Unlocking productivity: How to improve business performance

  • Productivity loss is a complex problem to address, made harder by virtual ways of working.

  • Traditionally, businesses address performance issues by streamlining processes in order to ‘speed things up’ and don’t look too deeply into people performance.

  • A combination of robust reporting, leader upskilling and a focus on people opens up ongoing productivity opportunities.

Is your business performing to the best of its ability, or do invisible gremlins have employee engagement drooping, customer service errors breeding and productivity trying, but never really reaching, the heights you think your company is capable of?

Organisations, particularly large ones, often come up against productivity problems. During the pandemic, even those companies normally in great shape found that work-from-home requirements meant old performance problems resurfaced and new ones popped up.

Unfortunately, such challenges are complex in nature and without knowing how to identify precisely what’s wrong, leaders often try to get things back on track by ‘streamlining’ processes. In doing so they ignore a crucial point – people play a huge part in the productivity puzzle.

A process problem?

Changing demands can cause productivity issues. Call centres that need to scale up staff to meet increased customer demand or work coming back onshore, hospitals that need to improve patient outcomes but are stretched thin on the ground, utilities field teams that need to reduce costs in line as regulatory expectations change. All these examples are places where productivity suffers – and where productivity is vital. Another example we’re nearly all now familiar with? Transitioning to a work-from-home or hybrid model of work. 

When productivity goes down, businesses react. Most will try to simplify processes, or implement new technology, assuming that with the right path, performance will go in the right direction. However in our experience the causes of performance challenges are not properly understood and using a process approach to fix them can be slow and unyielding.  

Some of the challenges we see in organisations suffering from poor productivity are: 

  • a lack of accountability and transparency

  • leadership that fails to prioritise the future by coaching, problem-solving and planning

  • no employee connection to the organisational big picture 

  • untrained or inconsistently trained leaders

  • disconnected or psychologically unsafe staff working remotely

  • the absence of accurate, complete, timely and easy-to-use comprehensive data

  • an inability to adapt to strategic pressures 

  • unappreciated variations in practices and standards that go overlooked.

Often, these issues, or combinations of them, will result in an organisation that just feels like it isn’t quite gelling, not running like the well-oiled machine it could be. What’s interesting about the above list? None of these are caused solely by bad processes – all of them are people related.

The answer is in your people

The reality is that most of these issues can be fixed by focusing on your people. For example, one client we worked with was struggling to get their claims processing time down – it was topping five hours. Without touching a single process, and solely by adjusting the ways of working for the staff involved? They got it down to 90 minutes. 

That’s the power of a people-productivity approach. It’s a critical lever that is often overlooked, can completely turn your challenges around, and, unlike many other methods of addressing poor performance, delivers rapid results. 

It works by addressing two areas.

  1. Understanding - Leaders need to be able to identify and understand the problems in their organisation. This takes the form of a single source of truth performance report, that is smart, automated and delivered daily. Using the right technology, leaders will have a clear picture of organisational performance, where things are going wrong, the drivers for success, and even identify areas of potential improvement. There are lots of tools that can help here, such as PowerBI, Tableau or Google Data Studio for visualisation and programs like Microsoft Teams, Google Workspace or Cisco Webex Teams or PwC Australia’s own Perform Plus and Perform Visual Performance Board to give everyone access to present and interpret the data – allowing decisions to be made quickly and confidently.

  2. Capability - Second, organisations need to have leaders who have the will – and the skill – to address the problem areas. In most instances, this means upskilling leaders with the capabilities to address challenges in a meaningful way – solving the little problems your employees face to affect big change. 

This could take the form of intense leadership coaching, such as PwC uses in its Perform methodology, simulations, virtual apprenticeships / gamification, visual management boards or other forms of tools and training, but the end goal is to embed leadership skills through behavioural change. Leaders need to understand areas that may not have been exposed to before, such as: new ways of working (eg. Agile, Lean, behavioural economics), how to have effective standup meetings, how to have performance conversations, best practice for performance reviews, and correctly defining problems/identifying root causes through problem solving techniques.

Finally, there needs to be opportunity, and willingness by employees, for leaders to address productivity problems with their new skills, which must be created by engendering a culture of trust/psychological safety. 

Critically, addressing only one of the two areas won’t work. Your business will be nothing without its people, and people can’t be fixed via process (or simply reporting on them). This might sound like a pipedream for solving your productivity challenges, but we’ve found in our work that approaching them via a ‘people and performance’ lens frees up an average of 10-25 percent capacity (and oftentimes more) within just 3 months.

Real results

In a people-productive business, leaders are easily able to identify where things are falling down and are confident and open about the challenges they face, knowing the proactive steps to take and where to provide support. Small issues, once thought of as annoyances to live with are continually fixed – and people are confident to raise them when they occur. The environment in these businesses encourages and supports everyone to do their best work, always learning and developing, always able to perform.

It’s no secret that supported employees perform better, making it easier to maintain business continuity in a crisis – such as a global pandemic – and are more resilient as businesses flex in response to an increasingly hybrid and digital world. By building leadership capability and using the right digital tools, techniques and ways of working, not only will you provide better employee (and in turn, customer) experiences, you will accelerate and boost your organisational productivity. 

In turbulent times like the ones we find ourselves in, that's an outcome no business can afford to ignore.

If you’d like help on your productivity journey, contact us for a diagnostic of your business, view further information on PwC Australia’s Perform offering or read about our recent work with Telstra.