Why do you need a productivity consultant

Arseni Mourzenko
Founder and lead developer
July 1, 2018
Tags: productivity 36 workplace 7

Many of the per­sons who learn about my pre­vi­ous ac­tiv­i­ty as a pro­duc­tiv­i­ty con­sul­tant are won­der­ing what sort of prob­lems I was solv­ing, and why would a giv­en com­pa­ny be need­ing a con­sul­tant in­stead of solv­ing those prob­lems on their own. This ar­ti­cle gives an il­lus­tra­tion of such con­sult­ing for a prob­lem which may seem to be very spe­cif­ic, but prob­a­bly ap­plies to lots of com­pa­nies, at least in France.

A few years ago, I was ap­proached by a own­er of a com­pa­ny of a size of around fifty em­ploy­ees with ap­prox­i­mate­ly thir­ty pro­gram­mers work­ing on sev­er­al soft­ware pro­jects for their cus­tomers. It's not even that he want­ed to hire me; he was bare­ly com­plain­ing about one of the prob­lems that had a con­sid­er­able cost.

French com­pa­nies, as I un­der­stand it, are re­quired by law to make em­ploy­ees fill an ac­tiv­i­ty re­port at the end of every month; such re­port in­di­cates, for a giv­en month, how many hours were ded­i­cat­ed by an em­ploy­ee to a spe­cif­ic pro­ject. Those re­ports were used to send in­voic­es to the cus­tomers. In oth­er words, if an em­ploy­ee spent six­ty hours work­ing on a pro­ject or­dered by a cus­tomer, this cus­tomer re­ceived an in­voice con­tain­ing, among oth­ers, the cost of six­ty hours work. The prob­lem was that most em­ploy­ees were re­al­ly bad at fill­ing the ac­tiv­i­ty re­ports, usu­al­ly sim­ply ig­nor­ing the re­quests to fill their re­ports be­fore the end of the month, and with­out those re­ports, in­voic­es couldn't be sent on time. When in­voic­es were de­layed, cus­tomers' pay­ments were de­layed too, which caused lots of trou­ble for the cash flow of the com­pa­ny.

I thought that this could be an op­por­tu­ni­ty for me to not just com­fort the own­er, but pro­vide him pro­fes­sion­al help. First things first, I had to de­ter­mine how my im­pact would be mea­sured. With the help of the ac­coun­tant, such mea­sure­ment could eas­i­ly be done. The next step was to do the root cause analy­sis.

I start­ed by a sim­ple sur­vey of the em­ploy­ees, con­sist­ing of a sim­ple ques­tion: “The last week, you were late com­plet­ing your ac­tiv­i­ty re­port. What would be the main rea­son for that?” As you may guess, the sur­vey was tar­get­ing only the em­ploy­ees who were ef­fec­tive­ly late for their last re­port. The sur­vey also ex­plained what was its pur­pose, and that the an­swers, while not be­ing anony­mous, will not be shared with the man­age­ment. It asked to pro­vide, if pos­si­ble, a short, one sen­tence an­swer, but if need­ed, the per­son could be more de­tailed.

On twen­ty two per­sons asked:

The last rea­son needs in­ter­pre­ta­tion. When a per­son—a ded­i­cat­ed em­ploy­ee who works eight hours per day in the com­pa­ny—tells that he doesn't have enough time, it means one thing: this par­tic­u­lar task ends in the bot­tom when the list of all tasks is or­dered by pri­or­i­ty. What can cause that? Ob­vi­ous­ly, the pre­vi­ous rea­son could be part of the ex­pla­na­tion, both in the form of the mis­un­der­stand­ing of the pur­pose (1) as well as the lack of sat­is­fac­tion from per­form­ing the task (2). Oth­er ex­pla­na­tions in­clude the dif­fi­cul­ty of the task it­self, in­clud­ing the time need­ed to per­form the ac­tion (3) and the feed­back re­ceived by the em­ploy­ee dur­ing the in­ter­ac­tion (4). Let me ex­plain each of those points:

  1. Not know­ing why one per­forms a task usu­al­ly en­cour­ages to post­pone the task or avoid do­ing it. Per­sons need to know the pur­pose in or­der to be mo­ti­vat­ed. Fill­ing some cryp­tic forms need­ed by the ac­count­ing may not qual­i­fy as a pur­pose­ful task by most em­ploy­ees who nev­er in­ter­act with the ac­count­ing de­part­ment in any oth­er way.

  2. With­out pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment, the task may in­deed be post­poned. Most com­pa­nies have only neg­a­tive re­in­force­ment as a re­ac­tion to not per­form­ing the task—file your ac­tiv­i­ty re­port, or your boss will shout at you or send you mean e-mails. While neg­a­tive re­in­force­ment can be an ex­cel­lent vec­tor of mo­ti­va­tion in some cas­es, this is not one of them: pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment would work much bet­ter.

