The fact is, Britain has a productivity problem.

The average German worker could clock off early on Thursday afternoon and have matched – in terms of meaningful work completed – their British counterparts’ entire forty hour week. French and American workers would have to put in a full day on Thursday, but they could still take Friday off and get just as much done as we do. Our productivity has risen and fallen over the last decade, but the troughs are generally lower than the peaks are high.

Why does it happen? What do we do differently with our work time that means we take so much longer – 38 days a year – to get everything done?

Technological progress is a factor. The more efficient technology becomes – in theory – the more we can do with our time. If we can automate processes rather than having to supervise and execute everything by hand, if we can communicate in seconds rather than hours or days – we can get more done.

But the technologies in the workplace aren’t the only factors affecting productivity. Tech is useless without workers who can use it well – and in Britain, we have dramatic skill gaps in the construction, cybersecurity and medical industries, to name but three. Occupational safety and health are closely linked to productivity, as is worker morale.

Technology creates an opportunity to improve productivity, but broader change is necessary to see it through – change in recruitment, operations, and, most importantly, culture.

When is an improvement not an improvement?

By way of a low-key example, consider chat apps. The last two years have seen an emergent debate on chat apps’ role in the workplace. Advocates claim they enable remote working on an international level and with none of the pressure of a formal email.

Meanwhile, detractors point out the constant interruption of Slack, Discord and Hipchat notifications – just as you’re getting into the zone and really making headway on a project, up pops a digital Person to knock you out of the zone with a “when’s the meeting?”, “have you done it yet?” or “want to go for lunch?”

The truth is, everybody’s right. The tech does solve a productivity problem, speeding up the collaborative process. The tech also creates a new problem, because staff aren’t thinking about how to use it in a way that ensures work gets done or the technology has been introduced without a cohesive plan to implement it – i.e. when, how and why it should be used.

At the other end of the spectrum, manufacturing has systemic problems with large-scale data handling, inventory control, and gross margin management. The vision for Industry 4.0 is one of automated data processing that sorts and sifts the huge amounts of consumer and supplier data that manufacturing businesses accumulate, and increasing automation of factory floors so the factory itself can order necessary supplies and allocate necessary labour in real time.

Without workers who are trained to oversee the process, keep it secure, handle glitches when they inevitably emerge and guide the controlling AI as it develops, however, this more efficient process won’t be producing what’s actually needed.

Put simply, tech isn’t a strategy all by itself. Industry and business leaders need to highlight the flaws in their own operations and identify exactly what problems they’re trying to solve. Only then is it time to look for a suitable solution, which may be tech – or it may be something simpler.
Handling tech solutions properly means integrating them into a culture that values productivity and workflow at an individual level. The goal is a culture of doing – an environment in which productivity tools are used meaningfully.

Toward a culture of doing

The Japanese word kaizen loosely translates as ‘change for the better’ – with other layers of meaning that relate to continuity and philosophy or mindset. Kaizen represents worker-led adjustment of the workplace environment – both the flow of materials and information through the business, and changes to each worker’s process that improve their morale and productivity.

Why does this matter? Because technology is often introduced as an example of flow kaizen, in some way speeding up the movement of either ideas or hands-on tasks through the workplace, but it has an impact on process that can end up slowing things down.
Serious digital transformation of a company requires leaders to reach down into the core – the value proposition, the operations, and the vision statement that define how the business actually works.

Start with a clear sense of where the business is going overall, by carrying out a review of your data and your supply and demand situation. With that in hand you can plan for the digital transformation – identify who has the skill set to understand not only the technology, but the impact it’s going to have on operations and how your staff do what they do. Someone involved at this level needs to sell the vision to key stakeholders – and from the process point of view, everyone who’s going to be using the new technology day to day is a key stakeholder.

There will be surprises. Technology will be used in ways you hadn’t anticipated, and emergent cultures will form as various groups of employees settle into routines and practices of their own design. It’s important to devote some leadership time – an hour or two a week – to check that your transformation effort is on course.

Without underlying cultural change, no technology is going to solve the productivity problems experienced by a business – or a country.

The actual problem isn’t necessarily “we don’t have the technology we need”. Productivity is a broader issue which takes in the skills, wellbeing and mindset of the workforce. Beyond the practical skills necessary to operate the productivity tools and integrate them with their work, your people need a workplace culture which aligns technology with the outcomes of that work. The ‘culture of doing’ is one that emphasises individual workflow and completing tasks – instead of becoming bogged down with using the new tech for its own sake.