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Had a productive week? Apparently not, by global standards

Canada has been a laggard on the world stage when it comes to labour productivity, as measured by output per hour worked. Number twelve in the industrialised countries tracked, with a steady decline in labour productivity of nearly a full percentage point just in the last year.

When I read reports warning of our unproductive (or, maybe more accurately, underproductive, and therefore, uncompetitive) workforce, my mind goes immediately to stereotypes. Images of municipal work crews with more spectators than actual workers, and of the coworkers I’ve known over the years with favourite hiding places where they knew they could nap undisturbed. We’ve all seen similar examples of gross inefficiency and gritted our teeth.

The economists and the business writers who study and report on these things are quick to defend the workforce. They claim that the biggest gap is not human, and instead attribute our declining productivity to our lagging investment in R&D and new technology. Better systems and better machines, it seems, are our salvation and our way forward as a nation.

I don’t buy it. To me this minsdet excuses mediocrity and ignores the elephant in the room.

Not that I have a particular axe to grind about the Canadian workforce. I don’t. In fact, I believe that, person for person, we have the heart and the talent to out-produce any other nation on earth. Unfortunately, we’re doing a really crappy job of capturing the heart and harnessing the talent.

That, I believe, is our path forward as a nation.

The risk in taking the economists’ analysis at face value is that we look expectantly at the engineers to fix productivity, when we really ought to be looking in the mirror.

Let’s face it. We’ve all been through several decades of Deming and Jaques, of Kaizen and TQM and Sigma and Lean. We’ve process-improved ourselves over and over again, in the name of wringing waste and inefficiency out of our business.

Are we done? Of course not. The whole point of continuous improvement is that it’s continuous. There is no finish line. We’re never ‘done’. And yes, continued investment in R&D and better technologies will incrementally boost the output for each unit of labour.

But in the scheme of things, coaxing an extra point or two in productivity out of the economy through process improvements pales in comparison to what we’re leaving on the table, in plain view. Where? In that place Dow Chemicals has cleverly started to refer to in its advertising campaigns as Hu100: the Human element.

It baffles me how corporate leadership can continue to invest in better equipment (and how their Boards allow them to) while refusing to invest meaningfully in building engaged, high performance cultures. Every consulting firm that measures engagement is ringing the alarm bell, in many cases reporting the lowest levels of engagement ever measured.

The link between engagement and business performance is thoroughly documented. There is a direct, irrefutable, cause-and-effect relationship between the two – engaged teams are more productive, turn out better quality work, and stay longer than those who are less engaged.

Depending whose numbers you believe, between 20% and 30% of the workforce is highly engaged. There’s nothing to be gained by debating the merits of one study over the other; either way, it’s clear that 70-80% of the workforce is in some stage of disengagement with their work. One estimate is that the direct impact of that to the P&L is that 23% of payroll dollars are wasted, paid out but bringing no return.

It’s time for us to open our eyes. Canada’s labour competitiveness is steadily declining against other countries. Is it more important for us to invest our money in better, faster machines and equipment, or in finally addressing the epidemic of disengagement in some meaningful way?

One thing I know for certain is that an engaged workforce will always find ways to compensate for inefficient systems and process. No system or process can compensate for a disengaged workforce.

It’s time for us to be relentless in capturing hearts and harnessing talents; that’s the continuous improvement that will rebuild this nation.

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