Productivity decline should generate more projects

Projects and programs are the key organisational change agents for creating the capability to improve productivity through new systems, processes and facilities. But only if sensible projects are started for the right reason.

Declines in productivity seem to be widespread. In Australia, labour productivity in the market sectors of the economy increased at 2.8% per annum between 1945 and 2001, reducing by 50% to an annual rate of 1.4% between 2001 and 2001.

  • The measure of Labour Productivity is the gross value added per hour of work.
  • The ‘market sectors’ measured exclude public administration, education and healthcare where measurement is almost impossible.

Some of this change can be attributed to macro economic factors, there were massive efficiency gains derived from the shift from paper based ‘mail’ and copy typist to the electronic distribution of information, improved global transport systems (particularly containerisation) and the restructuring of manufacturing post WW2. These massive changes in the last half of the 20th century are not being replicated in current.

Whilst this decline in the rate of improvement in labour productivity is significant, the capital inclusive index is a more telling statistic. The multi-factor productivity index which includes the capital invested in production, giving a purer measure of the efficiency with which labour and capital are combined to produce goods and services. In the six years leading up to 2001, this measure of productivity grew by an average of 1.5% per annum, in the decade between 2001 and 2011 this reversed and productivity fell by 0.4% per annum.

Around 40% of the decline in the last decade can be explained by massive investments in mining and utilities that have yet to generate a return on the capital invested. The other 60% represents the massive cost of ‘new capabilities’ in general business for relatively small, or no improvement in productivity.

One has only to look at the ever increasing number of ‘bells and whistles’ built into software systems ranging from high definition colour screens to features that are never used (and the cost of upgrading to the ‘new system’) to understand the problem. 90% of the efficiency gain came with the introduction of the new system many years ago, the on-going maintenance and upgrade costs often equal the original investment but without the corresponding improvement in productivity. Another area of ‘investment’ for 0% increase in productivity is compliance regimes. Whilst there may be good social arguments for many of these requirements, the infrastructure and systems needed to comply with the regulations consume capital and labour without increasing productivity.

In Australia general management have been rather slow to appreciate the challenge of declining productivity, the impact being cushioned by a range of other factors that helped drive profitability. But this has changed significantly in the last year or so. There is now an emerging recognition that productivity enhancing organisational change is an imperative; and smart management recognise this cannot be achieved through capability limiting cost reductions.

Organisations that thrive in the next decade will:

  • Enhance customer satisfaction and service,
  • Enhance their engagement with their workforce, the community and other stakeholders,
  • Enhance their products and capabilities, and
  • Improve their labour productivity.

Achieving a viable balance across all four areas will require an effective, balanced strategy supported by the efficient implementation of the strategic intent through effective portfolio, program and project management capabilities that encompass benefits realisation and value creation.

The three key capabilities needed to achieve this are:

  • The ability to develop a meaningful and practical strategic plan.
  • An effective Project Delivery Capability (PDC); see: WP1079_PDC.
  • An effective Organisational Change Management Capability; see: WP1078_Change_Management.

Improving productivity is a major challenge for both general management and the project management community; and the contribution of stakeholder management and project management to the overall effort will continue to be a focus for this blog.

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