How To Improve Productivity

January 1, 2011

Seven Skills of a Highly Productive Workforce

By Doug Howardell

Customers in the global economy are more demanding than ever before. They can be; there is more competition than ever before. Customers take it for granted that you will deliver a low cost and high quality product or service. Now on top of that, they demand it faster and customized to their individual needs. To be a survivor in the marketplace today you must produce world class quality products and services, designed to meet the specific customer’s needs, deliver them quickly anywhere in the world and at a competitive price.

The company that wants to be successful in this new environment will have to create a faster, smarter, better organization. A faster, smarter, better organization requires three things. Flexible and adaptable processes that can be reconfigured quickly as demands change, up to the minute technology that allows instant communication with customers and suppliers and most importantly, a highly productive workforce.


Productivity, according to the ACA group, comes from doing the right thing and doing it right. The ACA Group,, is an alliance of highly trained and experienced consultants and instructors providing Consulting Services, Training & Education to a variety of manufacturing and service organizations, in both the public and private sectors ranging from five million dollars in annual sales to Fortune 500 companies.

To be highly productive a workforce has to have specific skills. We have identified seven skills required by the highly productive workforce. Because a company is only as good as its people, these skills are the prerequisites for survival in the new global economy. Some of these skills are not new in themselves, but they do take on much greater importance for the workforce of an world class competitor. We have paid lip service in the past to things like customer responsiveness and teaming. It is time to take them seriously. These skills should be viewed as a set. Everyone in the organization requires them all. A lack of any of these skills reduces the productivity of the entire organization.

Skill 1 – Customer Consciousness

People need to know how to identify their customers, internal or external, and to identify their customer’s needs. They need to know how to meet those needs and measure themselves from the customer’s perspective.

This skill set is too often taken for granted. “Of course we know who our customer is.” But does everyone, at all levels of the organization know? A successful competitor in the global economy will have to be closer to its customers than ever before. The demands of Mass customization and quick response manufacturing make staying close to your customer even more important. What the customer wanted yesterday might not be what they want today. You need to know what they want as soon as it changes.

The idea of internal customers needs to be re-enforced through out the organization. If your job is not direct interface with the customer then maybe you support someone whose job is. To drive customer responsiveness through the entire enterprise, we must treat whoever receives the output of our process as our customer.

The highly productive workforce must be trained to continually ask the critical customer questions. “Who is MY customer?” “What are their needs or concerns?” “Am I meeting these needs?” “How do I know if I am meeting their needs?” The workforce must be trained to keep in touch with their customers, identify barriers to customer satisfaction and eliminate them.

Skill 2 – Strategically Aligned

Management needs to know how to define the culture and the policies of the winning organization. Companies have vision and mission statements defining what they want to be. Typically those documents sit on a shelf or on a plaque on the wall, and everyone does what they’ve always done. Management must know how to turn those statements into coordinated action. The whole organization must be actively working on achieving those results. The workforce makes tactical operational decisions every minute of every day. These decisions must be aligned with the overall goals of the enterprise.

In today’s rapidly changing world, the workforce has to respond quickly to new situations. They won’t have time to ask for approval. They must know what is expected and acceptable. If the entire enterprise is not pulling in the same direction then the goals of the organization will not be achieved.

The organization must know how to turn broad policy statements into specific, concrete actions. Measurement systems must be designed to assure these plans are executed. Constant feedback is required to make mid-course corrections.

Skill 3 – Environmentally Adaptive

Thriving in a changing environment is one of the most critical new skills for people today. Change, technological, and social, is the hallmark of the late 20th century. The pace of change will only accelerate in the next century. How we react to change today is, in large part, a measure of how we will fare tomorrow. Management needs to know how to overcome people’s resistance to change and how to re-channel the workforce’s anxiety into productive creativity. People need to know how to use the changing environment to their advantage. Members of an highly productive workforce need to know how to recognize their reaction to change and channel that reaction into contribution. This is not “change management” of which much has been written, but skills for individuals to thrive in a changing world.


When customer demands are constantly shifting, products and processes must change to support each new customer order. The workforce must be able to assimilate these changes and execute faster than ever before. Changing processes also means that our roles and responsibilities will change with greater frequency. We may have one job today and be expected to do several different jobs tomorrow. The highly productive workforce must be able to respond to these sudden and frequent changes in their work lives.

There is a continuum of reaction to change from resistance to positive acceptance of the change. We can identify where we or someone else is on that continuum by observing behavior in a changing situation. There are tools that can be used to help people progress through these stages. Thriving in a changing environment begins by identifying where a person is on the change acceptance continuum. Then we can select and apply the corresponding tool to move them further along the acceptance continuum.

