Frameworks: Process Tackling Productivity Issues

Too often, the word “productivity” conjures images of manufacturing floors, e-commerce warehouses, or the Toyota Production System. Efficiency (often measured as throughput) is certainly one facet of productivity, but the focus on moving more widgets in a shorter amount of time has meant that organizations have spent decades focusing on only half of the productivity equation.

Often, it's because efficiency measures are tangible and consequently easier to measure (e.g., costs, cycle times, headcounts, throughput). Organizations struggle with efficacy measures—such as value creation and quality—which creates a vicious cycle that reinforces the focus on efficiency.

To make matters more complicated, efficiency measures aren't necessarily a good fit for the ever-growing population of knowledge workers.

To better understand current productivity challenges, APQC conducted a survey to explore what productivity looks like for knowledge workers and the roles process and knowledge management play in personal productivity.

Process-Related Productivity Setbacks

Process has traditionally tackled organization's productivity problems. So, we asked survey respondents to identify the average time they spend each week on two process-specific productivity drains.

  1. Recreating processes for how work get accomplished—When processes aren't standardized and documented—or if people can't access the relevant information—staff will often have to rethink and recreate processes every time they execute them. On average, this consumes 1.9 hours a week for knowledge workers.
  2. Creating or using workarounds for broken systems or processes—When organizations do not dedicate time and effort for process improvement, employees waste time creating workarounds for processes—which take more time over the long term than to address the problems in the first place. On average, creating workarounds takes 2.1 hours per week for knowledge workers.

Basically, poor process creates, on average, 4 hours of wasted time per worker, per week.

Process-Related Solutions

To understand the role process can play to address productivity drains, we also asked respondents about the potential impact of common process interventions on their productivity.

Documentation & Standardization

Given that documentation is typically the first step in process work, it makes sense that documentation is the norm for most organizations. Almost half of respondents (49 percent) say their organization provides documentation for their major processes. Knowledge workers in organizations that document their major process are felt more productive. Because how work gets accomplished isn't tacit knowledge, which reduces the amount of rework necessary to execute their tasks.

Standardization also helps to alleviate some of the most common process-related productivity challenges. For example, knowledge workers in organizations that standardize ad hoc processes and workflows are less likely to report a loss of productivity due to inefficient processes.

Simplifying Processes

Nearly half (45 percent) of the respondents said that simplifying or streamlining major processes would significantly improve their productivity. There are several reasons that processes can be considered too complex—they may drill down to an unnecessarily depth of detail, include far too many business rules, or include high levels of variation to capture every permutation.

The more complex a process gets; the more things can go wrong. In the face of overly complex processes, it's tempting for employees to find workarounds or create ad-hoc processes, which consume time. Complex processes also make performance management more difficult, which in turn can lead organizations to rely on the simplicity of efficiency measures to manage their productivity.

In addition to reducing the likelihood of process-related issues, organizations that streamline their processes also see statistically significant reductions in time spent on other productivity drains. For example, knowledge workers also reported spending less time providing duplicative information or repeating the same updates.

Employee Empowerment

The biggest benefits, however, came from one of the least used tactics: empowering employees to identify improvement opportunities. Organizations that empowered their employees to identify opportunities were less likely to cite productivity drains caused by ad hoc or inefficient processes and time spent trying to locate the information they needed to execute their work.

Front-line employees are closest to the work performed and are often the first to experience broken or inefficient systems and processes. Which makes them the group best suited to identify improvement opportunities in the flow of work.

However, empowering individuals to suggest productivity improvement ideas means embedding a culture of continuous improvement. Equipping employees with the resources they need to identify improvement opportunities not only makes improvement opportunities more visible, but also gives them a sense of control and inclusion over how work gets done. This improves productivity because if employees feel a sense of ownership, they are more likely to want to not only perform well but help the process be better overall.


Productivity remains tightly entwined with process efforts. Luckily organizations that embrace process management are less likely to face several productivity drains. Traditional practices around standardization, simplification, and documentation help reduce time wasted on work arounds, recreating processes, and even looking for process-related information. Saving, on average around ten percent, knowledge workers time and frustration. However, the biggest impacts come from the engagement and empowerment of process teams best ally—front-line employees.

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Holly Lyke-Ho-Gland

Holly Lyke-Ho-Gland

Holly Lyke-Ho-Gland is a research specialist at APQC, with over ten years of business research and consulting experience. Her focus has predominantly been on best practices in business processes, corporate strategy, and R&D. She can be reached via email at and on Twitter at @hlykehogland.

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