Our Productivity Woes

Last week, an amazing video showing how, back in 2013, the Japanese converted an above-ground railway line (and its corresponding station) into a subway line, within a short span of 4 hours, was uploaded.

That included time to run some trials with actual trains pulling into the station.

My circle of friends began to share the video on FB, which garnered quite some likes, because the level of cooperative-ness and efficiency was a world-first, and not witnessed locally. There were skeptics who pointed out the Japs had spent nearly a decade on preparations, so there was nothing to laud about.

Interestingly, the topic of productivity was raised recently in public forums, mainly because productivity failed to rise 3 years after PM kicked off this campaign.

For a country that prides itself on being world first in many arenas, this phenomenon presents a puzzling, rather than embarrassing, question: What happened?

In an attempt to explain this, someone wrote to a popular, anti-establishment website asserting that the focus on exams was the cause. Although the author failed to make a strong case for this argument, there was still a certain level of truth in that.

Productivity Gain is Not Just A Formula

Chasing paper is just a symptom of a flaw in our education system. The system worked back when we needed to attract MNCs to our shores, which needed workers who are good at following SOPs for their production lines. Acing exams was a very good indicator of this capability.

The products of that old education system have now become senior managers, many of whom saw that since productivity is:

Productivity = Output / Man Hours

Then in order to increase productivity, we need to either increase output or reduce man hours.

And since increasing output requires additional costs (investing in training or equipment) and reducing man hours is, by inference, cost-reducing, we end up having “manpower tax”:

Remove a person and ask the remaining workers in the office to share that person’s workload.

All things being equal, this looks good on paper, but is hardly beneficial.

Workers end up doing OT (and return that man hours back into the equation), abandon some of their “less value-adding” activities or reduce quality of their work in order to cope with the added tasks.

How then, should we improve productivity?

Invest in Technology

The problem of removing manpower can be mitigated if that manpower is replaced by a machine. In Japan, many F&B establishment has an automated cashier, somewhat like a vending machine, in which the customer receives a coupon after making a purchase through the machine, and uses that coupon to redeem his purchase.

This automated cashier frees up manpower, eliminates accounting headaches and improves hygiene as no cash is exchanged. Low cost in technology set up these days would definitely be outweighed by the long lasting benefits this would bring.

Invest in Training for Efficiency

The myth that Singaporeans are highly educated means they are efficient workers needs to be abandoned. To justify this, I only need 1 word: Excel.

When we mention Microsoft Excel, almost everyone would proxclaim that they are proficient in that, because they had used it some time in school or at work. However, when asked to compare data from 2 databases, we would realise that most of the ‘proficient’ ones are actually ‘novices’.

The sad fact is, workers are only familiar with MS Excel, but not proficient. Even worse, they are not aware that they are not proficient.

Looking at the same task of comparing databases, the one who knows ‘vlookup’ would complete the task in 5 minutes, while the ones who don’t, would take 3o min and more. The time savings by knowing how to be efficient is very significant as the level of complexity of the tasks go up.

An Excel course only costs about $645.00 before grants and funding (Dn’t believe, check out NTUC LearningHub website here), or $27.oo after subsidies, which is a fraction of a worker’s salary, hardly cause for fear for cost over-run.

Invest in Training for Skills Mismatch

Anybody who worked for the largest employer in Singapore would tell you that job rotation is the norm, because it allows workers to gain exposure within an organisation. That, however, means placing incompetent people at the job.

By incompetence, I am referring to skills mismatch, which is prevalent in Singapore, not just in a certain service. The interesting observation is that when pointed out of the mismatch in skills, the manager who made that decision would reply, “I want to test that guy.” or “I want him to prove himself.”

Provided the worker is a high-achieving individual, skills mismatch would only be overcome when the worker becomes disengaged and leaves the post. However, by equiping him with the required skills through training, the organisation gains an engaged, contributing member. Alternatively, simply by placing the person with the right skills allows him to perform immediately, and explore ways to improve work processes at a much quicker pace.

Re-allocate Resources

One of the reasons why middle managers resist technology or training in their teams because they fear having to play the “bad person” and retrench his own team members.

However, instead of removing a “redundant” member, when a worker’s tasks have been replaced by technology, he could actually be retrained and reallocated to further an organization’s objectives.

Build A Culture of Accountability

Singapore’s labour woes are complicated by the current trend of cutting back on foreign workers. Employing cheap, foreign labour depresses wages and keeps productivity down, but rejecting foreign workers does not mean all would be well, unless employers have a skilled local work force they could turn to.

Unfortunately, they don’t.

