In the quest for ever greater efficiencies, productivity and general cost saving, there are a few key questions can open up new avenues to improve performance and profitability:
1 How can we learn from our best performers?
By focusing on trying to prevent our worst performers from costing us money, we often fail to examine how our best performers make or save us money. Research into these examples of positive deviance has demonstrated that there are distinctions between the best and the rest; and that these distinctions can frequently be small and replicable by others.
2 How much is this saving costing us?
When people or organisations focus in on areas where savings might lie, and start to implement processes to realise those savings, they don’t always account for the hidden costs of administering the process or achieving compliance. For example insisting that all requests for housing repairs are submitted to be assessed and approved by a manager might seem a good cost control idea. However as some housing associations have realised, the hidden costs of bureaucracy and close scrutiny can be greater than the cost of many minor repairs. If the bureaucratic delay means that the situation then escalates into a formal complaint or dispute then costs rise more and senior manager time starts to be eaten into.
3 What behaviour do we want and what behaviour are we rewarding?
Over time perverse incentives creep into organisational life. As people make changes, launch initiatives or develop projects misalignments can occur between the desired behaviour and the behaviour rewarded by the contingences of the system. An example I have come across a few times concerns sales people. Rewarding sales people on their individual sales is a time honoured effective motivational system for many sales staff. Later the organisation introduces cross-product training and encourages people to try to sell other products too. However if the reward system hasn’t changed to include these new sales there is a perverse incentive not to spend time cross-selling.
4 How can we help people spend more time doing things they enjoy and less time doing things they don’t?
It is not always apparent to people the high cost of trying to get people to do things for which they have no aptitude, and less liking. Firstly when people have little aptitude for a part of their role the return on investment of trying to train them in it can be invisible. Secondly, even the most conscientious of people will be drawn towards putting off those parts of their job they dread, while the less driven find endless ways not to be in a position to do the hated deed. In this way we can lose sight of the bigger picture which is just that a particular outcome needs to be achieved; not necessarily in this way, not necessarily by this person. In other words, sometimes we would be better off to step back and ask ‘Who would be better suited to this task?’ or ‘How else can we achieve this objective?’
5 How can we make our workplace a great place to be?
To some extent sickness absence is a discretionary behaviour. Unless the person is genuinely too ill to leave their bed there are two factors which will affect whether they decide to go into work or take a day off: the push or pull factors of the alternatives e.g. the pull of a sunny day or the push of all my mates are away and I’ve no money to spend; and, the push and pull factors of work. Push factors might include being fed up with the work they’ve got at the moment, or problems with colleagues while pull factors include loving the work, and feeling appreciated on a daily basis. Obviously you don’t want anyone coming in when they shouldn’t and spreading infectious diseases, but beyond that a great place to work is likely to have a positive effect on attendance rates.
By asking these questions we can increase efficiency and productivity, and generate cost savings – which overall will improve our bottom line.
Sarah Lewis M.Sc. C.Psychol is founder of Appreciating Change, a business psychology consultancy specialising in helping organisations to achieve sustainable change