HR managers should ‘own' people productivity improvement instead of blaming the Government or unions or other stakeholders for its stagnation
For the bright generation of young talent in HR, there is an opportunity to take the pole position to win the productivity race
Is HR a help or a hindrance in solving it?
There are clearly steps HR has taken in the past that have grown productivity, while some other HR actions have stunted it. The ten inquiries raised here are prescriptions for some of the things we need to do differently to make productivity breakthroughs
India has had a patchy productivity improvement record. It is tempting for us in HR to blame this on the Government’s neglect of labor reform, unions’ carelessness with the life of the goose that lays the golden egg, the inadequacy of vocational skill-building and even the fortuitous economic happenstance that permits Indian businesses to substitute wage arbitrage for more sustainable sources of competitive advantage. It may be more useful, however, for us to avoid such a conveniently externalized ‘locus of control’ and instead turn the focus inwards. While productivity has complex causes, management and HR’s contribution to it can best be understood if we ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions about what we, as leaders and HR professionals, do that helps or hurts people productivity the most.
Here are 10 question-sets, which should help the HR fraternity introspect about its role in resolving the people productivity predicament in which we find ourselves. The first and most general of the questions is:
Q1: Do we in HR own people productivity as the support function responsible for measuring it, crusading for its importance and catalyzing its increase? In other words, do we champion productivity as one of the prime reasons for HR’s existence in an increasingly competitive world?
The other nine question-sets are grouped into what HR can do for the productivity of managers, of people at the bottom of the pyramid and of the service sector.
Q2: Have we helped our organizations to encash India’s demographic dividend? Have we championed the cause of untried sources of recruitment (which are not certified ‘plug-and-play’ and, therefore, make a genuine demand on HR’s developmental capabilities)? Or do we continue to demand (and over-pay for) ever-higher degrees for ever-more-fragmented jobs? Great talent building programs mould strong leadership teams out of a mix of diverse backgrounds, the majority of whom make up in eagerness and the need to continually prove themselves what they lack by way of ready-packed management theory and elite institution-tags.
Q3: Have we designed our PMS to be a ‘Productivity Maximizing System‘ or followed neutron Jack’s forced hanging blue-print and created a ‘People Maddening System‘? As I am never tired of repeating, inappropriately or poorly implemented ‘Bell Curves‘ become ‘Hell Curves‘, which make the annual review the most dreaded moment in many managers‘ working lives. Productivity-building innovations cannot flow freely when “performance evaluations result in humiliation and take the joy out of learning and innovation“ for at least half the population. The quote, of course, is from Deming – the father of the quality and productivity movement that defines modern manufacturing!
Q4: Are we making the most of our experienced, productivity-catalyzing managers and experts to groom and upskill the next generation of business and functional leaders? Or do we cling to anachronistic retirement rules that are wasteful of managerial manpower. Evaluation and retirement policies that penalize age were evolved during ‘the Scramble for Jobs‘. They are exactly the opposite of what is needed to fight ‘the War for Talent‘.
Productivity at the Bottom of the Pyramid
Q5: Have we the capability, confidence and concentration to make productivity gains from permanent employees on our ‘rolls‘? In several large manufacturing organizations, there is so much reliance on contract labor and so little attention paid to the relatively few permanent operatives directly employed, that it appears that the prerogative to manage, which used to be so jealously guarded and gripped, has slipped (or been fearfully passed) into the hands of run-of-the-mill labor contractors.
Q6: Do we respect, resource and reward manual and craft skills as well the people who use them? Few developed societies maintain the hierarchical distance (verging on deference), between managers at the top and manual workers at the bottom of the organizational pyramid, that we do. Have some of our otherwise modern industrial organizations atavistically replicated a twisted version of India’s caste system, with its low regard for manual work?
Q7: ‘Jugaad‘ is a uniquely Indian answer to the challenge of spontaneous, incremental improvement. Are we able to shape it by the twin toroidal guides of discipline and shared corporate values? The consequences of unrestrained ‘jugaad‘ were only too well demonstrated for us in the run-up to the CWG debacle!
Service Sector Productivity
Q8: How well-empowered are the customer facing arms of our service organizations? Quite apart from the productivity gains, even customers with grievances can acquire lifelong loyalty when empowered employees take remedial decisions on the spot. On the other hand, ‘Moments of Truth‘, can become ‘Eternities of Furious Frustration‘ when employees need to check back with some invisible supervisor or central authority before taking a single helpful step.
Q9: How substantive is the investment we have made to conceptualize and institutionalize a ‘Lean Service‘ model, the way Toyota did for the manufacturing sector? Do we have dedicated structures and full-time resources for ‘Service Engineering‘? Or is our process improvement model still an imported one that is used for bolstering marketing claims rather than for raising productivity-reinforced barriers to competitive entry?
Q10: Do we have the strategic competency to manage an ‘innovation ecology‘ through partnering with a host of other organizations? As service organizations in India move up the value chain, productivity gains will increasingly come out of collaborators‘ organizations and networking efficiencies rather than from a directly supervised entity, where a single CEO‘s writ is law.
Can HR Take the Lead?
There are clearly steps HR has taken in the past that have grown productivity, while some other HR actions have stunted it. The ten inquiries raised here are prescriptions for some of the things we need to do differently to make productivity breakthroughs. They may not be easily palatable medicine for those of us who have become successful with a certain way of doing HR. However, for the bright generation of young talent that has started flowing into HR, the logic of these suggestions will be obvious. With their commitment, HR can take the pole position for India to win the productivity race.
10 WAYS IN WHICH HR CAN KILL PRODUCTIVITY
1. Ignoring productivity improvement
2. Recruiting overqualified people
3. PMS = People Maddening System
4. Exiting the experienced
5. Abdicating supervision to contractors
6. Looking down on manual work
7. Missing or uncontrolled ‘jugaad‘
8. Disempowered customer-facing employees
9. Lack of ‘Lean Service‘ investment
10. Inability to gain from partners‘ productivity
Visty Banaji is CEO of Banner Global Consulting