Productivity – The Coming Golden Age of Continuous Improvement

February 10th, 2013

A Drive for Productivity

Last week I wrote a post entitled Value Creation for Private Investors that went largely ignored as it was one of my lowest viewed posts of the new year for a Monday when most of you tune in.  The idea about which I wrote was a revelation to me but it was still nascent at the time and thus very undeveloped and weakly presented. But it gnawed at me and so it kept turning in my head.  And now it pops out again this week hopefully a bit more developed.  The idea is the transition we are making from creating the illusion of wealth with financial engineering to needing to truly drive wealth with productivity gains which will make for a golden age in Operations and Operational Excellence.

As a nation, we will flourish based upon our ability to drive productivity.  You see wealth, as measured by GDP, during the majority of our lifetimes has been driven by population growth.  But as our population growth slows, wealth will only be created by increased productivity.  This transition has been hidden from us for some time by the illusion of wealth creation brought about by high capital liquidity and inappropriately priced risk which eventually lead to the bursting of a financial bubble.  But with risk being more appropriately priced, the illusion is gone and we are now faced with long term slow growth and the only way to stoke it is with increased productivity.

To drive the growth in productivity, I wish to cite a recent blog post by GE’s Jeffrey Immelt a portion of which read as follows;

There are four new drivers of productivity, and success in each depends on the technology and talent we develop. The first is how the sheer volume and increased access to shale gas in regions around the globe is changing the energy debate and the balance of energy power. It would require real infrastructure and pipeline integration between Canada, Mexico and the U.S., but North America could achieve energy independence within 10 years. The second driver for dramatically increased productivity is applying the lessons of social media to the industrial world and building what we call the Industrial Internet. By owning and connecting the analytical layers around industrial products – and using real time data to extract real timeknowledge – we can improve asset performance and drive efficiency. The third driver is speed and simplification because the only way to serve our customers better and compete in a complex world is by working faster and smarter. The last productivity driver, and related to the other three, is the evolution of advanced manufacturing. Manufacturing excellence, forgotten for too long, is once again a competitive advantage.

Drive Value with OpEx

Now when you look at this argument about from where we will get the productivity growth, a problem jumps out.  Namely, we have to generate non-population related productivity gains with a population that isn’t geared to Immelt’s productivity drivers.  Our younger citizens certainly are better aligned and skilled but as population growth slows, they will be the minority.

So guess what — the knowledge of how to improve services, products and processes is really valuable.  Now I’m not talking about how to write a project charter or write up a SIPOC.  I’m talking about revolutionizing energy with process innovation in the extraction of natural gas, the development of the cloud so we can jettison underutilized servers from expensive IT budgets and citizen publishing of information so knowledge flows freely and into every nook and cranny of the population instantaneously.  Imagine – those have all happened in the last five years.  Those are the types of improvements that transform an economy.  But there is plenty of room between a project to save an AP process two days and reinventing the extraction of fossil fuels.  And every time a new industry is targeted, all the operating processes below the top level change will also be looking to improve.

Can you imagine where these big seismic changes will happen next?  How about redesigning education so everyone has access to knowledge inexpensively?  Or health care where we can all see an insanely low level of simple IT tools that if applied would eliminate gobs of waste.  Or all levels of government where we have constantly rising costs with little measureable gains in services.  These trends will continue.  They must continue or we, as a nation, will slowly lose our global relative wealth.  And I just don’t think Americans are ready for that.  But the changes will be disruptive.

In the race to drive wealth through productivity gains, we will see the greatest impact in processes and services simply because they are the largest percentages of the economy.  I’ve already named drilling services, the cloud, newspapers & magazine publishing, health care and education as service companies which either have gone through or are poised to go through significant redesign. What of the process side?

Systematically Driving Value with OpEx

Well I think we are going to see work get reinvented.  My former colleague at Qualtec, Mitch Lawrie, is working on software to focus management on results versus activities and my recent blog on the subject drew significant attention from many of you.  We have worked with several clients in financial services, telecom and transportation which are redesigning long accepted processes to drive greater than 50% reductions in key process cycle times by making them leaner, reducing complexity and capturing information better as well as analyzing it for knowledge.

To return to my original post, my “aha” moment was that I was at a private equity conference where investors of all sizes where lamenting they could no longer make easy money.  That easy money was driven by a combination of capital liquidity, high tolerance for risk and poor quantification of that risk.  It was a recipe for a bubble.  If you bought an asset, held it and sold it before the bubble burst, you made money.  If it was levered, you made a lot of it. The funny thing is that private corporate investors weren’t the only players at the casino. We were all there with real estate and stock portfolios.

But that is gone now.  And as we look into a new environment, we realize we are facing the longer term challenge of slowing population growth and an aging population that isn’t skilled at what is needed to drive the sort of productivity gains needed to maintain historic wealth creation.  To create wealth as a country, we now have to earn it the hard way.  And since there are only so many hours available in the work force, it means we have to work smarter.

And a clearer definition of that “aha” moment brings me to the message in this post.  We figure out ways to work smarter – whether it is a fifth level sub-process or an entire industry.  The result is that we are entering a golden age for people focused and skilled at how to work smarter.   We have the opportunity to make great contributions to our economy.  I urge you all to THINK BIG.  If you’d like to discuss, feel free to contact me.

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