Relating back to the 2nd point, many of the locals are trained to be bankers and engineers, not sales assistant manning point-of-sales. This puts us in a similar situation to Taiwan, but the different courses of actions taken by our governments resulted in workforces with different aptitudes.

In Taiwan, because there were too many university graduates for too little jobs, and their government did little to solve that issue, so fresh graduates were forced to become entrepreneurial. What resulted is a resilient workforce which Singaporeans buy franchises from.

Our current labour rules signals ‘care’ from the Government, but borders on spoon-feeding, so much so it fed the self-entitled mindset of the workforce: “Eliminate competition from foreign workers, pay me more for a job I don’t like to work for.”

Educating a generation is not the job of an employer, but they could do what is within their means.

‘Boring’ jobs could be bundled with supervisory duties, and the incumbent made to be accountable for all tasks in that scope. Subscribing to popular theories, the supervisory duties add challenges, relate to some of the skills the worker possess (hence lowering skills mismatch) and stimulate the worker to perform.

Build A Culture of Pride in Work

Another outcome of our education system was that it produced good workers; workers who are good at following instructions. As a result, there is a culture of “do minimum requirements” instead of “do your best”.

In the absence of a micromanaging manager, the best alternative is to reward workers who took pride in their work, even if it means they made mistakes or did not contribute directly to KPIs.

Build A Development Roadmap

After making them accountable, and stressing on the importance of taking pride in their work, the employer should chart a development roadmap for the worker. After all, there is still an issue of skills mismatch to be addressed. When more of the worker’s skills are matched to the original requirement of the work, it is all the more legitimate to increase remuneration. And as one attains proficiency in his field of work, he would begin to find ways to do his work better, faster; as he moves up the value chain, he would need to acquire new skills to cope with the new challenges. For this, the employer has to support the worker with a clear roadmap.

Quoting from Sir Richard Branson about employee management, “Train them well so that they could leave, but treat them well so that they would not.”

His mantra is a taboo in local culture, where we are told not to teach someone everything, lest he takes over your position. This brings me to the next point.

Celebrate Success

Ingrained in our (national) culture is the instinct to beat competition. Unfortunately, instead of beating competition by becoming better, we are taught to win by preventing others from winning, because it is easier to withold information than innovation (think: secret recipes of your favourite eatery).

Things become complex when we are also brought up not to celebrate our successes, under the guise of humility. When asked about their marks for tests, students would tell their peers a lower score, so as to lower the guards of their competitors and allow them to ‘train hard’ for the finals.

However, what we need is a culture of celebrating success. When people are comfortable about being successful, they would be spurred to do better. Yes, this would encourage competition and feuds in the workplace, but it beats the negative competition of preventing others to success. Furthermore, what do we prefer? An idea that is fearful of replication by competitors or an idea that can only be realised by the innovator?

Build A Culture of Being Process-Orientated

Singapore has also groomed a generation of managers who are so religious about attaining KPIs that they forgot KPIs are just an indicator. The following article, though mainly focused on the unbelievable non-professionalism of the profession, uncovers an underlying issue.

“Just smile, don’t talk: Rookie security guard learns to be seen, not heard” by Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times

The response of the security manager of the construction site is all too familiar to many workers. These are the people who caused the fires of so many passionate fresh hires to stop burning.

How is it that the security manager adopted such an attitude?

If the management decided to focus on whether their staff is doing the right things, rather than to want to hear good news, perhaps the security manager would not be so harped up on writing only good stuff in the record book.

That is to say, how KPIs are met is more important than the fact that KPIs are met. Because productivity gains happen over a long time, solutions that are sustainable are more important than stop-gap measures that could only achieve a KPI for that particular quarter. Managers, or rather, managers of managers would have to start inspecting processes and the integrity of managers rather than results.

See Long Term

Many of the ideas mentioned above have a common factor: productivity gain happens over the long term.

By adjusting the period of reference, the short term increase in costs of training would be outweighed by the benefits in the long term. This is all the more important when the inculcating of values comes into the picture.

That being said, Singapore isn’t all that doom and gloom when it comes to productivity and efficiency.

Changi Airport prides itself in Fast and Seamless Travel; one of their objectives is for passengers to alight the aircraft and leave the airport in the shortest time possible, if not the fastest in the world.

Similarly, our ports have the reputation of being ruthlessly efficient for cargo turnaround, and our shipyards are reputable for delivering the oil rigs (one of the best in the world) on time.

All these examples show we could be highly productive across the value chain, from manufacturing to services. The best practices are just not trickling down. And since people is our only resources, it is all the more pertinent we aim to improve the quality of our workforce to effect an all-encompassing change in productivity.


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