Knowledge Worker Productivity

Lean and Six Sigma have helped many organizations improve quality and productivity in their manufacturing and transactional processes. However, applying these methodologies remains a challenge in a knowledge work environment, such as the life sciences, based on my 15+ years of experience at various companies from a start-up to a global pharmaceutical giant, as well as in academia.

A recent McKinsey Quarterly article “Boosting the Productivity of Knowledge Workers” highlights such a challenge.

Their confusion isn’t for lack of trying. Organizations around the world struggle to crack the code for improving the effectiveness of managers, salespeople, scientists, and others … The stakes are high: raising the productivity of these workers, who constitute a large and growing share of the workforce in developed economies, represents a major opportunity for companies, … Nonetheless, many executives have a hazy understanding of what it takes to bolster productivity for knowledge workers.

Recognizing that “knowledge workers spend half their time on interactions,” the authors suggest that “companies should first explore the productivity barriers that impede these interactions.” The authors then give examples of organizations addressing physical, technical, social or cultural, contextual and temporal barriers.

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The concept of “interaction barriers” to knowledge work productivity is an important one, and it pertains to our concept of flow in Lean. “Continuous flow” in Lean applies not only to well-defined processes but also to knowledge work where the flow of a value object is unstructured.

Many people have a hard time on how Lean can be applied if the value object is not visible or does not flow in a defined path. The key to overcoming this is to NOT try to follow an individual object in a defined workflow (which often doesn’t exist in knowledge work). Instead, one should manage the flow at an aggregate (or portfolio) level. In other words, one manages the work-in-progress pieces (WIPs) in a process by applying Little’s Law.

One barrier to understanding how Lean is applied to undefined processes is the confusion in productivity measures. Both lead time and throughput can measure productivity. They are related by WIP in Little’s Law. [See my earlier blog for more discussion on lead time.]

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Lead time = WIP / throughput

However, many organizations focus only on throughput, and therefore, spend an enormous amount of energy maximizing the utilization of limited resources and improving productivity of individual tasks. Reorganization, implementation of technologies, and training have only a limited impact on throughput, and often at very high costs. What they often fail to understand is the impact of WIP on lead time, which is arguably more critical in today’s fast pace environment.

Knowledge work depends on knowledge worker interactions, which facilitate knowledge flow. Lead time in knowledge work is the delay or interruption of knowledge flow. Organizations that reduce the barriers to knowledge worker interactions essentially accelerate (reduce the lead time of) knowledge flow.

Technologies are wonderful and without a doubt have improved our productivity. But Blackberries, video-conferences, social media, centralized knowledge databases and multi-media training improve the access or transmission of knowledge, not necessarily the flow. The knowledge doesn’t flow until the knowledge worker processes it. Until then, it’s in the virtual inventory waiting. How long do you normally wait for a simple reply to your email from someone who has a Blackberry or iPhone? How many people are able to facilitate complicated knowledge work interactions (such as a Kaizen) via a virtual medium? Without understanding the true root cause of interaction barriers, implementing technologies only compensates for structural defects in our business like a bandage.

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The apparent barrier seems to be a lack of time. But it’s often not the case because many tasks are eventually done, consuming the same amount of time. The barrier is WIP. Multi-tasking is often seen as a valuable skill or requirement in a modern society. However, multi-tasking at the expense of lead time is a hidden barrier to productivity improvement and organizational performance. I call this another productivity paradox the more we try to accomplish at once, the less productive we become.

I’d like to end this blog with a quote from Peter Drucker’s book The Effective Executive.

If there is any one “secret” of effectiveness, it is concentration. Effective executives do first things first and they do one thing at a time. … Concentration is necessary precisely because the executive faces so many tasks clamoring to be done. For doing one thing at a time means doing it fast. The more one can concentrate time, effort, and resources, the greater the number and diversity of tasks one can actually perform. … This is the “secret” of those people who “do so many things” and apparently so many difficult things. They do only one at a time. As a result, they need much less time in the end than rest of us.

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Comments 1

  1. Rob Costhew

    Good article – it seems adopting Agile for knowledge work type scenarios is finally getting going, at large. I was positively surprised when a fellow from MIT mentioned they were using it for research projects. And why not, it’s been long proven that the method works and is dead simple to implement.


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