Boosting Productivity, Quality, and Well-being
By Steve Randall, PhD, for The Systems Thinker, 13, No. 10 (2002-2003), 7-8.
In this age of “results-driven” businesses, companies might want to reconsider how they boost productivity and improve the bottom line. Rather than focusing on technological fixes and innovations, reorganization, and downsizing, improving employees’experiential involvement and work capacity may be the key to sustainable business success.
In the past, efforts to increase worker productivity have involved measuring how employees spend their time in order to identify process improvements. But conventional measures often fail to take into account much of the work that we do throughout the day. Also, these measurements tend to overlook the negative effects that the drive for bottom-line results can have on employee well-being. Employees may produce a great deal during a work crunch, yet burn out in the process. Thus, the push for productivity can actually undermine individual and organizational performance.
To foster truly continuous improvement and personal satisfaction, we need ways to measure how we think and feel about our work at any given moment—no matter what task we’re doing or whether we’re changing tasks—and not just the steps we go through to accomplish it. So what tools can we use to make this happen?
Let’s take a close look at what we do when we successfully improve productivity on an individual level. Suppose you’re preparing a speech. And you’re really involved in the process. You write down a few key ideas that you want to present, then visualize yourself giving the speech.
At this point, you feel a little puzzled about the order of the ideas. You are stuck and don’t know how to proceed. You look at the clock and wonder if you should take a break. You feel your involvement in the task decreasing and consider ways to avoid it completely.
You’ve reached what I call a transition point, where your productivity can continue at a steady pace, decrease, or maybe even improve. You know that taking a break now would waste time—you’d still have to face the task when you came back and you’d have to reestablish some momentum.
So you drop your distracting thinking about escapes and concentrate on the task again. You remember being confused about the order of ideas and then realize it was actually the confusion that you wanted to avoid. This time you let yourself get confused. Your thoughts go back and forth about how to proceed, and then finally you get some insight about rearranging the ideas you want to present.
Now you’re really involved again. The flow of the work picks up and gradually accelerates. Your productivity increases beyond the level that you had achieved before the confusion arose.
What facilitated the improvement in productivity? Wasn’t it recognizing how you had previously responded to the confusion—by decreasing your involvement and pulling away from the task? Wasn’t it necessary to distinguish productive directions from counterproductive directions, then choose a productive direction and gradually become even more involved than you had been before getting confused? Could we summarize and say that increasing productivity resulted from noticing the transition point where your involvement could either increase or decrease, and then choosing a direction of increasing involvement? Isn’t this the way that we generally improve productivity without even thinking about it?
To intentionally apply this strategy at work, try to recall a recent experience in which you weren’t completely involved in a task, just as tennis players review their recent game to look for ways to improve their stroke. Keep in mind that a high degree of involvement implies an experiential melding of worker and task, a timeless and effortless flow of events, and an unrestricted sense of openness. If you felt any separation from your work, if you weren’t completely swept up in the energy of the project, or if you felt distracted by your work environment, you have identified a key to improving your work game. You can now consciously identify productive and nonproductive responses and choose how to proceed. Regularly noticing your level of involvement in this way provides feedback that you can then use to approach peak performance (see “Ways to Increase Individual Productivity” below).
Noticing your level of involvement in a task can also be the foundation for continuous quality improvement. For example, what else triggers us to improve a work process besides a transition point—conflict, unnecessary complexity, confusion, or wasted energy or effort? These disruptions in work flow draw our attention to processes that we can change for the better.
Similarly, we usually discern inadequacies in the resources at our disposal only when our experience of using them is disrupted or disturbed. For example, when we’re driving a car, if the vehicle is functioning properly, we don’t usually notice it—it virtually becomes a part of us. (Some years ago, Volkswagen advertised that their distinction as an auto manufacturer was that they considered the auto and the driver to be one.) If a race-car driver feels somewhat out of control when making high-speed turns, this disruption to the driver’s sense of flow could indicate an opportunity for increasing the quality of the steering mechanism. Whenever a tool or technology does not meet our needs or expectations, we cannot be completely engrossed in the activity that requires us to use it. Identifying a resource as a source of disruption can give us the opportunity to improve our work environment.
At this point you may hear a little voice saying, “My company would benefit greatly from this approach of tracking involvement, but what would I get out of it?” The answer: your health and level of well-being should gradually improve.
