Vivek Haldar

Productivity isn't

It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Bob Dylan.

Productivity has been on my mind (again) lately. I present some thoughts here, if only to get a load off my head.

Productivity is for peasants. Yes, that is a provocative framing, but the point stands: productivity is you being accountable to someone, and them measuring you by metrics they deem appropriate. The aristocracy in ages past explicitly shunned productivity. Not doing anything and living a life of leisure was the true mark of high class.

Productivity measurement made sense for factories; it doesn’t for offices. The notion of “productivity”, and of measuring it, is a Taylorist invention. Break work down to its individual components, split it out into an assembly line, and then measure each section, and the whole. The idea is firmly rooted in the separation of thinking (design of the assembly line) and doing (operating machinery on the line). Creative and ambiguous endeavors defy this scheme.

Measuring productivity is impossible. This is a stronger statement than saying that it is just hard. No matter what metric you pick, it can be perverted, and often is. Bugs, lines of code, hours worked, even revenue. These are consequences of being productive, sometimes, but one shouldn’t confuse them for the real thing. The root cause of this is that measurement and the numbers that emanate from it inherently lead to short-term local optimizations. For example, look at the all the pointless day-to-day activity around the stock market. True impact comes from long-term thinking, and while data can certainly inform that, it takes deep maturity to insulate oneself from small movements.

Productivity is about finding bottlenecks. Almost every measurement of productivity, as I’ve noted above, is meaningless. They don’t tackle the bottleneck of a system. Trying to optimize the parts of a system that are not bottlenecks is a complete waste of effort. Whatever purported gains are reported are probably due to the Hawthorne effect. So, first, find the bottleneck (at the level of the individual, team, factory, company, or whatever), then optimize just that one thing, until something else becomes the bottleneck.

Productivity is not work done per unit time. My brain goes blank when people talk about “productivity”, in the same way a scientist might tune you out if you say something like “This stone weighs 20.” 20 what? Kilograms? Pounds? Everything I’ve read about productivity focuses on some sort of rate, a measure of work done per unit time. That is a local measure. It’s also the wrong unit. Productivity should be a dimensionless, unitless fraction between 0 and 1, representing how much of your potential maximum output you can achieve. (I suppose destructive people could have negative productivity.) Yes, I realize that makes it a relative measure that can’t be universally compared. Yes, like I said before, it is still hard to measure.

We should focus on work design, not productivity. Universe A: you work 40 hours a week, make 80k a year, spend evenings and weekends with family and friends. Universe B: you work 80 hours a week, make 200k a year, neglect your family and have no friends. You will live long and be happy in Universe A, and Universe B will make you miserable and prematurely kill you. From an individual standpoint, design of life and work yields much higher returns than maximizing productivity. (Remember that when you spend those hours on “tips and tricks.”)

The 21st century will be about defining “work”. The sweep of modern history so far has been about defining the common economic and political systems that civilization can live with. The various schools of thought duked it out over the last couple of centuries, and capitalism (tempered to various degrees by local taste) and democracy won, enshrining the idea of individual rights and liberty. It has now brought us to the point where the focus now turns inwards to what the individual should do. Work has now become tied to an individual’s self-worth. What does that mean if your job is automated away?