How to Measure Knowledge Worker Productivity, Part 1

A little while ago I heard the comment, “If I could figure that out I would be a millionaire,” in regard o the question, “How to measure knowledge worker productivity?” This doesn’t seem like such a challenging question, but perhaps it is more complicated than it sounds. Is it really so hard? Thought and creativity are measurable processes like anything else, are they not?
A Scientific American article titled How to Unleash Your Creativity featured interviews with several experts on creativity including psychologist and Fordham University professor John Houtz; poet, playwright and filmmaker Julia Cameron, and Robert Epstein is an author and visiting scholar at the University of California, San Diego. They offered some possible answers, and interesting parallels to kaizen and the Toyota Production System.
Here is Robert Epstein:
I came to believe that the creative process in individuals is orderly and predictable every moment in time. At some point I developed tests to see whether people have the competencies they need for expressing creativity, and then I developed games and exercises to boost creativity. I think that the fact that creativity is orderly is good news, because it means we can all tap into this rich potential we all have.

If creative processes are orderly and predictable every moment in time, the productivity of these processes must surely be measurable. Epstein went on to list four creative skill sets. They are:
1. Capturing ideas. Preserving new ideas as they occur without judging them. This sounds like classic brainstorming methodology. Get your pen and stack of post its and write 50 ideas in 5 minutes on how to measure knowledge worker productivity.
2. Challenging. Giving ourselves tough problems to solve. The competition of ideas and behaviors creates new connections in the brain, and this is by definition something creative, goes the explanation. This doesn’t seem like a skill set so much as just a good habit to form. Taiichi Ohno taught leaders that “work is a game of wits” with subordinates and that “your wits don’t work until you feel the squeeze”.
3. Broadening. The more diverse your knowledge, the more interesting the interconnections between ideas, and therefore more creative. The idea of “seek the ideas of many rather than the expert knowledge of a few” is a classic kaizen idiom.
4. Surrounding. Put yourself in the middle of interesting things and interesting people and you will be creative, the idea goes. Again, a good idea but not a skill set per se. The idea of seeking creative inputs is a good one. Following the kaizen principle of “go see” this is best done by getting out and entering the circle where creative inputs are found, rather than by creating a cubicle fortress of creative fodder.
This is very interesting, though nothing earth-shattering or new to people who practice kaizen.
John Houtz is quoted:
I think if we want everyone to have a way to be more creative, we have to convey the message that they have to work at it; creativity isn’t necessarily going to come naturally. And what strikes me about Julia is her high productivity. Creative people are productive. They may have lots of ideas that don’t work, but the point is that they have lots of ideas. So if people want to be more creative—and to be effective problem solvers—they’re going to have to be disciplined like Julia is.

If “productive” is simply a measure of creative ideas, regardless of the quality of their ideas, then quantity of ideas perhaps equals productivity. The true measure of productive output ought to be developing solutions to the challenging problems we pose to ourselves. To this end companies like Toyota do encourage people to constantly think creatively and generate ideas that can be tried, the result of success or failure can be experienced, and this experience used for learning how to think more creatively. The success or failure helps us make new neural connections, to sue the language of the professors.
John Houtz makes a good point that creativity does not equal only idea generation but a variety of knowledge work processes and tasks that support practical problem solving:
There’s also a stereotype that creativity is just involved in the generation of ideas. But after the ideas are generated, you then have to evaluate them, sift through them, embellish them, repair them, revise them and get them tested, which all means that the creative process is actually quite complex.

So now we are back to the creative process being complex. Hmm. There are a few other gems from Epstein, corollaries in terms of Toyota-style kaizen:
One thing I like to do is make all problems open-ended. Never say, give me three ideas for this; always say, give me at least three. When tasks are open-ended, a lot more ideas are generated. I also like to use what I call “ultimate” problems with kids. Those are problems that have no real solutions. Children have great fun with problems like those. Ask them questions like “How could you get a dog to fly?” or “How could you make the sky a different color?” You can also supply your kids with idea boxes and folders—special places for putting drawings and poems and scraps of anything new. That encourages capturing on an ongoing basis and tells children that their new ideas have value.
In lean management, the idea generation process associated with the production preparation process uses open-ended idea generation. This is sometimes called the seven ways exercise or seven alternatives brainstorm requires that the cross-functional design team think of at least seven viable, if sometimes outrageous design options for each process. These are tested using inexpensive materials or mock up processes and this experimentation helps learning and creativity. Seven is not exactly open-ended, but it is extremely difficult in most cases to get past five options.
In terms of “ultimate” problems, Toyota has been very good at this over the years by setting goals such as 10 times productivity improvement, 50% cost reduction or accident-free automobiles. The pursuit of perfection requires creative thinking. How can we measure knowledge worker productivity? Simply by the volume of ideas generated towards solving challenging or “ultimate” problems might be a good place to start.

1 Comment

  1. William Sheridan

    July 31, 2009 - 11:39 am

    Measuring Knowledge Worker productivity involves an application of cost-benefit analysis: value of knowledge work accomplished/cost of knowledge work inputs. The “real” challenge is knowing how to perform the Knowledge Work itself – see my HOW TO THINK LIKE A KNOWLEDGE WORKER (Google it).