How to increase productivity

The only way we can improve productivity is by working smarter, not harder – and it starts with how your treat your labour force.

How to increase productivity
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Can you live on R69 a day? What about R105 or even R150? In my modest suburban home, R150 a day just about covers the lights, water and refuse removal bill. So no, I definitely couldn’t. Even if I had a free house on a farm, R150 a day wouldn’t keep poverty away. There’s no way it’s enough to put food on the table, provide decent clothes and pay school fees. As for providing for a pension, medical aid and life insurance – don’t make me laugh.

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I was talking to a De Doorns farmer about the labour troubles in the area recently, and he said: “They’re right. We aren’t paying enough. We have to pay more. But how are we going to do it without killing the businesses?” If any good has come from the Western Cape labour unrest, it’s the fact that many employers are finally recognising that paying poverty-level wages is bad news. There’s no future for farming if workers are struggling to provide for their families – and we can’t run profitable businesses with the capacity to pay wages high enough to live a decent, secure life.

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And this is not something workers can do anything about. The solution is in management’s hands. It’s simple, really. We have to make more profit. We have to get higher prices, reduce marketing costs, improve production levels, produce better quality product, eliminate wastage and lower production costs – and we won’t do this by working harder or getting employees to work harder.

It’s all about working smarter, about doing things differently and increasing productivity – getting more output with the same input or the same output with less input. In no way does the concept apply only to labour. Litres of diesel used per ton of product produced, kilowatt hours of electricity per cubic meter of water pumped, kilograms of nitrogen applied per ton of product produced, tons of product per hectare of land used, man-hours per ton of product produced – productivity applies to all of these and more.

Driving productivity upward requires measurement and constant monitoring of all major inputs and outputs. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” – never was a truer word said. When I started farming, I used to work a six-day week like all farmers at the time. When one of our neighbours switched to a five-day week, I clearly recall our disdain for his ‘laziness’.

Although many of us secretly longed to have a full day off on Saturday, there were strident cries that if we caved in and went for five days, our productivity would go ‘to hell’. We’d have to hire more people, it would push our costs through the roof and ‘with more idle time on their hands to do nothing, workers would get up to mischief’.
Complete hogwash.

As time went on, and more farmers adopted a five-day week, we were eventually forced to make the change. And do you know what? Worker productivity went up! Output per man hour went up! Profitability went up! Mischief-making from workers went down! I was shocked. It was so illogical. Everyone is at work for less time and yet things improve? It was then I realised that, while I might know quite a lot about producing crops, I understood very little about human psychology.

I also grasped the great innate wisdom of Parkinson’s Law – that “work expands to fill the time available”. We got more work done in less time. We got smarter. Everyone was happier. This was all a long time ago and times have moved on. Standards and expectations have changed. But the basic foundations of building human productivity remain the same. We simply have to enable our workers to live a decent and dignified life in relative comfort in order for them to be productive.

Contact Peter Hughes at [email protected]. Please state ‘Managing for profit’ in the subject line of your email.

This article was originally published in the 01 March 2013 issue of Farmer’s Weekly.