Know Where to Draw the Line for Enhanced Personal Productivity: Innovation versus Standardization

By | May 24, 2007
Road Line Mark

One of the most powerful tools we can use to enhance personal productivity is to standardize tasks and processes. This is nothing new, yet it has become part of the much touted Toyota Production System as a way to reduce automobile manufacturing costs. A classic example from hundreds of years ago is the way that railways came up with a standard spacing or distance between the two parallel rails that make up a railway. Before they did, every railcar had to be unloaded and reloaded onto a railcar of a different gauge for each railway it traveled.

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However, too much standardization is also a bad thing. Henry Ford found this out when he refused to introduce new styles and colors when people started losing interest in his Model T cars that were produced by the millions in his day. He only made them in black at the time. Don’t try to come to a date with a standard agenda and present well-organized and detailed lists. How special do you make them feel when you book them in to a time slot? Or if you take them to the same restaurant all the time? Or if you picked up your date in one of Ford’s black Model Ts at the time?

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So, where do we draw the line? The answer for how much you should standardize is actually quite plain and simple: standardize as much as is practical so long as you and the other involved parties (customer, friends, etc.) derive greater value from the standardization than from a competing innovation. For a customer situation, if you have a standard, boring product, they might turn elsewhere for something more exciting. The same is true for a date. There are several areas or ways to standardize. A list of things that should probably be standardized for improved productivity are:

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  1. daily and weekly planning process,
  2. email and correspondence collection and response systems,
  3. sleep, exercise and eating times (your body loves these things),
  4. goal setting and reviews,
  5. business tools including software, notebooks, PDAs, etc. so that there isn’t tremendous waste in fiddling with these things to get them to work,
  6. daily chores list while finding ways to cover them more efficiently,
  7. rest and recreation times,
  8. preparation for any type of competition.

People who become overly preoccupied with the standardization aspects can become a real problem. Taking a family to a GTD productivity seminar on a vacation trip is probably not a great idea. Now, let’s take a look at what should be innovated for improved productivity. The following list of things should be handled with an innovative mindset:

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  1. reading (& audio and video) materials since limiting sources can cause stagnation,
  2. relationships – keep trying new things to keep them interesting and creative
  3. exercise routines themselves since doing the same exercises forever does less then changing the routine does,
  4. personal and professional networks because meeting new people in different areas can greatly broaden experiences and perspectives,
  5. fashion (overly standardizing this one can get you into trouble),
  6. vacations should be kept varied and interesting,
  7. recognition, appreciation and expressions of gratitude,
  8. places you take your dates or spouse to and the things you do.

The ways to determine the limits of how far you should go in standardizing are not always easy to know. We should be careful not to assume. Unchecked standardization might result in you seeing every office coffee mug with someone’s name on it and some there wearing the same suit every Wednesday. This would suggest your office experience is becoming a banal one. The person wearing the suit likely has no idea this is a problem and correctly assumes it to be a practical thing to do. Another example is the guy who brings home the roses every time he screws up doesn’t scream sincerity. There are some simple ways to find out where appropriate limits are such as:

  • asking someone familiar with a routine how it comes across. If handled right, people probably are not aware of it to begin with. For example, someone who always attends appointments on time by allowing an extra five minutes travel time will likely find no objection.
  • testing a new routine before fully implementing it.
  • develop a clear and preferably measurable indicator of success so that if something is working, it can be continued or discontinued.
  • decide if it adds value. If a standardized routine becomes a nightmare, it should be re-evaluated.

Whether you are manufacturing cars or picking up a date in one, know where the limits should be on standardizing versus innovating. Standardize wherever practical, but don’t go overboard or things won’t go well. Use this strategy to maximize productivity without losing spontaneity. Henry probably picked up his wife Clara in a black model T from time to time, but she married him before he invented it so it might not have mattered as much. However, showing up in a Model T to pick up a date today might be a great opener. Just know where to draw the line.

Peter Paul Roosen and Tatsuya Nakagawa are co-founders of Atomica Creative Group , a specialized strategic product marketing firm. Through leading edge insight and research, sound strategic planning and effective project management, Atomica helps companies achieve greater success in bringing new products to market and in improving their existing businesses. They have co-authored Overcoming Inventoritis now available.

At the start of the year, if you had asked anyone if they could do their work from home, many would have said no. They would have cited the need for team meetings, a place to be able to sit down and get on with their work, the camaraderie of the office, and being able to meet customers and clients face to face.

Almost ten months later, most of us have learned that we can do our work from home and in many ways, we have discovered working from home is a lot better than doing our work in a busy, bustling office environment where we are inundated with distractions and noise.

One of the things the 2020 pandemic has reminded us is we humans are incredibly adaptable. It is one of the strengths of our kind. Yet we have been unknowingly practicing this for years. When we move house we go through enormous upheaval.

When we change jobs, we not only change our work environment but we also change the surrounding people. Humans are adaptable and this adaptability gives us strength.

So, what are the pros and cons of working from home? Below I will share some things I have discovered since I made the change to being predominantly a person who works from home.

