Four techniques to improve labor productivity

Font Size
Rey Elbo-125

In The Workplace

I saw a video you posted in your Facebook page about three Japanese professional footballers playing with 100 school kids in a friendly, entertaining soccer match. The game was won by the professional players. It appears in your post that you’re putting it forward as a good example on how we should focus on improving labor productivity. My question is this – how can we make it happen in our real work-life? — Just Asking.

How many people do you need to change a light bulb in Malacañang? The answer depends on your political views. If you’re pro-administration, you’ll proudly say — four persons: One to get a fresh bulb from the stock room. Another one to bring a stepladder into the Palace. The third to hold the ladder steady. And the fourth to actually replace the bulb.

If you’re with the opposition, the answer is: “None. People in Malacañang prefer to work in the dark.”

There are many variations of this light bulb joke on the Internet. This one is a local version that I use whenever I talk about labor productivity. Really, improving labor productivity is one of the difficult jobs that every people manager must face to constantly improve the overall efficiency of the workforce.

The trouble is that many managers, just like you, are at a loss on how to improve labor productivity. At times, you may even wonder why you’re stuck with every incompetent worker in the company. All things considered, there’s little question that improving productivity isn’t easy to do.

This includes the challenges of managing employee absenteeism and tardiness, scheduling overtime work, making do with available company resources, horse playing employees, and for some organizations, dealing with union-related problems. All of these issues must be dealt with before you can even attempt to make your department as productive as possible.

So, how are you going to do it? I will not give you the formula on how to compute labor productivity, but instead, I will talk about this oft-repeated mantra — “doing more with less.” To explain that in practical terms, let me give you the case of a hypothetical mobile phone manufacturer. Knowing that the demand for its popular new phone model is fast rising, its CEO demands that the management team improve its labor productivity by 20%.

The management team is weighing the pros and cons between the Western and Japanese styles of labor productivity improvement. How are you going to do it given that the phone manufacturer produces, let’s say, 100 units a month with 10 workers.

The Western approach is practical, simple, fast and easy to do. Terminate the employment of two workers and require the remaining eight workers to produce 100 units. On the other hand, the Japanese approach is a bit different. They will produce with as many as 120 units with the same number of workers — 10.

The Japanese approach can be a bit difficult to do but not if you know about Kaizen (continuous improvement). It is much better because it offers long-term benefits, not only for the organization, but for the employees, their families, and society in general.

To implement the Japanese approach of “doing more with less,” here are some basic and practical points that could help you improve labor productivity:

One, hire only people with the right attitude, not skills. All things being equal, hire only those who are willing to learn and be trained so they can fit into your organization. Be strict with the hiring and screening process. Announce the important qualities of people that you prefer to hire. And be serious about it.

Since it’s difficult to locate people with the right attitude, always be on the lookout for impressive individuals who are not actively seeking work. When they are not looking, observe them from afar and find out. If you’re convinced, invite them to join your organization.

Two, train people to have basic skills in quality and productivity. Don’t be afraid to invest in training and lose them over time. As long as you treat the workers well, they will stick to you for life. Pay them in accordance with their skills and their contribution to cost savings, among others. Create an army of problem-solvers out of ordinary workers.

Above all, make multi-skilling a norm. People with the most number of skills should be paid more. Instead of having one clerk and one secretary performing administrative support to the office, hire only one person who can perform the two jobs, and pay that person more than the industry average.

Three, outsource the non-core functions of your business. Allow a subcontractor with the right people, machinery, tools and expertise, among other things, to do it for you at the right price. Chances are, they can do it better and at a much lower cost. Monitor the performance of your subcontractors so they follow strictly your standards for quality, cost and delivery of products or services to customers.

Last, allow all workers to be active in your productivity quest. It’s easy to secure the cooperation of people when the idea comes from them. This is the principle of co-ownership. Management must be considerate when employees have a different view about certain policies and procedures. Be an active listener and give all suggestions a fair hearing. Don’t ignore ideas just because they are flimsy or trivial.

ELBONOMICS: If you start something today, you’ll get there in no time.


Send anonymous workplace questions to or via