How Do You Define and Measure Productivity?

I came across a column in Forbes last week about how to create a more productive workplace, and it occurred to me that I don’t really know what is meant by productivity. “In simplest terms, being productive is defined as the rate of output per input unit,” according to Forbescontributor Dr. Pragya Agarwal, who adds the stipulation, “however, in a workplace, this cannot be so accurately measured particularly when it comes to human performance. Depending on the kind of organization, there are several other factors that impact this, such as cost, efficiency, and value.”

If we all worked on the assembly lines from a century ago, it would be easier to measure productivity, but even in sales, where dollars brought into an organization seems like an easy benchmark, it’s hard to say who’s productive and who isn’t.

Should you get credit for “showing your work,” like many of us used to do in some math classes growing up? For example, let’s say you don’t finish your assignment, but you tried really hard, and have e-mails and other documents to prove you made a good-faith effort. Does that mean you were productive?

I would argue that as bad as I would feel for that person, you can’t claim to be productive if you didn’t complete your assignment in good condition and on time. By good condition, I mean that it satisfied the needs of the customer, without causing additional problems. Similarly, if it wasn’t done on time, are you still worthy of being called productive? Not necessarily, especially if the assignment or product you were working on loses value if it is not done by a particular time. That would be true in my industry—editing and reporting—when you miss a deadline, and fail to get an article with recent news into an upcoming issue. It’s also true in other fields much different from mine, such as product development, in which being late bringing a product to market can make the difference between beating competitors and coming in second or third. 

Or how about if you work in customer service, and you work hard to get the answer to a customer question, but it takes you so long that by the time you get back in touch with the customer, the information you found is no longer useful?

In addition, how do you measure productivity when you’re measuring the performance of an executive, who has nodeliverables? Such executives may attend meetings all day, offer their opinion, and send many e-mails with critiques of others’ work, but don’t turn any assignments in that they, personally, have completed. One measurement might be whether the people such executives manage are successful. But typically, only the unsuccessful employee, and not his or her manager, is penalized. Managers step in to receive credit when the department does well, but when one, or more, of their employees fail, the employees often are on their own. 

Productivity also can be sexist. I’ve noticed a tendency to award more men than women employees with deliberative, intellectual positions in an organization. These positions are often the ones akin to “employee-at-large” positions, in which the executive has his finger in many different pies, offers opinions and critiques, yet contributes little-to-nothing to the completion of work while women at the same level in the department work furiously to produce deliverables. I wonder if this is one of the hard-to-kill bastions of chauvinism in the workplace. What do you think?

Measuring productivity is tricky. You think there should be objective measures, but then there are all the times heavy work is put in with poor, or no, results delivered. Does the employee still get credit for doing the work?

How does your company define and measure productivity?