Pro #1: A More Relaxed Start to the Day

This one I love. When I had to be at a place of work in the past, I would always set my alarm to give me just enough time to make coffee, take a shower, and change. Mornings always felt like a rush.

Now, I can wake up a little later, make coffee and instead of rushing to get out of the door at a specific time, I can spend ten minutes writing in my journal, reviewing my plan for the day, and start the day in a more relaxed frame of mind.

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When you start the day in a relaxed state, you begin more positively. You find you have more clarity and more focus and you are not wasting energy worrying about whether you will be late.

Pro #2: More Quiet, Focused Time = Increased Productivity

One of the biggest difficulties of working in an office is the noise and distractions. If a colleague or boss can see you sat at your desk, you are more approachable. It is easier for them to ask you questions or engage you in meaningless conversations.

Working from home allows you to shut the door and get on with an hour or two of quiet focused work. If you close down your Slack and Email, you avoid the risk of being disturbed and it is amazing how much work you can get done.

An experiment conducted in 2012 found that working from home increased a person’s productivity by 13%, and more recent studies also find significant increases in productivity.[1]

When our productivity increases, the amount of time we need to perform our work decreases, and this means we can spend more time on activities that can bring us closer to our family and friends as well as improve our mental health.

Pro #3: More Control Over Your Day

Without bosses and colleagues watching over us all day, we have a lot more control over what we do. While some work will inevitably be more urgent than others, we still get a lot more choice about what we work on.

We also get more control over where we work. I remember when working in an office, we were given a fixed workstation. Some of these workstations were pleasant with a lot of natural sunlight, but other areas were less pleasant. It was often the luck of the draw whether we find ourselves in a good place to work or not.

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By working from home we can choose what work to work on and whether we want to face a window or not. We can get up and move to another place, and we can move from room to room. And if you have a garden, on nice days you could spend a few hours working outside.

Pro #4: You Get to Choose Your Office Environment

While many companies will provide you with a laptop or other equipment to do your work, others will give you an allowance to purchase your equipment. But with furniture such as your chair and desk, you have a lot of freedom.

I have seen a lot of amazing home working spaces with wonderful sets up—better chairs, laptop stands that make working from a laptop much more ergonomic and therefore, better for your neck.

You can also choose your wall art and the little nick-nacks on your desk or table. With all this freedom, you can create a very personal and excellent working environment that is a pleasure to work in. When you are happy doing your work, you will inevitably do better work.

Con #1: We Move a Lot Less

When we commute to a place of work, there is movement involved. Many people commute using public transport, which means walking to the bus stop or train station. Then, there is the movement at lunchtime when we go out to buy our lunch. Working in a place of work requires us to move more.

Unfortunately, working from home naturally causes us to move less and this means we are not burning as many calories as we need to.

Moving is essential to our health and if you are working from home you need to become much more aware of your movement. To ensure you are moving enough, make sure you take your lunch breaks. Get up from your desk and move. Go outside, if you can, and take a walk. And, of course, refrain from regular trips to the refrigerator.

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Con #2: Less Human Interaction

One of the nicest things about bringing a group of people together to work is the camaraderie and relationships that are built over time. Working from home takes us away from that human interaction and for many, this can cause a feeling of loss.

Humans are a social species—we need to be with other people. Without that connection, we start to feel lonely and that can lead to mental health issues.

Zoom and Microsoft Teams meeting cannot replace that interaction. Often, the interactions we get at our workplaces are spontaneous. But with video calls, there is nothing spontaneous—most of these calls are prearranged and that’s not spontaneous.

This lack of spontaneous interaction can also reduce a team’s ability to develop creative solutions—there’s just something about a group of incredibly creative people coming together in a room to thrash out ideas together that lends itself to creativity.

While video calls can be useful, they don’t match the connection between a group of people working on a solution together.

Con #3: The Cost of Buying Home Office Equipment

Not all companies are going to provide you with a nice allowance to buy expensive home office equipment. 100% remote companies such as Doist (the creators of Todoist and Twist) provide a $2,000 allowance to all their staff every two years to buy office equipment. Others are not so generous.

This can prove to be expensive for many people to create their ideal work-from-home workspace. Many people must make do with what they already have, and that could mean unsuitable chairs that damage backs and necks.

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For a future that will likely involve more flexible working arrangements, companies will need to support their staff in ways that will add additional costs to an already reduced bottom line.

Con #4: Unique Distractions

Not all people have the benefit of being able to afford childcare for young children, and this means they need to balance working and taking care of their kids.

For many parents, being able to go to a workplace gives them time away from the noise and demands of a young family, so they could get on with their work. Working from home removes this and can make doing video calls almost impossible.

To overcome this, where possible, you need to set some boundaries. I know this is not always possible, but it is something you need to try. You should do whatever you can to make sure you have some boundaries between your work life and home life.

Final Thoughts

Working from home can be hugely beneficial for many people, but it can also bring serious challenges to others.

We are moving towards a new way of working. Therefore, companies need to look at both the pros and cons of working from home and be prepared to support their staff in making this transition. It will not be impossible, but a lot of thought will need to go into it.

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