Operations & resources

Five steps to boosting productivity

Look at most international comparisons and the UK has a bit of a productivity problem1. In-fact, if UK firms could match their performance on management to those in the US, the productivity of the UK workforce would jump by 12%2. Sobering enough.

We know that productivity is a key driver of economic growth and improved standards of living, so how do we tackle this? Before I hear screaming. this is not a ‘kick the UK’ approach. But productivity is closely linked to both good performance and efficiency. In crude terms the more productive we are, the better the bottom-line result in the business can be. So, any opportunities to close this gap are worth closer examination.

Before we hurtle to solving, let’s start with a definition of productivity.

A ratio between the output volume and the volume of inputs. In other words, measuring how efficiently production inputs, such as labour and capital, are being used in an economy to produce a given level of output.

An early observation is that automation and the use of more internet of things (IOT) technologies can address this gap. In a recent study looking at the impact of automation it resulted in revenues up 5-7%, employment up 4-7% and long-term productivity up 15%3. Organisations such as the manufacturing technology centres and the digital catapults are working hard to embed and develop this approach.

Aligned to this drive towards increasing productivity is the process of optimisation. Optimisation is the activity of getting the best out of something. This can be aligned to the technologies mentioned above. But to achieve it we need the unconventional and the creative, which are recognised way of ‘pushing the boundary’ or ‘thinking outside the box’. This skill set suits a particular input, humans.

This is not a tired Luddite war cry. Humans and automation complement each other. The predictable, repeatable, accurate nature of the automation with the more context and complex role of the human. If we want to optimise we need to encourage the people in a business to develop their hardwired skills to look at methods of how we can get the best from something to improve productivity. Therefore, the unique human ability to think differently about innovative solutions is perfectly suited to this activity.

With this in mind there are 5 key steps in the optimisation process that can drive better levels of productivity through the people employed in the business.

  1. Questioning and translation of key information at pace.

In order to optimise we need to start by gathering information. We can’t look at how to get the best from something if we don’t know what that is. By asking questions and listening we can collect this input. Too often we are plagued by assumptions, unqualified statements and often myths. The warning signs here are classic phrases like ‘it has always been done like this.’ The second crucial element is to be able to translate this information and transfer it to a wider network in a concise fashion.

  1. Examination to understand what causes and effects output.

This information needs to be analysed and understood to identify both its value and relevance. If we have been thorough enough in 1) we should have logical and accurate information which has got to the heart of the discussion. We need to examine how this information could be used to improve productivity. What does it tell us? What are the impacts? What can it be used for? Where’s the value?

  1. Play with ideas through what if scenarios.

We have spent time understanding the information so now we need to explore and try out ideas. Practice what if scenarios. We can examine patterns, look for connections. How does something look if we add this? What about if we turn it around and consider it like that? This freedom to explore links the known with the possible. This forms the basis of innovation and encourages curiosity, imagination and visualisation all key ingredients to craft ways and methods to optimise methods of work and raise productivity. Unless we are free to play with ideas we will drift back to the conventional, which is not where the better and different can be found. The champion of lateral thinking Edward De Bono developed his concept from seeing advertising executives come up with the same idea over and over. He wanted different, this is a keyway of discovering new ways to optimise.

  1. Speed and quality of decision making and doing.

Sustained action comes from having accurate and relevant information to make decisions from. Without it procrastination seeps as people are uncertain or decisions are made too promptly leading to costly revision and amendments. The ability to collate and organise concepts and patterns into workable solutions is a key part of creating and delivering optimisation in a business process. In addition the measuring, control and oversight used can guide an idea into a feasible outcome.

  1. Ability to learn lessons and identify needs and actions for change.

The optimisation gains can dwindle over time, so a commitment to constant improvement is vital. This is supported by ensuring robust reviews take place during and after any specific optimisation suggestion. Lessons can be learnt and changes captured and identified. The potential value of optimisation is not always fully realised if we don’t incorporate a thorough review process.

Productivity can be supported by a culture of optimisation. But this involves a willingness for the business to dig into information and processes to identify and translate accurate. considered and explored opportunities to get the best from what we have.


(1) Boosting Productivity in the UK’s Service Sectors – OECD – Nov 2020

(2) Great job – Solving the productivity puzzle through the power of people – CBI 2019

(3) Centre for Economics and Business Research and SnapLogic

John Henderson
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John Henderson

John is a partner in a training and consultancy business. The focus is developing people with the skills needed to optimise business performance. They train in the fundamental human skills of critical thinking, lateral thinking and problem solving to be applied to the business objectives of quality, efficiency and growth.

Five steps to boosting productivity

by John Henderson Time to read: 3 min