workflow diagram
I‘ve written a lot already about Personal Productivity Improvement (I’ve also called it Work Effectiveness Improvement), a bottom-up, face-to-face, one-on-one approach to helping front-line workers make better use of the knowledge, technology and learning resources at their disposal. It’s received quite a bit of traction in business circles, especially among those struggling in Knowledge Management functions, since it might help solve the problem Peter Drucker identified as the greatest business challenge of the 21st century — improving the productivity of what he calls ‘knowledge workers’ (i.e. anyone whose job requires processing a lot of information and making appropriate decisions with it).

In doing some additional research, I’ve been looking at the root causes of ‘personal unproductivity’, and concluded there seem to be three:

  1. Poor worktools and resources (inadequate, hard to use, hard to find what you need, over-engineered, poorly filtered, poorly formatted, poorly indexed, poorly summarized, poorly explained, poorly organized, and not adequately updated or regularly cleaned out)
  2. Poor training: It’s not always possible to make the tools intuitive and simple, and put the content out just when and where it’s needed, so some training is needed, and it should ideally be personalized training in the context of how each individual worker employs the available tools and resources
  3. Poor work habits: Even with the best tools and the best training, some people are just disorganized, sloppy, forgetful, uncommunicative, procrastinating, or lazy

Being an optimist about people, I’ve always taken for granted that most of the productivity problems in the workplace are ‘process’ problems (stemming from doing inefficiently-designed work) or problems of unawareness or inadequate training, rather than ‘people’ problems (stemming from doing work inefficiently). Most of us do our best, and given enough time, I’ve always thought, people will figure out the most effective and efficient way to do something, regardless of the process obstacles (management edicts, unnecessary but mandatory practices, bureaucracy, dumb policies, bad ‘standard operating procedures’ etc.) in their way. Things always happen the way they do for a reason.

Well, usually. I think people are usually pretty good at finding ‘work-arounds’ for management-imposed foolishness. So when I designed the methodology for Personal Productivity Improvement, it was designed to do two things:

  1. Learn what problems each individual is having using the tools and resources available to them, in the context of how they use these tools and resources (a function of both their job description and their personal workstyle or ‘information behaviour’), and then immediately teach them specifically what they need to know to use these resources more effectively (to address unproductivity cause ‘b.’ above), and
  2. Observe and aggregate the systemic problems with the tools, resources and standard procedures, that hurt the productivity of a lot of people, and take them back to senior management to be fixed (to address unproductivity cause ‘a.’ above).

My design, therefore, failed to consider that a lot of workplace unproductivity may be the result of poor work habits, many of which the individual worker may not even be aware he’s trapped in.

Michael Seneadza a.k.a. Trader Mike pointed me to a book by David Allen called Getting Things Done, which attempts to help individual workers improve their poor work habits, and hence address unproductivity cause ‘c.’ above. I have not yet read the book (I’ve ordered it), but the author’s website contains enough to get me started. Allen has developed a whole toolkit of personal work-habit improvement aids, which go well beyond the ‘Time Management 101’ stuff we all learned early in our careers. One of the tools is the workflow management process illustrated above (he invites readers to make this chart their PC ‘wallpaper’).

On the one hand, I’m really intrigued by this. It could be the perfect addition to my Personal Productivity Improvement service, because Allen actually espouses teaching this one-on-one (his firm certifies Getting Things Done ‘coaches’ for that purpose). So while you’re helping the individual employee learn how to use his or her technology, information and learning resources more effectively, you could at the same time be teaching them how to improve their personal work habits to ‘get things done’. Two doses of productivity improvement in one shot.

But, on the other hand, I’m a little perturbed about the degree to which the various tools that map into each step of Allen’s workflow diagram seem to be fixed, ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions, the proverbial (and usually misnamed) ‘best practice’. I use a tickler file, for example, one of the tools referred to in the above chart, but it’s not at all like the one Allen suggests. For me, my way works just fine. Likewise, I don’t own a PDA and I don’t use Outlook — I find it more convenient and faster to note appointments in a manual diary, and I knowingly give up the electronic tie-in to my scheduling software, and the ability to sync my appointments with others and allow others to know when I’m not available. This way just works best for me, it’s part of my work style and fits my ‘information behaviour’. So rather than prescribe a set of universal tools to improve everyone’s work habits, or even just roll out a toolkit and let people pick and choose, I wonder if a better approach is to learn the individual’s personal information behaviour, their preferred style of managing information and their proclivity to use more complicated versus simpler tools, and use that behavioural profile to design a customized set of work-habit improvement tools and processes for each individual. More involved and costly, of course, but in my experience there is never one best answer.

OK, I’ve confessed I haven’t read the book, so if you have, tell me if I’m right or wrong in my concern about this. And while you’re at it, do you think it’s possible to figure out quickly, after a bit of experience, what work-habit improvement tools will (and won’t) work for each individual in a company? Are there other models and solution sets for improving work habits I should study? What tools and techniques work best for you, and why? And has anyone developed a schema (set) of different ‘information behaviour’ styles that might make this process a little more manageable? Or is it presumptuous to think we can improve ingrained work habits after only a few minutes of observation anyway? The stakes here, if we can find good answers to these questions, are huge.

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  1. Jon Stahl says:

    Dave, I think you’re misreading Getting Things Done a bit. GTD is a process, not a toolkit, and in fact can be implemented with scraps of paper and a few filing folders if you’re so inclined. Go into it with an open mind, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how useful it can be — even if you don’t implement it 100%.

  2. Jim McGee says:

    Dave,go read the book – David Allen is right smack in the middle of your approach – find what works when it comes to tools. His biggest insight, for me at any rate, is the importance of trusting your system and not your memory.

  3. I agree with Jon Stahl. David Allen’s anecdotes in GTD reveal that he maps his standard process to the tools the individual feels most comfortable with.

  4. Charlotte Moon says:

    I borrowed GTD from the library this week, read it, and have already implemented some simple techniques (e.g. @action and @waiting_for email folders in Outlook) which have brought benefits. I intend to try the full process as soon as I can – if it brings more benefits, great, and if not, I can go back to what I’m using just now.I think it’s one of those things which has to be tried instead of read about, and an initial period of trust is probably required until you can see how it all hangs together. If you’ve been used to doing things in a certain way, it can be difficult to perceive new and better ways.

  5. Rayne says:

    HAH! I ran across the above “Rosetta Stone” of Workflow at Allen’s site just yesterday, thought immediately of you. GMTA! ;-)

  6. Matt Vance says:

    The GTD system doesn’t require any particular tools. For an excellent overview of GTD before tackling the entire book, check out the 43 folders blog, specifically the post “Getting started with ‘Getting Things Done’:

  7. says:

    Everything they’ve said above is true. GTD boils down to developing habits that allow you to better process what is in front of you and to review it regularly so that you trust whatever system you use. You can have the most elaborate system ever and have it fail because you don’t review it weekly. I tend to be a right-brained organizer, yet find that it works well for me.

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