From the Dark Side of Productivity

   

I’m with a firm that spends much of its time helping clients improve productivity and reduce costs. We are ever mindful of the negative side—the “dark side”—of productivity projects. What is the dark side? It’s what happens if we don’t take the human factor into account. As someone with 30 years of experience in industrial engineering, I can tell you that there is no way to achieve long-term success in a re-engineering project without considering the effect it will have on people.

Two recent articles in the Wall Street Journal serve as stark reminders of this reality. The first, “Retailers Reprogram Workers in Efficiency Push” described installations of workforce management software at AnnTaylor Stores Corp. and other retailers. According to the article, workforce management systems are “sweeping the industry as retailers fight to improve productivity and cut payroll costs.” As the Journal noted, some workers aren’t happy about the trend, saying the systems leave them with shorter shifts, make it difficult to schedule their lives, and “unleash Darwinian forces on the sales floor that damage morale.”

The Ann Taylor system keeps track of the usual productivity metrics: average sales per hour, units sold, and dollars per transaction. The system schedules the most productive people during the busiest hours—and, because it awards more-productive salespeople with favorable hours, it gives employees an incentive to persuade shoppers to buy things. And it’s worked, as far as the overall economic goals are concerned; the chain’s director of store operations said it has helped turn more store browsers into buyers. But, as the WSJ story made clear, it also resulted in the loss of some veteran salespeople who had developed long-term relationships with customers. By focusing strictly on the metrics that could be easily measured, the system actually penalized associates whose selling style depended on longer interactions with the customer—even though such relationships often assured continued customer loyalty. Others found their hours cut back to the point where they could no longer afford to make the trip to work. During busy times, the formerly congenial staff began competing for customers, sometimes stealing them away from one another. While productivity was, indeed, increased, perhaps the most surprising unintended result of the system was that this story, with all its unflattering aspects, was splashed across Page A1 of The Wall Street Journal.

Ironically, just a few days before that story appeared, the Journal carried a remembrance of Michael Hammer, often called the “Father of Re-Engineering,” who had passed away at age 60 on September 4, 2008. The Journal story pointed out that Mr. Hammer, author of the 1993 business best seller "Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution," was a remarkably successful and influential consultant. He revolutionized many businesses. Among his achievements, he had helped Schneider National trucking cut the time it took to complete a job bid from two weeks to two days; and by focusing attention on refinery safety and efficiency, he had allowed Royal Dutch Shell to improve reliability and reduce costs. He was lauded and recognized by Time and Forbes, and commanded huge consulting and lecture fees as a result.

Yet Mr. Hammer also had second thoughts. In a 1996 interview, the Journal recalls, he admitted that he and other re-engineering proponents hadn't paid enough attention to people. "I wasn't smart enough about that," Mr. Hammer said. "I was reflecting my engineering background and was insufficiently appreciative of the human dimension. I've learned that's critical." It was because of that early omission, the Journal notes, that “re-engineering had a dark side, as the streamlining of processes often went hand in hand with reductions in workers. Often the term became jargon for mass layoffs.”

There are lessons we can take away from these two stories, and you should consider them when you’re looking for ways to improve productivity and cut costs:

  1. What’s the effect on the customer? Think about the reaction most people will have when reading the Ann Taylor story. Why would anybody want to work in retail? Service is already lacking in most retail stores; is removing its last vestiges really a good thing?
  2. Be careful what you ask for. I believe that people will give you what you ask for. If you want lower costs per call and push your people to shorten the call, they’ll deliver. But ask yourself, is that the outcome you really want?
  3. Are you measuring the key performance indicators? Many businesses still aren’t benchmarking internally. A $75 million personalized business with a complex call center recently had us implement their first cost-per-call, cost-per-order, cost-per-transaction reporting system—and they got some real surprises. Remember: you can’t improve something that you haven’t measured.
  4. Direct has a real advantage. The president of a large general merchandise cataloger recently told me he wanted efficiency, but not at the cost of sacrificing customer service. “Many of our customers tell us that the casual, helpful, really interested call center reps are why they deal with our business. Our knowledge of the products and their application is extremely important to making the sale—not a short, brisk conversation.” Direct companies come out on top if they provide a higher level of service.

Failure to fully understand where you’re starting from, what you hope to achieve, and to think re-engineering through to all its possible consequences, can lead to any number of unintended results; winding up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal might be the least of your problems.