Productivity is a Remarkably Good Thing

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In the article,“Making it in America”, in the Atlantic, Adam Davidson writes about how to create and keep a job in our globalizing, mechanizing, economy.  It’s a deep look at the impact of the shift to globalization and how “the rewards for being skilled grow, while the opportunities for unskilled Americans diminish.”

One of the passages really stood out for me:

“Productivity, in and of itself, is a remarkably good thing.  Only through productivity growth can the average quality of human life improve.   Because of higher agricultural productivity, we don’t all have to work in the fields to make enough food to eat.  Because of higher industrial productivity, few of us need to work in factories to make the products we use.  In theory, productivity growth should help nearly everyone in society.   When one person can grow as much food or make as many car parts as 100 used to, prices should fall, which gives everyone in that society more purchasing power; we all become a littler richer.  In the economic models, the benefits of productivity growth should not go just to the rich owners of capital.  As workers become more productive, they should be able to demand higher salaries.”

It reminded me that the way forward, is not to go backward.   It’s to embrace change and empower yourself with skill.   Personal productivity is a powerful tool for surviving and thriving in a world where better, faster, cheaper is the name of the game.

In my experience, the key to productivity is to apply it to meaningful problems and to flow value along the way.  To keep my own productivity in check, I use a guiding question:  “Am I working on the right things, at the right time, with the right energy, the right way?” While the question itself doesn’t hold all the answers, it does hold the keys that help finding them.

When it comes to “making it,”  I think productivity is one more lesson we learn from business that applies to life.   It’s an area we can invest in for the rest of our life, for the best of our life.  It never goes out of style.

Photo by Jane Rahman.

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10 COMMENTS

  1. While improving my personal productivity is a good thing, the increase of corporate productivity has reduced the number of workers needed to produce a quantity of product and lead to the concentration of capital and the increase in unemployment. Furthermore, this increase of productivity has been poorly distributed. Countries with low labor rates which produce products consumed mostly in developed countries have incentive and wherewithal to adopt productivity improvement. Populations which live in poverty have not had access to productivity increasing measures for food, housing and medical care.

    I would also suggest that not all things that are valuable have a direct economic value. Many years ago, people envisioned that our productivity would increase to such an extent that a person could produce all they need by working much less than the standard 40 hours per week with the leisure time available for creative pursuits. Our productivity has increased to a large extent but the result has been higher unemployment and longer working hours for those employed – effectively an unequal distribution of leisure time. I do not see anyone suggesting a solution to this outcome of increased productivity.

  2. Dear Adam, I think you need to understand that there are qualitative improvements as well as quantitative ones. Many people want to do less and have actually downshifted.

    I’m not opposed to productivity but there are other ways to improving our lives.

  3. JD,
    Loved the passage you quoted in the post. I have introduced few productivity improvements in our team, tomorrow will go knocking on my manager’s door asking for rise – 😉
    On a serious note, I am big fan of your “the key to productivity is to apply it to meaningful problems and to flow value along the way”, it helped me to kick butt and take names and be in general be in demand for jobs.
    Good one – thank you.

  4. @ David — I hear what you’re saying, and there are times when I wish the world would slow down.

    I’ve seen productivity eliminate jobs. But, I’ve never seen an unproductive business keep jobs. I’ve seen business that keep up with the times and adapt to the changing world, keep or create new jobs.

    When it comes to making a living, it’s a question of, “What value can I create?”, “What will people pay for?”, and “How do I do it better, faster, cheaper?” … where in many cases, better is actually, “different.”

    In terms of longer working hours, I’ve seen the opposite. When a group is productive, it works less. It innovates in it’s process and product. The most unproductive groups I’ve seen throw time to make up for a lack of efficiency, effectiveness, and results.

    I wouldn’t point to productivity as the enemy. I would point to innovation, education, and entrpreneurism as the challenge. And just how the market has driven a push to “green,” I think there will be a push to compassion, empathy, and investment in the workforce.

    @ Evan — Check out Adam’s article. It’s lengthy, compassionate, and echoes your points.

    I think the challenge in today’s world is re-defining what “The Good Life” is, while finding ways to fund your life-style, and spend more time in your values.

    @ Alik — I think the magic formula is to flow value and stay relevant. Part of flowing value is productivity. Over the years, the “awesome” things I had to build in 12 months, becamse 6 months, became 3 months, became 1 month.

    I’ve basically had to innovate in my processes and my products (and I think Drucker taught us this is essential to survival, and he put a premium on process innovation to support product innovation.)

  5. Actually it is very clear what America will be like without that wind – like it is now, for more people. For an excellent glimpse of that world read Joe Bageant’s books.

    This writer accepts the current system and the best hope he has is for government to (largely ineffectively) remediate some of the faults of corporate rule. This writer is far from a person of vision (but a good reporter).

    What is the problem with manufacturing in America (and Australia where I’m from)? – that corporates value dollars more than people. So they move to where they can do things cheapest – this can be legislatively required. As its the corporates that largely control manufacturing jobs the consequences aren’t hard to predict.

    Many people voluntarily simplify their lives. It doesn’t make the media much (because it is not in the interests of advertisers?) but it does happen. Is it possible to give political voice to these people?

    I am left wondering too about peak oil. “There will be lots of these in 2018”. Maybe. Not if the price of oil goes through the roof there won’t. This wasn’t even mentioned in the article but seems like something that these corporates should be thinking about.

    As Christensen points out innovation tends to come from outsiders – the existing players are constrained by their current set up.

  6. JD, This was food for thought. I’m not a keen fan of “better, faster, cheaper”, at least not the way it’s been applied in our world. At the same time, I appreciate the questions you ask yourself to make sure you are on target in terms of personal productivity.

  7. @ Evan — I think there’s a lot of truth in Christensen’s words, and I see the leap frog pattern all the time.

    Markets tend to drive efficiency no matter how much a corp values its people.

    If what I’ve seen is true about trends, oil won’t be the game. The market is ripe for “green” innovation and there are breakthroughs around the world.

    @ Sandra — I know what you mean.

    For a while, productivity left a bad taste in my mouth, until I realized that it’s a natural part of growth, and nature favors the flexible and the fittest. Too often I heard it used in the context of “squeeze more out of people,” instead of “bring more good ideas to life”, or “build a better world”, or “empower people to flourish.”

    On my journey, I noticed these patterns and truths:
    – The market naturally drives efficiencies.
    – Innovation in process and product are a natural part of growth.
    – In a service-oriented world, things naturally cycle through stages of market maturity: 1) survival, 2) quality, 3) convenience, 4) customization.
    – I’ve noticed that quality is durable, not necessarily scalable. Quality tends to win, until quality becomes a commodity.
    – In perfect competition, the difference ends up being cheaper (usually a by product of innovation, growth, and maturity.)

    In the end, I realized productivity is a form of excellence. So the key then is applying the excellence to meaningful problems. I would love to see more excellence and productivity around challenges like unemployment, education, etc., to help people flourish.

    Now, I’m a fan of productive solutions and meaningful results.

  8. Thinking out loud:

    Production = changing the world for others …
    Consumption = changing the world for yourself …

  9. We have to think circular, not lineair.

    Person a produces product x.
    Person b consumes product x (with or without producing waste y)

    Waste y could be the input for producing product z, etc.

    This is the Cradle-to-Cradle circle.

    To be precise, it is a graph of connections, of production and consumption, were we should focus on the cradle-to-cradle circles.

    Another principle in this graph is that we should consume only the interest of mother nature, and not the capital.

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