six people smiling at camera
The Dragon’s Den at the 2021 Tauranga Business Awards
November 26, 2021
Productivity Improvement approach
2022 is the Year of Productivity Improvement: 6 Reasons why
January 12, 2022
six people smiling at camera
The Dragon’s Den at the 2021 Tauranga Business Awards
November 26, 2021
Productivity Improvement approach
2022 is the Year of Productivity Improvement: 6 Reasons why
January 12, 2022
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Productivity Improvement – is it Complicated or Complex?

The last few weeks I have encountered many occasions where productivity improvement was referred to as a complicated issue. Whether it was the metallurgical root cause of equipment failure, the intricate number of process steps that made it difficult for tasks to be completed right first time, or even simply the vessels anchored of the Mount or in the Hauraki Gulf waiting a mooring space.

I’m here to say that if we continue to view productivity improvement as a complicated issue, we will limit ourselves to lower levels of improvement that will be not be sustained. It is time to view productivity as a complex issue, as strong solutions to complex issues do not have glass ceilings and neither do you revert to the previous state.

Before dismissing this as being pedantic about semantics, let’s look at the two words: complicated or complex. Complicated problems are hard to solve, but you can follow processes, methods, rules, and algorithms to address them. Low factory performance can be measured, analysed, and addressed, by mapping the process steps, measuring constraints and waste, and implementing error-proof solutions and controls. Low sales conversions, delayed financial month-end completion, and overspending against procurement budgets are all complicated problems that can be similarly analysed and improved. Yes, some complicated problems feel like you’re in the mother of all mazes, but in the end they’re all rules based.

The solutions to complicated problems don’t work as well with complex problems, however. Complex problems involve too many unknowns and too many interrelated factors to reduce to rules and processes. A technological disruption like blockchain is a complex problem. A competitor with an innovative business model — an Uber or an Airbnb — is a complex problem. Covid is a complex problem. There’s no algorithm that will tell you how to respond.*

The ongoing underperformance of New Zealand’ productivity is a complex issue and for improvement we need to recognise and address the unpredictable and interrelated factor that most engineers, economists and other technical business commentators appear to miss: human behaviour. People are the key in productivity improvement. Remember the often-quoted whakatauki: He aha te mea nui? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata (What is the most important thing? It is people, it is people, it is people).

At Productivity People, we boil down our secret sauce to two ingredients. You need to know what to look for and how to approach the complex challenge of change (‘Lived Experience’) and you need to effectively engage those surrounding you in the process of improvement (‘Focus on People’). If not, you will have limited success in productivity improvement. People are complex, not complicated: the ambition, the ego’s, the status, the emotions, the satisfaction, the frustrations, the power, the memories of elephants, the hierarchy, the anarchy. These all accelerate or douse the flames of productivity improvement.

Complicated or Complex? Use rules and algorithms to address the complicated, technical aspect of New Zealand’s low productivity, but invest more in the empowerment and engagement of your tangata to ensure you overcome the complex, social aspects too. Your country needs you, time to step up.

 

(*Thanks to MIT Sloan, The Critical Difference Between Complex and Complicated, 2017).

About the author: Geerten Lengkeek is the Managing Director of Productivity People