Recall a time when you significantly improved your involvement in a work project by breaking through strong emotional resistance. Perhaps you found yourself avoiding a challenging new assignment that you felt uncertain about taking on. When you overcame your reluctance and delved into the project, did you experience an immediate change in your sense of satisfaction and confidence? Did the breakthrough boost your overall outlook on your job, and maybe even on life [in general, including your time outside the work environment]? The more we absorb ourselves in a task, the greater our feelings of well-being as we gain a renewed sense of commitment to it.
So boosting involvement can be a powerful means for increasing both productivity and well-being. Nevertheless, some managers might fear that people could use this approach to concentrate on self-improvement and personal satisfaction at the expense of their work commitments. This objection, while understandable, is unfounded. First, efforts to increase involvement often require letting go of personal desires and preferences in favor of dedicating ourselves to focusing on and accomplishing the job. The level of fulfillment we derive from our work largely corresponds with the degree to which we fully dedicate ourselves to the task at hand.
Second, the objection that tracking involvement could cause a decrease in productivity may simply reflect an organization’s tactical rather than strategic approach to progress. Businesses seem to be in such a hurry to produce and to improve this quarter’s financial results that they can hardly see the possibility or importance of increasing employees’ productivity over the long term. And while focusing on improving involvement may lead to slightly lower productivity in the short run, by intentionally working to resolve the conflicts that preoccupy us at transition points, our work capacity—including our awareness, available energy, and level of confidence—grows. We can then accomplish things at a faster rate and with greater levels of quality than before.
So how can we optimize our work efforts? Probably not by directing our attention to results, which doesn’t guarantee improvement of well-being and quality. By improving experiential involvement in our work, we can increase productivity, well-being, and quality all at once.
WAYS TO INCREASE INDIVIDUAL PRODUCTIVITY
Steve Randall holds a Ph.D. in East-West psychology and is a peak performance researcher and time management consultant. Steve is author of Results in No Time and cofounder of the Time, Space, and Knowledge Association. Email: email@example.com. A version of this article originally appeared in The Learning Curve and The Networker in 1997.
"Got Time?" This nine-minute video is hosted on YouTube at Got Time? It depicts the habitual Western problems with time pressure and the feeling of not having enough time, identifies common ways of not dealing with the problem, and then suggests that there are ways to change our personal time (like a personal space).
Fast Cycle Time-Chi: Working Faster while Optimizing Well-Being
Books that focus on time-based competition include Fast Cycle Time by Christopher Meyer and Real Time by Regis McKenna. These books stress the importance of continually decreasing organizational cycle times. According to McKenna, "Faster is no longer enough. The search for the instantaneous and simultaneous has become the . . . equivalent of the quest for the Holy Grail." (p. 1)
Meyer points out that "The measurement systems of most corporations are better equipped to serve the needs of Wall Street . . . than they are those who run the business. . . . Imagine what it would be like driving a car if the speedometer indicated how fast you were going ninety days ago." (p. 49) Cycle time offers management and employees alike a more fundamental means for continuous improvement no matter what the business process being measured: Is anything more continuously available than time?
Although these books highlight the importance of challenging time limits, they don't challenge the confusing Western identification of objective, physical time and psychological time: in other words, they do not distinguish outer speed from inner experiential speed. Perhaps the worst consequence of this confusion is that no opportunity is seen for decreasing our personal processing times. We're fascinated, even obsessed, with ways to do things faster, but we focus on technology and external speed, almost never on ways to improve internal speeds. And as Stephan Rechtschaffen points out in Timeshifting, unless we learn to shift our inner speeds, we will probably get more stressed out as time continues to accelerate.
Time-Chi balances the preoccupation with technology and objective time with an exploration of how we can change our experience of time, opening up new levels of performance and well-being. One related workshop offered on demand by Time-Chi is "Changing your Personal Time to Beat the Clock." Clarifying these matters is important because our preoccupation with external speed obscures changes in experiential time, and because learning is "the only truly inexhaustible source of competitive advantage." (Meyer, p. 23)
Complete integration in peak performance
In general, in the ‘zone’, or the state of mind of complete inner engagement, one’s inner resources are completely integrated, with no conflicts or divisions. This integration is accompanied by a natural sense of fulfillment and well-being. Therefore, anything creating or reinforcing an experiential split or a separation of aspects of the experiential field, including structures such as subject and object, here and there, and now and then, tends to be counterproductive. Anything that integrates the energies of a situation, or makes them more cohesive, tends to be productive. Thus whatever we can do to decrease the holding strength of our complexes, habits, and other experiential structures will help approach the ‘zone’, increase inner engagement, and contribute to our improving performance and fulfillment. (See the book Discovering the Zone of Peak Performance: Flow, Glow, and Zero. )