Factors that Affect The Performance of Work

ISE Magazine October 2019 Volume: 51 Number: 10

By Adam Cywar


Industrial engineers and others have always had a basic need to understand what the forces and contributing factors are that determine how well a piece of work gets accomplished. The purpose here is to examine in some detail what those factors are and some hints for utilizing this information to maximize the performance of a task, job or any other structure that is deemed work. Most of this information is based on my experience as a mechanical engineer and industrial engineer covering the last 60 years. Because it is based on empirical experience, there is no claim to representing scientific basis for this information.

Per the CBS Sunday Morning show of April 9, 2017, trends in automation outside the factory floor (driverless cars, drones, etc.) will slowly decrease the number of workers in many occupations. However, the basic need to understand and deal with the factors that affect job performance will still be necessary unless the need for all managers is done away with. Underlying all of this are some new ideas on how to not only assess and measure performance but be better equipped to make the more important decision: getting the “right” person to perform the work. As important, if not more critical, is having that individual “happy” in that work. There is nothing more miserable than going to work every day to do something totally demoralizing.

Since the beginning of time, there has always been work to do. Picking the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden is probably the earliest task you could imagine as being a job or piece of work that was performed with several influencing factors. A Google search reveals the following partial list for definitions of work:

  • To exert oneself by doing mental or physical work for a purpose or out of necessity. “I will work hard to improve my grades.” “She worked hard for …”
  • Be employed. “Is your husband working again?” “My wife never worked.” “Do you want to work after the age of 60?” “She never did any work because she inherited a lot of money.” “She works as a waitress to put herself through college.”
  • Have an effect or outcome, often the one desired or expected. “This method doesn’t work.” “The medicine works only if you take it with a lot of water.”
  • Function; perform as expected when applied. “The washing machine won’t work unless it is plugged in.” “Does this old car still run well?” “This old radio doesn’t work anymore.”
  • Exercise; give a workout to. “My personal trainer works me very hard.” “This puzzle will exercise your mind.”
  • Gratify and charm. “The political candidate worked the crowds.”
  • Cultivate; prepare for crops. “Work the soil.” “Cultivate the land.”

For purposes here the following is the definition of work: Any paid or unpaid set of activities or tasks performed to reach a goal, within profit or nonprofit environments.

Activities may be primarily physical or mental. A set of activities performed by someone on an automobile assembly line is primarily physical, while the activity performed by the engineer designing those tasks is mostly mental. In addition to this distinction, other considerations come into play when trying to understand the variables that drive performance levels. An attempt will be made to sort out the factors in such a way that will give the reader some hints and ideas for helping to improve performance and avoid things that are disastrous.

Few individuals relish the idea of having their job performance measured. It can be a demeaning and resentful experience, especially when the person doing the measuring always seems to have to come up with suggestions for improvement. I can never recall being measured and evaluated wherein I was told there is nothing I can do to improve my performance. Behaviorists have many theories and ideas that touch on this subject; however, there will be little or no further discussion here. Some of the experiences I cite, in fact, may fly in the face of some popular behavioral schools of thought. This empirically based approach allows me this freedom.

One can trace the beginnings of scientific measurement of work to the efforts of early pioneers of the industrial engineering profession. Early on, IEs were known variously as time study analysts, methods men, et al. The following two experiments are classic in the annals of IE history.

The shoveling experiment

Shortly after Frederick Taylor (1856-1915), who is often called the father of scientific management, went to work at the Bethlehem Steel Corp. in 1898, he began studying the science of one of the oldest jobs in the world: shoveling. His intention was to substitute scientific knowledge for individual judgment or opinion. Taylor stated that both management and labor would need a mental revolution if industry was to adopt scientific analysis. Applied science can be revolutionary, as was the case with the shoveling experiment.

The key step was to determine the appropriate weight of material that an average man should be able to handle, hour after hour, without undue fatigue, a measure never before determined. Taylor found that 21.4 pounds of material on a shovel would result in a maximum amount handled per day. Apparently, this figure was never verified, because there is no record that Taylor’s experiment was ever repeated. Interestingly, the results of this experiment meant that workers would need a different size of shovel for each task depending upon the density of the material they were shoveling, whether it was coal, scrap iron or wood shavings.

Taylor also studied the shoveling methods to find those that would use the fewest motions and involve the least amount of fatigue. In effect, he set a standard for the amount of material to be lifted per shovel for the method used.

It clearly became important to properly select the men to carry out and to train them in the use of these methods. Taylor further found that workers in the Bethlehem Steel Works were wasting a great deal of time moving from one job to another because the storage yard was one-half to 2 miles long and almost a half-mile wide. To control the wasted time, Taylor made a map of the steel yard for planning jobs in advance. Instruction cards were given to workers with notes indicating the types of tools needed and a central tool house was set up to maintain and check them.

