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Why do you need a productivity consultant

Arseni Mourzenko
Founder and lead developer, specializing in developer productivity and code quality
130
articles
June 30, 2018

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:

  • Six didn't answer. (The survey was by no means mandatory and such surveys cannot be mandatory anyway.)
  • Five said that they simply don't see the point of doing that.
  • Eleven answered by telling that they simply didn't have enough time.

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:

  • The accountant is amazed at the opportunity of interacting with the employees. She learned to know the people who, before that, were hiding behind folders and Excel rows.

  • Employees as well qualify for the most the interaction as more human. A few employees preferred the previous way of doing things, especially because they don't like to be disturbed; however, most employees prefer the new way.

  • An edge case was not considered during my intervention: what to do when an employee gets sick before the end of the month. However, it appeared that this was already an issue before, since the employees had no remote access to the activity reporting software and couldn't perform the task from home anyway, making a phone call a necessity.

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:

  • Being able to characterize a problem, where people working in the company may consider it as a situation which exists because this is the way of life.

  • Determining how my intervention could be measured, i.e. how could I objectively show that a solution I suggested improved the situation, and how much.

  • Doing the root cause analysis (RCA).

  • Solving the problem, while considering all the solutions, including non-technical ones.

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.