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Time study sleuths slip from shop floor to offices

By David T. CookBusiness correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 26, 1982


For years, managers have watched factory employees at work, seeking ways to boost blue-collar productivity.

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Now the tables have turned as a growing number of companies scrutinize the efficiency of white-collar workers.

For example, at the Bank of America, some 65,000 white-collar employees are being monitored by a productivity measurement system. The year-and-a-half-old project ''systematizes the identification of productivity improvement opportunities and creates incentives'' to do better, explains bank vice-president Daniel J. Wichlan.

While the bank will not quantify its gains from using the system, ''the gain in productivity we are getting is twice what it would have been otherwise,'' Mr. Wichlan says. White-collar productivity measures the amount of a goods or services an employee can produce in an hour.

The San Francisco-based financial institution is unusual only in that it is willing to discuss its bid to increase white-collar productivity. ''No one will talk about it,'' says Martin Stankard, director of the Productivity Development Group. ''It sounds like a layoff and is a very sensitive subject.'' His Cambridge, Mass., firm specializes in helping companies improve on white-collar productivity.

Business has been brisk for consultants who specialize in this area, including managerial work. ''There has been a tremendous increase in companies'' seeking ways to raise white-collar efficiency, says Charles K. Rourke, president of Hendrick & Co., a Massachusetts-based firm specializing in corporate restructuring.

''There has been an increase in business, . . .'' adds George Harris, who a consultant on service-industry productivity for Arthur D. Little Inc., also in Cambridge. ''Due to the recession companies need to cut costs and increase productivity.''

Interest in white-collar efficiency has also been given a lift from manufacturers of office automation equipment like word processors. ''Those people are out there selling white-collar productivity,'' says Martin Starr, professor of management science and operations management at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business. ''They are focusing on issues which people have not thought about.''

Attempts to boost white-collar productivity are growing fastest at ''paper factories'' like banks, insurance companies, and goverment offices, Mr. Harris says.

But interest is not limited to these areas. ''Many companies are seeing that an increasing percentage of their payroll is in the white-collar sector,'' says Professor Starr.

The amount companies can chop costs by expanding salaried employee efficiency ''depends on the company and its current effectiveness,'' says Donald Mizaur, vice-president of the American Productivity Center in Houston.

While savings levels are difficult to predict, a typical minimum gain in labor costs ranges from 10 to 20 percent in areas where changes are needed, Harris notes. But at some overstaffed banks, ''we find we can eliminate approximately 30 percent of the middle managers,'' Mr. Rourke contends.