These improvements made because of this one experiment had the following revolutionary effects on the organization of manufacturing:

  • Manufacturing developed the need for industrial engineering departments to develop techniques of time and motion study to set standards for output, methods, tools and machines.
  • Tool and storage rooms became service departments which led to the development of what we know as inventory control systems.
  • Human resources departments had their beginnings to write job descriptions and systematically select workers for each job.
  • Training departments were required to instruct new workers in the standard methods.
  • The layout of manufacturing facilities became important for ensuring that the movement of materials and men were minimized and the new departments were properly located.
  • Production control departments were needed to manage day-to-day operations.
  • Payroll systems had to be reworked to allow for incentive payments to workers that exceeded standard outputs.

The payoff of this experiment garnered excitement not only at Bethlehem but across the fledgling industrial engineering profession. The crew of 400 to 600 men who had worked in the steelyard was reduced to 140 men able to handle the same amount of work, several million tons of material per year. The old system, or rather lack of system, had cost 7 to 8 cents per ton. After paying for all clerical work, the time study instruction and the building and operation of the labor office and tool room, the cost of handling a ton of material was brought down to 3 to 4 cents per ton, an estimated annual saving at this particular plant of $78,000 a year.

Unnecessary work was eliminated and men were released for more productive activity. Those continuing on their jobs got more money for less effort and eventually shorter hours. As Peter Drucker put it in 1968, they worked “smarter, not harder.”

The bricklaying experiment

Frank Gilbreth (1868-1924) and his wife Lillian (1878-1972) were, like Taylor, also early pioneers in the application of a scientific approach to work. Their achievements were popularized in the book and later the 1950 movie, “Cheaper by the Dozen.”

In 1885, when Frank Gilbreth began working as a brick-layer, he found that workers did not always use the same motions to lay bricks. Some even used three different methods: one when working on a routine basis, another when working fast and another when showing the method to someone else. Gilbreth, like Taylor, felt there should be a standard method, determined systematically, which was prescribed by management, not by individuals. Gilbreth’s approach was to analyze each element involved in bricklaying and to eliminate unnecessary motions.

Gilbreth reduced the motions from 18 to 4½ per brick, the half of a motion being accomplished by scraping the mortar from two bricks at a time. A scaffold was invented that would move up as the wall was built higher so that the worker would be laying bricks at the proper level each time and did not have to stoop and lift his 200-pound body every time he reached down to pick up brick or mortar. The movable scaffold which keeps work at the proper level is still used in many jobs even today.

A bricklayer often selects different shades of brick to give a wall a non-uniform appearance. Although this mixing of shades could be done by a lower paid worker, it was better accomplished by randomly palletizing the bricks back at the factory. This type of post-World War II innovation complied with Frank Gilbreth’s principles.

Just as Taylor felt that there should be a handbook to help in the standardizing of data for motion elements in jobs common to many industries, so Gilbreth thought there should be a department of standards in the United States government to assemble data for standardizing the trades. He felt that such data need not be confidential but should be passed on like U.S. Bureau of Standards material and product specifications in other fields. Gilbreth’s work, beginning with the study of bricklaying, began to accomplish this, although not under government auspices.

Gilbreth began bricklaying in 1885 and published the book Motion Study in 1911, which dealt mainly with bricklaying. He described three variables involved in any job:

  1. Variables of the worker
  2. Variables of the surroundings
  3. Variables of motion

Gilbreth emphasized the happiness of the worker as well as his productivity both on and off the job. His son, Frank Gilbreth Jr., suggested the objective of industrial engineering should be to provide Time Out for Happiness, the title of his book about his parents’ ideas and contributions (1971).

From these early experiments one can begin to see those lists of factors that affect performance beginning to form, such as:

  • The effect of fatigue on performance; the variable directly related to using appropriate tools and methods to do work.
  • The proper selection of people to perform specific types of work.
  • The appropriate training to perform the work.
  • The physical shape and layout of the workplace and sup-porting entities.
  • Compensation systems for the performance of work.
  • Logistics systems that support the tasks to be performed.

A key byproduct of these experiments, not directly ad-dressed in the experiments, is the effect of management styles on the performance of work. What follows are some of the obvious factors in this regard.

Knowing the worker

In all of the years that I have been involved with people and the work they do, I believe that one of the most, if not the greatest, impacts on the performance of any job is the failure to fully understand the person doing the task. Time and again, I have witnessed the ignorance that goes into improperly selecting someone to perform in a specific profession, to complete a particular task or to perform the most mundane work that needs to be accomplished.

This business of knowing the worker before the work be-gins is most tricky and, in many cases, near impossible in today’s working environment. If you will recall, during Taylor’s sand-shoveling experiment, he used terms like “average man” and “properly select the men.” But he doesn’t give any clue as to any metrics that were used in this process of properly selecting the men.

Nevertheless, the impact and/or damage that occur when the wrong person is given a task to perform can be hurtful, if not catastrophic, to both employee and employer. Examples of this are many; here are a few:

On an assembly line, the least dexterous person is stationed at the operation requiring the most dexterity. I have witnessed the chaos this causes for everyone; only the union representative could resolve it because he knew the workers better than management and was able to rebalance the positions on the line.

A highly paranoid manager of lawyer micromanages to the point of destroying the creative ability and the ultimate resignation of very capable attorneys. This was an extremely costly impact because there was no attempt to “know” that manager.

