Want to Increase Productivity at Your Plant? Read This


In my last post on Respect for People, I talked about the myth of Sisyphus and respect for people. In today’s post I will talk about Dan Ariely’s study and what he says about ways to increase productivity.

What makes you tick? What would cause you to give your best? Dan Ariely, a professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, conducted a study in which he set out to understand how perceived meaning of a job impacted productivity. There were two study groups used for this study. Both groups consisted of 20 students from Harvard. The two groups were asked to build Bionicle Lego models and were offered pay for their work. The only condition was that the payment was made on a declining scale. The first model got $2.00. From then on each subsequent model was paid 11 cents less. This is a linear scale, and thus at the 19th model, the student would get paid 2 cents. From that point onwards, each model was paid 2 cents each. The intent of the study was to identify at what point is the student going to decline the payment and stop building.

The payment scale was the same for both groups. Group 1 was called “Meaningful”, and group 2 was called “Sisyphus”, after the myth of Sisyphus. The difference between the two groups was that for the second group, they were given only two Lego models. As they were working on one model, the other model that was already built was torn down in front of them by the experimenter. Thus, the study replicated the idea of the futile effort similar to Sisyphus. Sisyphus, a Greek mythological character was made to roll a rock up a hill. The rock would then roll down, and Sisyphus would have to then roll it up again. He was punished by having to repeat this for eternity. His story is the epitome of non-value added work. The students in Group 2 were made to feel like Sisyphus because the model they just built was being torn down in front of their eyes, and they had to build it up again.

Both groups had the same labor content, and the goal of the study was to find who was more productive. The productivity was measured by the amount of Lego Bionicle models they built. The results of the study showed that Group 1 (Meaningful) made 10.6 models on average, netting an average $14.40 earnings. Group 2 (Sisyphus) made only 7.2 models on average, netting an average $11.52 earnings. The experimenters argue that the subjects in the Sisyphus condition became disenchanted with their work and this impacted their productivity. In their words;

The background question, “Why am I doing this?”, is difficult to evade if an individual is in a situation where one’s work is repeatedly undone.

Respect for people & Continuous Improvement:

You feel good if you know what you are doing at work is meaningful. If the work is not meaningful, then you would soon feel burned out. Do you come later than usual to work? Do you leave earlier and earlier from work? Dan Ariely says that this could be an indication of you feeling that what you do at work is not adding any value. This is the spirit of Respect for People. Respect for People is creating an environment where your work is fully value added. Removing the elements of non-value added work is the spirit of Continuous Improvement. Thus, in my eyes, Continuous Improvement and Respect for People go hand in hand. This is the Toyota Way. I view Toyota Way as a synergy of Respect for People – creating an environment of value added work and Continuous Improvement – ensuring non-value added elements are eliminated.


Final words:

Dan Ariely’s study can be summarized in one sentence:

Create/increase the value of the job to increase productivity.

Aside from eliminating non-value added steps, train your employees on how the product is actually used in the field. I have seen organizations bring in end users to talk to the employees on the floor. Having a sense of purpose increases the value of the day to day monotonous work.

I will finish off with a story I read about perceived value.

His Holiness, the Pope is making a tour of the United States and of course has a very busy schedule that he’s trying his best to stick to. Unfortunately, things run a bit long at one stop and he has to make up time any way he can if he’s to be on time for the next gathering. So he dismisses the rest of the entourage and takes off in his Pope-mobile with just his driver.

They’re making good time on the back roads, but His Holiness is still worried they’re going to be late. He tells his driver to floor it, but the fella refuses to push it any further. After all, he had heard the police in those parts were tough on speeders and didn’t want to find out first-hand.

This angers His Holiness and he orders the driver to pull over. The Pope insists on doing the driving himself for he says no one will toss the Pope in jail. They take off in a cloud of dust, His Holiness at the wheel, his driver cowering in the back seat.

Not too much later, a State Trooper pulls them over. The young man strides up to the car all businesslike and mean. This lasts right up until he sees who’s driving. His face pasty-white, he heads back to his car to radio in for some advice.

“Uh, let me talk to the Chief … Hello, sir. Sorry to trouble you, but I have a bit of a problem. Just pulled over a speeder and it turns out he’s someone quite important. How should I handle this?”

“Depends on who you got, son. Let me guess, it’s the Mayor, right?”

“Uh, no sir, not the Mayor.”

“Bigger than that, eh? Not the Senator again!”

“Uh, no sir, wasn’t the Senator. Someone a lot more important.”

“Well, who you got, son? The President?”

“I don’t rightly know, sir. But whoever he is, he must be damned important because the Pope is his driver.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Ten Things I Learned from The Walking Dead.