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If you want to redesign work for maximum productivity, these are the only 4 rules you need to follow

4 rules of productivity to redesign your business for maximum productivity

Twenty years after the 4 rules of productivity were written, we go back to the future of work: standardised, connected, straightforward and always ready to be improved

By Geerten Lengkeek

Seven weeks in lockdown means you can ponder things. How have customer needs changed, to what ‘new normal’ are we going to return, and of course what is the future of work? This latter one, the future of work, is a hot topic that many experts (both real and armchair) have debated recently. I don’t know all the answers about the future of work, but two things I know for sure:

  1. That if you want to redesign work for maximum productivity, there are only 4 rules of productivity you need to follow; and
  2. Highly productive work is more important than ever for our economic recovery.

Twenty years after the 4 rules of productivity were described by Steven Spear and Kent Bowen in their Harvard Business Review article “Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System”, these rules still apply. The future of work is back to the future. I suggest you read the scholarly article, but if your work involves welding steel to make trailers, doing your payment run in the accounts department, loading fertiliser into trucks, or completing a stocktake of shook for tray and box making in a kiwifruit packhouse, you may want a more practical explanation. So here goes…

Rule 1 is about standardising how you do the work: if you want to successfully complete your tasks, you need to know what the standard work steps are, what the sequence of these steps is, when to do each task and how long it should take, and what successful completion looks like. And it should be captured in writing, preferably with lots of visuals. For example, the trailer is welded the same way following the same process and design every time. It makes it easy for the worker to complete her tasks safely, using the right tools and planning her work, and guarantees quality and structural integrity, speed or time, and cost. And the work is done when all specifications are met right first time: the worker checks these herself and signs this off, as does her supervisor if required. It is clear and simple: follow the standard.

Rule 2 is about connecting your work with others: if you pass on or receive information or materials to/from others, this must be direct, it must be clearly signalled it’s being sent and received, and must be to a mutually agreed standard or specification. For example, if you complete the payment run, you receive information from all over the organisation: quotes, invoices, material receipts, timesheets, you name it. Have you got everything? Is it complete and correct? The payment run cannot be completed when information is missing or incorrect, and the endless back and forth is the productivity killer we want to attack. The accounts department also cannot pass on banking authorisations if the approver cannot verify if these are correct. Clarify your incoming and outgoing connections and jointly define your process and agreed standards. Then follow this, relentlessly.

Rule 3 is about connecting all work and taking complexity out of the flow: make it straightforward, following a logical flow where people only touch it once and only if they must. If your process design is convoluted in terms of responsibilities and locations (physical and IT), problems will occur. No-one will take accountability and blame will be readily apportioned. For example, if your fertiliser client needs to drive their spreader all over your site and/or get out of the cab, you make it difficult for him. You introduce safety complexity, delays and therefore reduce customer satisfaction. Apply the Einstein principle: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Rule 4 is about improving the work: leading in productivity means you do the work and constantly look for ways to do it better. But random change does not result in sustained improvement. Follow the proven process of plan – do – check – act: PDCA, also known as the scientific method. Allow the people who do the work, improve the work. Don’t do it for them, but teach them how to improve, how to follow PDCA. For example, an empowered supervisor who completes a stock take of packaging materials will come up with better ways, e.g. for pallets to be turned so labels are facing outwards and usage to be recorded on part pallets to speed up her tasks. Your tasks as a leader is to create the environment where your team always looks for better ways, and goes about this in a rigorous, robust (and relentless) way.


The 4 rules imply that there is a self-checking mechanism: everyone should always check their own work. Better still you can set-up systems where problems are signalled automatically. Organisations that apply the 4 rules well, outperform their competitors. I have seen plenty of examples where the 4 rules were applied, and line or factory throughput doubled. Can you afford to ignore that?

Spear and Bowen’s contribution was more than to decode the four rules. They captured tacit company knowledge, so it could be passed on, taught,  learned, and improved. Captured tacit knowledge means workers need not start at the same low base as their colleagues before them but can stand on their shoulders. The lack of tacit knowledge management is also the reason capital projects generate losses and waste of up to 20% of the value of the project in their first year of operation: you build a $200M new plant, you should invest in tacit knowledge management or budget for $40M of lost opportunity.


About the author: Geerten Lengkeek is the Managing Director of Productivity People and Co-founder of the Global Lean Alliance