An extremely competent but highly introverted computer programmer was assigned to be a team leader. A very happy and highly productive professional became frustrated and the team lost momentum and could not meet the objectives and deadlines of the project.

Some of the useful techniques for helping to know the person before they are hired are the following:

  • In depth multiple interviews conducted by several individuals, your best performers and your worst performers. If the worst performer raves about the candidate, be very careful.
  • Use only candidates who are proposed and voted on by the current workforce. Whole Foods finds that this works well, but again, the above caveat would apply.
  • The employment of extensive psychological tests works well for some businesses. Target uses them and finds them to be very effective.
  • During the interviewing process, seek to find the individual’s turn-on item. Highly productive workers usually have something they do that gives them a “high” and, all other things being equal, they would do rather than anything else. This could be related to sports, puzzle activity, religion, etc. I have found that people who do not have a “high” item turn out to be mediocre performers.

Dealing with boredom

No one is bored with their job the first day they start the job or task. It may take a short time or it may never seriously affect productivity. The Transportation Security Administration revealed in 2013 that boredom was setting in so fast for baggage examiners that it was necessary to limit their time at a station to 20 minutes. On the other hand, famous authors sometimes say writer’s block slows them down but yet they continue to crank out bestseller after best-seller.

In my own history, I tended to get bored after doing the same job after one to two years. I was fortunate in being able to bounce from technical jobs to managerial positions to engineering areas to computer systems to financial work, etc.

Skillful managers tend to be very adept at spotting boredom and doing something before a deleterious downward spiral in performance seriously affects the employee and/or the business. Changing or rotating assignments can help; brief educational sabbaticals sometimes help. When all else fails, do not hesitate to help the bored worker find another job.

Setting organization principles

The basic set of principles that an enterprise uses to man-age the work to be accomplished has a major impact on the performance of workers. At the beginning of my 30 years at IBM, the principles laid down by Thomas J. Watson at the founding of the company were:

Have respect for the individual. Thomas Watson Jr. said his father believed an organization owed a special responsibility to its people. This took several forms at IBM; the “open door” policy was pattern setting for many companies. It simply allowed any employee to escalate problems or issues to any level of management without fear of reprisal. Watson espoused the importance of “recognizing that the individual employee has their own problems, ambitions, abilities, frustrations, and goals.” Promotion from within was the rule with rare exception.

Allow for “wild ducks.” Watson Sr. knew complacency was the enemy of the organization, and he worked to make sure the company had its share of wild ducks. Probably one of the most significant examples of this were the wild ducks in Boca Raton, led by Don Estridge that created the IBM Personal Computer.

Give the best company service of any company in the world. This was a principle that measured employee performance at all levels. Watson Sr. said that granting excellent customer service was the responsibility of IBM’s sales and service forces but that good service requires the cooperation of all parts of the business. When he was 18, he sold pianos and sewing machines in the countryside. Farmers, almost always short of cash, traded farm equipment or livestock for goods. This embedded in him a keen under-standing of how to please customers, even those incapable of “paying” for his products.

Pursue all tasks with the idea that they can be accomplished in a superior fashion. Watson Sr. told his employees, “It is better to aim at perfection and miss than it is to aim at imperfection and hit it.” This set a tone of “optimism, enthusiasm, excitement and pace.”

There is the story about a young salesperson who completely messed up and lost a significant sale to a major customer. He was summoned to the chairman’s office fully expecting to be fired. Watson listened to the young man and, after offering him guidance, told him that he had invested too much money in him to fire him. It was this optimistic tone that led to the senior Watson to hire salespeople even during the Depression. He told a competitor that men of his age always do something “foolish.” He added “some men play too much poker, and others bet on horse races … my hobby is hiring salespeople.” When business picked up the following year and boomed after the war, he appeared to be not so foolish after all.

By the end of my 30 years in 1993, there was a decided shift in the importance and relevance of the above principles. Financial issues caused major changes in management and associated changes in organization principles. As pointed out by Lou Gerstner, who took the helm in 1993, these principles, also known as the Basic Beliefs within IBM, “had morphed from wonderfully sound principles into something virtually unrecognizable. At best they were now homilies. We needed something more, something prescriptive.”

The effect on performance by this shift in organization principles is debatable. However, measurements at the bot-tom line were not that impressive. A 24/7Wallst.com report in 2014 listed IBM as the worst managed company. Though a market leader in IT consulting and hardware, it struggled to respond to the shift from servers and mainframes to cloud computing storage and software.

In the first three quarters of 2014, the company’s hardware unit revenues fell by 16%, and its pretax loss grew to $354 million. Even as IBM’s cloud computing sales expanded, its annualized $3.1 billion in cloud services revenue were a fraction of it’s nearly $100 billion in total revenues. The struggling hardware business hurt IBM’s other segments as its units often are co-dependent.

Much of that gloom, however, has tended to erode and in 2019, some predict a strong comeback for IBM, especially with the now-strong focus on cloud computing.

In subsequent articles, we will discuss companies that have become successful and there is a strong hint of the application of original Watson-style beliefs that led to the great success of IBM early on.

Respect for the individual has to be maintained for the long-term success of the business. No amount of financial goodness will last when loss of respect eventually drains the business of the best performers.