Viva piece work!

‘Task work’ drives down productivity and sets management and workers up against each other. ‘Piece work’ is the only way to get productivity up and enable workers to earn more.

Viva piece work!
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If you’ve studied the principles of employee motivation (which every farmer should have!) you’re likely to have come across the pithy observation that “there are two things people want more than sex and money – recognition and praise”. I know from my own experience that when I did something right and my boss passed some praise my way, it had me working harder.

READ:How negative feedback can be positive

Sincere praise is a potent motivator. But mere words, which might motivate you as a manager, will never have the same effect on an unskilled worker handling a hoe or tackling a tough, repetitive job such as cane-cutting. While praise is never wasted, these jobs need something extra, some tangible incentive to keep motivation up and deliver high productivity.

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The obvious starting point for high labour productivity is to hire the right people – those who are healthy, fit and robust. And this means much more than simply looking them up and down when they apply for a job. It means obtaining and verifying references from previous employers. It also means a full basic medical examination to ensure they can do the job. Where output can be measured, ‘task work’ or ‘gwaza’, is widespread, with the reward being more time off.

But under this system, the exceptional worker simply spends more time lounging at home, while the plodder, who ultimately does exactly the same job, is in the land or orchard all day. Task work does not improve productivity! It provides no incentive for the exceptional worker with loads of extra ‘capacity’ to deliver greater output. But it remains popular because it’s easy on supervisors and managers, especially where large groups of workers are involved.

Or is it, in the long run? After all, how do you set a fair task? How many metres must be weeded? How many bags or bins of fruit must be picked? Weed density varies from place to place and day to day. Fruit numbers differ from tree to tree. Who decides what’s fair? It’s a recipe for conflict.

Workers want to get home as early as possible, so they always want the task to be as small as possible. In other words, the system encourages them to drive productivity down when they need to increase productivity and share the benefits that result. Task work is a disaster waiting to happen and no progressive farmer should be using it.

More money
With a piece work system, pay is per unit of output. Here the exceptional worker gets to share in the additional productivity and earn more money. A minimum task linked with piece work pay above the task is a good combination. Yes, farmers often tell me: “I gave them the option of piece work, but most of them went home when the task was finished anyway.”
I’ve experienced this too, but if you persist and fine-tune the system, it can work.

Do this by considering the following:

  • Is your piece work rate per unit fixed irrespective of total output? If so, change it so that pay per unit increases as output climbs. Do this with jumps in pay, with big changes in rates at higher outputs. You’ll need to keep an eye on work quality as people begin chasing the higher rates, but with good management, this can be done.
  • How about a team incentive? If a particular job comprises a number of tasks – such as moving and positioning a picking ladder, clipping fruit into a bag, and carrying bags to the tip-and-count points – a team might be able to do it better than individuals, so a team piece-work structure might work. This brings peer pressure to bear, which can be a powerful motivator.
  • Are you tapping into the potent motivation unleashed by competition? Competition between individuals and teams, with winners generously rewarded and publicly acknowledged, is another powerful incentive to do better. A crucial part of this is the need for ongoing and public feedback to all participants. Reward second- and third-placed winners too, as well as those showing great improvement.

I’ve used competitive pressure with great success to drive employee motivation in other areas, such as raising their home and family care standards, maintaining machinery and buildings properly, and lifting safety standards. Consult with supervisors and workers and get understanding and agreement on the rewards, though. A critical part of gaining acceptance and support for piece work is to be seen to actively help individuals earn as much as possible.

It also goes without saying that sick, hungry, tired and stressed people can never be fully productive. You’re in a position to assist in all these areas and help your workers to lift productivity to levels you’ve never seen before – and earn much more.

This article was originally published in the 26 July 2013 issue of Farmers Weekly.