. Given that in most organizations, people are still drowning in emails, they cannot focus on priorities, and they are completely overwhelmed and burnt out, it is safe to say that productivity hacks are not enough.
The problem isn’t with the fundamental logic behind any of these hacks. It’s that we fail to consider the simple fact that the majority of individuals don’t work in isolation. Most work in multifaceted organizations defined by complex interdependencies among individuals. Consider a typical day in your own organization. How often are employees made responsible for tasks, but they are not given the authority to deliver results? How much time is spent sending endless strings of emails, presentations, and meetings for the necessary decision to be made? Needless to say, productivity suffers because individuals are buried in requests for advice, input, access to resources, and meeting attendances.
“It’s not enough to do your best; you must know what to do and then do your best.”
W. Edwards Deming
The idea that most possibilities for quality improvement lie in the organizational system and not the individual was introduced by the leading management thinker Dr. W. Edwards Deming. He was a statistician whose approaches helped accelerate Japan’s recovery after the Second World War, where he taught leaders and engineers the methods of management and quality. He implemented a philosophy based on cooperation and continual improvement, avoiding blame and redefining mistakes as opportunities for improvement. He argued that the question isn’t ‘Who?’ but ‘What?’. He insisted that the individuals are but a part of the system, and they cannot perform better than the system allows.
Adopting a system view results in leaders viewing the organization as a compilation of many interrelated interactions and connections, as opposed to independent departments or processes administered by various hierarchy chains. A system philosophy helps create a long-term focus. Rather than perceiving incidents as isolated (and often looking to blame individuals for lack of productivity), a system view allows leaders to focus on the systemic result drivers. If each individual is required to optimize itself for individual performance, the organizational system will not be optimized. Leaders ought to create an environment with a clear aim that is not overpowered by profitability but instead optimize the entire company, forming an ‘All For One and One For All’ mindset. Only when all the interactions and connections are working together within an organization towards accomplishing a shared aim, the business can start to perform at peak efficiency.
While conceptually, it might be easy to grasp the concept of systems view and the various components that form a system (people, materials, processes, and environment, to name but a few). What is much more difficult is actually to perform from a system perspective.
The pursuit of individual productivity is, of course, worthwhile. However, unless you work outside of an organization, the effectiveness of most productivity hacks will be limited. To make a real impact on performance, a solid system is required.