HR’s New Opportunity Removing Barriers to Productivity

By Dr. Sullivan

May. 25, 2006

Every organization has barriers to productivity, but few organizations address them, despite an almost daily challenge to increase productivity. With intense international competition, everyone is facing the challenge of producing more, at a higher level of quality and at a lower cost. The human resources function has tried using compensation to motivate, offered new types of training and even tied hiring and internal transfers and promotions to competency profiles. But no matter what gets tried, little changes.

Enter a new approach, one that is gaining acceptance and one in which HR accepts responsibility for identifying and removing barriers to productivity. It’s a solution that produces real results almost immediately. And it makes HR look proactive, line managers look sincere and the organization compassionate.

State government leading the way? The seminal work and inspiration for this column came from what might seem an unexpected source: the North Carolina Office of State Personnel. It is doing something most citizens would applaud, but what many would consider impossible: building a performance culture within state government. Part of that “big hairy audacious goal,” as Built to Last put it, includes identifying and reducing barriers to employee productivity. Not only is the approach proving effective, it is doing so in an environment well known for conservatism and having a “that’ll never work here” attitude.

If you have read Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat, or any business magazine in the past six months, you should already be aware that globalization is forcing many organizations to find new ways to increase productivity just so that they can remain viable. Quite often internal brainstorming sessions focus on outsourcing manufacturing, re-engineering the supply chain or reorganizing product development. But these rarely consider what HR can do. No one seems to be asking, “What could have more impact than helping managers identify and then reduce barriers to employee productivity?” It’s an opportunity not only to cut costs, but also to reduce errors, increase customer satisfaction, cut time-to-market and, yes, increase profits.

This approach offers HR a unique opportunity to step up in the organization and take the lead in developing tools and capabilities to identify and strike down barriers that keep employees from doing their very best. From the employee standpoint, reducing productivity barriers has additional benefits: It helps cut frustration levels, builds morale and decreases the causes of turnover.

Identifying barriers to productivity: The Office of State Personnel in North Carolina, working with the North Carolina Office of Commissioner of Banks, proposed an innovative and simple way to identify things that keep employees from being as productive as they could be. They came right out and asked them.

The process started when the HR Design Team, a consulting group within the Office of State Personnel, devised an online survey that asked employees a series of questions that would help them list the barriers to their productivity, and any potential people-related problems that might prevent them and the organization from achieving their mission and business goals. Employees were promised anonymity, but the form did ask them to identify themselves so that the design team could identify whether or not a barrier was present across the whole organization, or only in specific units.

Those of you opting to try this approach might devise a form that does the following:

  • Makes a statement to the effect of “We need your help! Will you help us identify barriers to your productivity and job ‘frustrators’ that inhibit you, so that we can improve your work environment?”
  • Provides examples of what you mean by “barriers to productivity” on the form because employees are not used to being asked such questions and many will not grasp the concept right away.
  • Asks about barriers to increasing output volume that they face on a daily basis.
  • Asks about barriers to increasing quality.
  • Asks about barriers to innovation and continuous improvement.
  • Asks about how prevalent the barrier is and how the employee might recommend the organization remove it.

In North Carolina, the design team had the Commissioner of Banks write what can only be described as an impassioned letter, asking employees to be brutally honest. In addition, he offered to make himself and his leadership team available to help employees walk through their thinking. Within a week, more than 170 barriers and potential problems had been submitted. The team asked employees to identify the issue, describe it, rank it in terms of its impact and frequency of occurrence, and then to provide their view of the characteristics of an optimal solution. Barriers included such things as lack of communication, weak support for field staff and job profiles that saddled employees with activities not related to their core strengths.

This process did something unique, and something few HR programs do. It came at the problem from the employees’ perspective. When it comes to an organization’s ability to hire, develop, motivate and retain staff, managing to employee perception is critical. An organization, after all, makes decisions based on employees’ perceptions, not that of managers. In a very short period of time, this process centered on at least 170 things that employees identified as barrier to their increasing productivity. If the organization were to remove just a few of those stumbling blocks, it stands to reason that employees would have fewer excuses for not exceeding expectations. That alone makes this process worth it. But in North Carolina, this process also helped employees realize that they can take an active role in making the Office of the Commissioner of Banks a great place to work.

The real work–sitting down with line managers and devising approaches to remove the barriers–still lies in front of the design team. But the hardest part is over. Although managers will implement the solutions, HR will play a vital role in designing, developing and continually improving the response of management to productivity barriers.

A similar approach in the hotel industry: MGM Grand, the largest hotel/casino in the world, implemented a similar approach. Employees were invited to participate in focus groups to discuss the results of a previous survey. That instrument covered barriers related to the work environment, management practices, rewards and recognition, and career opportunities. During the focus groups, employees were asked probative questions to discover perceptions about organizational issues that limit MGM Grand’s efforts to become the best employer in Las Vegas. Following the focus groups, survey results and focus group comments were sorted into categories and organizational departments. Within months, a majority of the issues identified had been acted on and resolved or improved. The remaining issues require longer-term planning and capital allocations and are currently being addressed. Incidentally, the process was so successful that the CEO agreed that the entire process will be repeated each year.

Action steps you should take: The first action step is to get off the sidelines and announce that HR is accepting responsibility for identifying and resolving barriers to employee productivity. Then develop a process to identify barriers that fits the organization’s culture and provides employees with the confidence to come forward with what they see. Focus the process initially on things that can have immediate impact. That way, everyone from the CEO on down will see the immediate and measurable results and attribute the success to HR. There you have it: a chance to become a corporate hero.

Workforce Management, May 22, 2006, p. 42Subscribe Now!

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with