Skill 4 – Intrinsically Directed

A lean and productive organization can’t afford to have people sitting around waiting to be told what to do and how to do it. People need to know how to maximize their productivity, how to manage their time and how to stay organized. The highly productive workforce must know how to set their own goals. They must have the skills to put plans in place to achieve those goals. They need to be trained on basic plan management techniques. Then they need to know how to execute those plans by prioritizing their daily activities and working on the critical few instead of the trivial many. This is an old skill set that takes on much greater importance given the independence of work today.

Combined with this, people need to understand the new employment realities. In the new reality, people cannot count on working for the same company for most of their career. They can’t rely on climbing the ladder with the help of some mentor. In our new world, we will change companies, change jobs, even change careers several times during our work life. It will be easy to get lost and to drift through such a world. The workforce must learn how to define a course they want to follow and stay on it even as the winds are constantly shifting.

They must be much more proactive in their career management. The company won’t do it for them anymore, if it ever did. People need to know how to set goals for themselves, develop plans to achieve those goals and measure progress against their plan.

Skill 5 – Innovative Intelligence

As an enterprise empowers its workforce to solve issues as they arise, to invent new processes and even new products as needs are identified, it will rely on the creativity of its entire workforce as never before. It can no longer be the job of just the engineers or staff experts to improve product and process. Improvement becomes the job of every employee and the highly productive workforce will have to be trained to be able to respond.

Management needs to know how to foster and respond to creativity. People need to know how to analyze problems, apply critical thinking processes and analysis techniques. They need to understand the systems engineering approach to the development of solutions so their changes fit into the overall company processes. People need to know how to think in new ways, how to develop creative responses to new demands and how to be productively creative to stay ahead of the competition.


The first part of developing creative solutions is to understand the issues. The workforce needs to be well versed in the classic analysis tools like praeto charts, fishbone diagrams, and control charts. They also need to be experienced in group brainstorming, and Delphi estimating. Once the issue is understood at the level of facts and data then we can teach people to invent creative solutions. We must teach people about barriers to creative thinking, how to overcome them and the four roles of the creative thinker: Explorer, Artist, Judge and Warrior. We can train people understand different thinking styles and when to apply a particular style.

Skill 6 – Process Orientation

One of the biggest shifts required of a global competitor is the shift from functional or departmental thinking to process thinking. Functional thinking causes people to think about their job or their department. When judging the merit of a new way of doing something, they think about the impact on themselves. This causes sub-optimization and territorial infighting. Process thinking helps people understand how potential improvements affect the enterprise as a whole. Management and the workforce need to know the basics of process improvement: process thinking, process understanding, process mapping, process measurement and process redesign.

We have to ensure that everyone, from top to bottom, understands what we mean by a process – the conversion of input to output by applying value. The highly productive workforce must be intimately familiar with process mapping. A picture is still worth … The highly productive workforce must understand various types of process mapping techniques and when to apply which. Measurement is the key to any improvement. Measure the wrong thing or measure in an imprecise way and you may work at improving the wrong area. The highly productive workforce must be trained on how to design measurements of critical steps in their processes.

Skill 7 – Collaborative Outlook

An enterprise has to react fast as customer demands are identified. There is no longer time to wait to run everything up the management chain or to get new ideas and strategies approved by a large bureaucracy. We have to move now, or the opportunity may be lost. Empowered teams who know their processes and how they relate to the overall operation allow a company to be much more responsive.

Self directed work teams are important components of any improvement strategy. Management in a successful competitor needs to know how to establish, charter, nurture, reward and manage work teams. People need to learn what is expected of them in a teaming environment, how to be team player, the roles and responsibilities of team members and the basic functioning of teams.

Waving a magic wand and saying you are now a team does not create a team-centered workforce. Management must determine such things as why teams, what are the teams, are they cross functional or departmental based. Management must decide what authority the teams have. How will the teams be measured and rewarded? What about individual performers within the teams, how will they be recognized? Lastly management must decide what happens to management in a team-based organization. What authority does management retain for itself?

After management has defined the expectations and limits on the teams, the workforce will have to be taught things like: stages of team development – storming, forming, norming, performing; team roles – team leader, scribe, and process observer. Often overlooked, consensus decision making is a new and critical skill that teams will have to be taught.

It’s a new world. We have to change to keep up. Companies who want to thrive have to align themselves around a new set of strategies designed to help them be competitive on a global scale. All the goals of any enterprise can only be achieved through the efforts of its workforce. To achieve these goals, the workforce must possess the skills to respond to constant change, constant demand for more, and constant quickening of the pace. These are skills that the world class enterprise must assure their workforce possesses. Acquisition of these skills will not happen by itself. Management should put a plan in place. Courses need to be designed or procured. Resources and time need to be allocated. Creating a Highly productive workforce requires management to act. Start right away. Our customers are revolting and our competition is already acting to take advantage of the situation.

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