Office productivity: minimal effort can pay big dividend

Once a month, an employee from Southern Company Services in Birmingham, Ala., walks into the company's conference room and extends the lines a little on the 60-odd graphs posted on the walls.

This is where SCS employees find out how ''productive'' they've been that month. The graphs plot such things as how long it takes an engineering design to become a final product.

But, ''We can never be sure how effective (our productivity program) is; we only have an indication,'' says Doug McCrary, who started the project at this subsidiary of the Southern Company, the parent firm of four electric utilities.

And that's the problem with trying to increase white-collar productivity - it's difficult to measure. It's been so hard to define, many companies have backed off from sinking their teeth into office-worker improvement. ''There's an interest, . . . but companies lack the tools, knowledge, and internal political forces to work it out,'' says Steven Leth at the American Productivity Center.

But as the labor force shifts toward white-collar jobs and recession prompts companies to look beyond the factory floor to the office for cost cutting, white-collar productivity has become an issue more companies are willing to tackle.

''A lot more firms now are showing evidence of doingm things in this area,'' Mr. Leth says.

He has been working on a recent study of 99 companies that have some kind of white-collar-productivity programs. Most of the programs are haphazard, but even so, the study found that ''almost any improvement program - no matter how unstructured or unsophisticated - can pay handsome dividends.'' Companies with such plans said their workers made fewer errors than before, speeded up responses to customers, and improved product quality.

The people, the machines, and the environment they work in should be targets of a productivity plan, Mr. Leth says.

One company that comes close to hitting all these areas is TRW Inc. in Cleveland. At the end of 1979, TRW's chairman installed Henry Conn as vice-president of productivity. After a year of data gathering, Mr. Conn began a program that reaches 90 divisions.

''People consider automation as the key to everything, . . . but it's human input that is most important,'' Mr. Conn says.

At TRW, the first step in the productivity process is to have individuals gather in small groups and figure out their priorities and compare what they shouldm be spending most of their time on with what they actuallym spend it on. Individuals come up with their own ideas on how to measure what they are doing. After few goal-setting meetings, the groups meet once a week.

The next step is to work with what you have to improve procedures, inventory, and job streamlining. With these two steps, ''you can get a huge jump in productivity, maybe 40 or 50 percent, without spending a dime on automation,'' Mr. Conn says.

There is a role for office automation - which, broadly speaking, means using word processors and personal computers in the office - although Conn says it only accounts for 10 to 15 percent of productivity improvement at TRW. And there is a role for upgrading the office environment. When TRW set up new offices for its software programmers in Los Angeles recently, it gave each of the programmers his or her own cubicle to work in, instead of spreading people out in one open space. Productivity improved 40 percent.

Because of the recession, some companies have been forced to examine their productivity in all areas - factory and office. At Bethlehem Steel, not only have there been record blue-collar layoffs, but by the time this year is out, office staff will have been reduced 40 percent over a three-year period.

Like TRW, Bethlehem started with human resources. Its program, called ''quality of work life,'' begins with ''interpersonal skills, problem solving, and motivation'' at all employee levels, according to Leon Murphy, manager of systems development for information services. ''Motivation and attitude are the most important,'' he says.

But office automation is right up there, too. ''It has enabled us to continue effectively in spite of the tremendous staff reductions we've had,'' Mr. Murphy says. Bethlehem has set up word processing centers where managers from all over the country dictate over the phone to typists; copies are sent back to them electronically. Murphy says the payback period for the company's computers was two years.

For the next 18 months, Bethlehem will concentrate on productivity improvement of middle management. But, like Doug McCary at Southern Company Services, Murphy calls the question of productivity measurement ''a toughie.'' He now measures it in two ways: through staff reductions and document output - which he calls ''crude but effective'' measurements.

BEA Associates, an investment-management company in New York, has no problem with improving management productivity, but can't get clerical workers to participate. The workers just don't want to be monitored. ''We try to say that we need feedback to make better decisions - not to decide whether to fire someone - but people don't accept that readily,'' says Stephen Distler, administrative officer at BEA.

Firms trying to create their own office productivity programs hope to be getting more substantial guidance soon. Both the American Productivity Center in Houston and the Strategic Planning Institute in Cambridge, Mass., are searching for ways to measure white-collar productivity.

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