Do We Have Any Idea What Productivity Really Is?

Have you thought about productivity lately? And how anybody measures productivity?

I think it’s a concept that grew up with the industrial revolution. Productivity was measured as factory work, in units produced per hour. Visualize finished cars flowing out of the assembly line. factory

What’s productivity today and how can we measure it? The modern work style is so diffuse, now. Who knows what makes us productive. Emails, perhaps, or phone calls or tweets or blog posts? Presentations? What about lines of code, by the developers.

I posted tell the truth: where are you most productive last week, questioning how people answer to surveys on where they are most productive. last week on whether people are more productive at home, office, or coworking sites.

Later I saw Four Destructive Myths Most Companies Still Live By on the Harvard Business Review, by Tony Schwartz. These myths are also about productivity. I really enjoyed his myth number two:

Myth #2: A little bit of anxiety helps us perform better.

Which he tears apart elegantly with this:

The more anxious we feel, the less clearly and imaginatively we think, and the more reactive and impulsive we become.

But my favorite of Tony Schwartz’ myths is his number four:

Myth #4: The best way to get more work done is to work longer hours.

No single myth is more destructive to employers and employees than this one. The reason is that we’re not designed to operate like computers — at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time.

Instead, human beings are designed to pulse intermittently between spending and renewing energy. Great performers — and enlightened leaders — recognize that it’s not the number of hours people work that determines the value they create, but rather the energy they bring to whatever hours they work.

As technology changes the world, physical presence is no longer the same as work presence. I can be sitting at a desk in my office and miles away, and that’s much, much easier now than it used to be. So how do we measure productivity?

I think we have to look for results. Numerical results. Measure productivity by outcome, not input. But I’m not sure. What do you think?



  • On Adding Value « Tropewell says:

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  • genie garage door openers says:

    I make it or I don’t, but I end up with the sense that I have the tools, and I’m either successful (meaning productive) with it, or not.The modern work style is so diffuse, now. Who knows what makes us productive.

  • A crise da produtividade « Smarana says:

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  • Quickncorporate says:

    At Quickncorporate, we have been thinking about productivity recently and wondering exactly how it’s measured. When they say American workers have become more productive, what exactly is being described? We ask this question in light of recent experiences with some of America’s biggest corporations. In recent times we have had to make about 10 calls, each lasting at least 30 minutes, to have a billing issue resolved with a major telephone company. I suspect the idea is to frustrate us so we will eventually drop the matter and pay the incorrect bill. How does that type of practice affect productivity?

    One other recent experience involved getting a computer fixed through the well know extended warranty sold with the purchase of a new computer. We talked to about 8 customer service personnel, and they transferred us to different departments. Everyone was very polite and promised to help, but invariably transferred us to someone else who could not help. This went on for about one week, and eventually we did find a tecnician who could help. I know this slows down our productivity, but does it not also slows down the computer company’s productivity?

    We would be interested in your take on how this prevalent business practice fits into the measurement of productivity.

  • Dave Moran says:


    You started down the right path (IMHO) talking about looking for results and measuring productivity by outcome. I say that it should be a focus on outcomes, not outputs. We need to apply the knowledge, skills and abilities of people towards the desired outcome(s). Numerical results? I’d vote for sticking to a simple, high-level metric like revenue per employee as a gauge on how well we are applying talent towards the outcome of producing a profit. Everything can’t be reduced to a spreadsheet!

    • Tim Berry says:

      Thanks Dave, I appreciate the addition. You make a good point about spreadsheets, but what I like about numbers as part of the productivity formula is that it gives both sides of the equation something concrete and measurable to work with. If we agree ahead of time that I want to get to 20,000 subscribers for the blog, for example, then as time moves on I have that number to work with. I make it or I don’t, but I end up with the sense that I have the tools, and I’m either successful (meaning productive) with it, or not. The numbers, when we look at the right ones, and deal with them collaboratively, are part of the relationship. They are a forum for discussion.

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