  3. I once worked in a com­pa­ny where I had to fill an ac­tiv­i­ty re­port my­self at the end of the week. The com­pa­ny paid an im­pres­sive amount of mon­ey for a very pop­u­lar (at least in France) sys­tem which ap­peared to be a piece of im­pres­sive crap. While every­body agreed on the fact that it is un­us­able, the fact that the com­pa­ny in­vest­ed so much mon­ey in it meant one and one only thing: be­cause of the sunk cost fal­la­cy, the sys­tem had to be used, no mat­ter how bad it is. This also meant that I, as well as every one of the eighty em­ploy­ees, had to waste thir­ty min­utes per week fight­ing with the sys­tem, fill­ing some mess just in or­der to be com­pli­ant (by the way, I even asked my boss what should I put as a cat­e­go­ry in the ac­tiv­i­ty re­port for the ac­tiv­i­ty of com­plet­ing my ac­tiv­i­ty re­port; he didn't find it fun­ny, and I still don't know why). Need­less to say that most em­ploy­ees pro­cras­ti­nat­ed as much as pos­si­ble when it came to use the ter­ri­ble in­ter­face (I'm won­der­ing if in­ter­face word can be used when talk­ing about this prod­uct).

  4. Us­ing some prod­ucts is a re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Oth­ers—not so much. When you're con­stant­ly in­sult­ed by a soft­ware prod­uct, you're less in­clined to use it lat­er. If you have to use it, you'll do what­ev­er you can to post­pone the ex­pe­ri­ence. Un­for­tu­nate­ly, most ac­tiv­i­ty re­port prod­ucts used by French com­pa­nies seem to be pleased at be­ing as mean as pos­si­ble to­wards the users, as if their de­sign­ers (who am I kid­ding? The com­pa­nies who do such prod­ucts don't have de­sign­ers) have read Alan Coop­er's About face 3, and did every­thing the op­po­site way the book tells them to do.

If you're a de­vel­op­er, it's tempt­ing, giv­en the list above, to blame the ap­pli­ca­tion used by the com­pa­ny to fill the ac­tiv­i­ty re­ports, with the rec­om­men­da­tion of chang­ing it. A tech­ni­cal so­lu­tion would con­sist of cre­at­ing a one click ex­pe­ri­ence (legal­ly, it's up to the em­ploy­ees to com­plete their ac­tiv­i­ty re­ports, but noth­ing pre­vents a com­pa­ny from pre-fill­ing a re­port, let­ting the em­ploy­ee to sim­ply check if the in­for­ma­tion is cor­rect, ad­just it if there are mis­takes or if the re­port is in­com­plete, and val­i­date it). This would ad­dress the in­ter­ac­tion is­sues ex­pe­ri­enced by the em­ploy­ees; as for the mo­ti­va­tion part, the new prod­uct could give a few hints, like: “Thank you for fill­ing your re­port. With your con­tri­bu­tion, there are just two more em­ploy­ees left be­fore [the com­pa­ny] can send the in­voic­es to the cus­tomers.” For­mu­la­tion has to be en­hanced, but you get the idea. “Hey! Thank you for be­ing for three con­sec­u­tive months among the top ten em­ploy­ees who filled their re­ports the first.” is a good pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment vec­tor as well. There are lots of oth­er el­e­gant ways to do it—at least much more el­e­gant than those nasty e-mails from your boss telling that you are once again late for your ac­tiv­i­ty re­port. De­sign­ing such soft­ware could take ap­prox­i­mate­ly two months of work.

This is, how­ev­er, a tech­ni­cal so­lu­tion. As a con­sul­tant, I can't take this short­cut, and must con­sid­er non-tech­ni­cal so­lu­tions as well. It ap­peared that in the case of my client, it was the non-tech­ni­cal so­lu­tion which pre­vailed. In­stead of de­vel­op­ing cus­tom soft­ware, we stopped us­ing one. In­stead, we set up a much more hu­man ap­proach.

The ac­coun­tant had a new mis­sion. Be­fore the end of the month, she met with every em­ploy­ee, phys­i­cal­ly, with a pre-filled ac­tiv­i­ty re­port, and asked to check each em­ploy­ee to check his re­port with her. It most cas­es, it took sec­onds. In some cas­es, it took a few min­utes to fill the miss­ing info. The slight dif­fi­cul­ty was, for the ac­coun­tant, to track peo­ple who was go­ing on va­ca­tion be­fore the end of the month; for that, I did a small script which ran every morn­ing and told the ac­coun­tant the names of the per­sons she has to see, be­cause they would leave to­mor­row. It took me one hour to de­vel­op the app, one hour to tweak it to cope with some quirks and IT re­stric­tions in the com­pa­ny, and half an hour to ad­just it based on the feed­back of the ac­coun­tant—as you may imag­ine, this makes a very cheap ap­pli­ca­tion.

Af­ter ex­per­i­ment­ing with this new work­flow for four months, I got the met­ric con­firm­ing that the ROI matched the ex­pec­ta­tions, now that in­voic­es were sent on time. What I was more pleased to find is the feed­back I gath­ered from the ac­coun­tant and the em­ploy­ees:

This is how a painful ex­pe­ri­ence for em­ploy­ees which also caused a very con­crete mon­ey loss for the com­pa­ny was trans­formed at an ex­treme­ly low cost into a pos­i­tive, hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence which solved the cash flow prob­lem. And this is ex­act­ly my pur­pose as a con­sul­tant:

Back to the orig­i­nal ques­tion of why a giv­en com­pa­ny would need a con­sul­tant, I sup­pose the an­swer is now ob­vi­ous. A per­son with­in a com­pa­ny may not be able to qual­i­fy the prob­lem it­self. If he does, he may not be fa­mil­iar with RCA. And even if he is and he finds the root cause, he may be in­clined to con­sid­er a non-ide­al so­lu­tion, usu­al­ly pre­fer­ring tech­ni­cal so­lu­tions where the sit­u­a­tion in­vites a non-tech­ni­cal one.