In business administration, but also in our perception, productivity always has something to do with making use of the time available. We must and want to use our time productively – and that is right and good. We should only ask ourselves whether the economy of time use is really the right measure.

When I operate a machine that punches out any kind of parts, the question of quantity per minute or hour or day somehow seems to make sense. The more parts punched in the time input, the more productive the machine. Most importantly, if I know the productivity of the machine, I can allocate its operating and acquisition costs to the unit cost of labour. And I can determine after how many operating hours the acquisition costs of the machine will be amortised. This is one good reason why quantity per unit of time is a popular metric by which an organisation is measured.

But when an organisation finds that its time-to-market is too long, product quality is too low, employees are demotivated and innovation is lost, then looking at productivity can not only be counterproductive, it can even be a trigger for the dangerous state of the organisation. Why? Because in many organisations it is often not the machines that cause delays, because it is not the machines that invent new products and because it is not the machines that think about what needs to be punched out. It’s the human resources that do that. If you follow a workpiece from beginning to end, that is, from order to delivery, from idea to performance, then in the vast majority of cases you will notice two things. Firstly, most of the time the workpiece is not worked on at all. It spends the longest time lying around waiting for capacities to finally be freed up to work on it. And secondly: this waiting happens not only in front of the machine, but also in front of the designers, the engineers, the CAD people, the lawyers and so on. I.e. in the whole process of planning and design work, the work piece that is not yet finished is waiting for someone to think it further. Most of the work is therefore knowledge work – if it’s about innovation, then anyway.

And in knowledge work, the realisation is increasingly gaining ground that less is actually more. What are the capacities in knowledge work? These are the available brains. So if my most important capacities consist of brains, I should stick to a simple basic rule – brain husbandry appropriate to the species, so to speak: Brains cannot multi-task. The more tasks brains have to process simultaneously, the slower they become. The more cars I let on the motorway, the slower the traffic flows – to a total standstill. One car can just drive, ten thousand cars can only read the number plates of the cars in front of them. So it makes absolute sense to limit the number of workpieces to be processed at the same time. This way I ensure that they can be delivered in a reasonable time.

However, limiting the number of workpieces to be processed fundamentally contradicts the above-mentioned principle of productivity. If I limit work in order to make better use of the available resources, then in the classical KPI the unit costs will increase. This is not a bad thing – you just have to know it. For precisely this reason, it is essential to include controlling in the transition for all New Work or Agile initiatives. Controlling provides the data needed to measure the success of a measure and at the same time must accompany the change in the relevant reports.

In knowledge work, productivity, according to the classical reading, is not something we can do. So if we want to get better, we should know very well whether we want to do more of the old more quickly, or whether we want to try out something new. Design, idea and innovation are the drivers of a modern economic order. We have to decide: Do we want to produce or innovate, are we on the “designed by” side or the “manufactured in” side? If we want to be designers, we need to think products exponentially, work with technologies that are not yet a reality, and try things out to learn quickly. Productivity is the wrong measure – innovation is the right one!