Commentary / Japan

Do you know your own productivity?

by Yoko Ishikura

The low productivity of Japan’s white-collar workers and the need for improvement comes up frequently these days in both the public and private sectors. There are several factors behind the increased attention and sense of urgency to improve productivity.

Japan faces a sharply declining working-age population and some service sectors are shutting down outlets due to a manpower shortage. Death from overwork, and long working hours that have made it difficult for people such as mothers with small children and the elderly who are otherwise qualified to hold down a job, have attracted the attention of the government and the private sector, as well as the foreign media. The potential of technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence has been discussed extensively, with some hope for a long-overdue productivity improvement.

So far, the discussion has focused on working hours, in the form of restricting overtime and initiatives by some companies to move from late-night work to early morning. Telecommuting and moonlighting are discussed a little but are not perceived as alternative solutions.

One of the difficulties in addressing the issue of white-collar productivity is that of unbundling jobs into tasks and of how to measure productivity. Many jobs consist of a series of tasks, some of which can be handled more efficiently by machine and/or handled by people who are not able to work full time. However, breaking down a job into tasks is not as easy as it sounds. The need to maintain quality also makes it more difficult to implement measures to improve productivity.

What I propose is for individuals to think about their own productivity. How can we spend time effectively and efficiently when we have more things to do than we can handle in a 24-hour day? To do so, I propose two things; 1) track the time it takes to do our activities and 2) assess the quality of our activities.

As we are about to start a new year in a few weeks, this is a good time to start something new — in this case, addressing our own productivity. Getting the facts right is an important step to address the issue and develop solutions. Unless we know how we spend our time, it is difficult to identify where and what we can do to improve. Here is how I do it.

Since I now work as freelancer, it is critical for me to track how I spend my time and maintain the quality of my work.

The type of activities I do include: those related to business — board memberships, seminars, keynote speeches and workshops I am invited to give; seminar and workshop series I initiate and host; teaching at graduate schools, universities and other educational institutions; writing articles, columns and blogs; and personal matters — spending time with my family and developing my skills.

As I manage all these activities myself, it is indispensable to keep track of them so I know the entire schedule of meetings, deadlines and preparation/follow-up activities.

When you work for one organization, your categories of work may be more limited and easier to follow than mine. Still, you can identify the type of activities such as corporate internal meetings, planning, preparation/follow-up, external activities for sales, for developing your own skills, etc. As spending your entire career at one company is quickly becoming outdated, independent work styles and freelancing are expected to increase, making time and quality management indispensable for every one of us.

I follow my time allocation every day, by major categories as above — executive/business related, external (but not for specific companies), writing, and personal (traveling, etc.) Each category may be further divided and has evolved as I try to find a meaningful breakdown. I use seven hour work days as a basis, and not real hours, and divide them into the time I spend for each activity, as is done at professional service organizations. I include weekends as well.

I calculate the hours of each activity of the previous day as I prepare a to-do list every morning. I tabulate the hours at the end of the year and identify how much time I devote to each category of activities and how it has changed. Sometimes I find my time allocation a bit of a surprise as I find I spent far more (or less) time working than I had assumed.

In addition to time allocation, I review my activities for the year from the standpoint of quality. First I list major activities. I divide them into a 2 x 2 matrix — professional versus private on one axis, and “good” versus “needs improvement” on the other. I put major activities I did during the year into one of the four boxes.

To assess quality to sort activities into good or needs-improvement boxes, I refer to the expectations of the client and the goal I set for myself. For expectations of the client, I use feedback I receive from the organizers/participants. Feedback in open form is helpful to identify how I can improve and avoid repeating mistakes.

For my own assessment, I use my own goal for the year and for the activity in question. If activities don’t receive positive feedback and have little to do with my goal, I may stop them. If not, I will take actions for improvement. If activities in the “good/professional” box help reach the goal I set, I will try to increase them in the following year.

This may look a bit complicated on paper, but it isn’t once you start. It gives a rough idea of how you spend time and whether your activities meet the required level of quality — two important items for productivity improvement.

While the government and companies are concerned about overtime work and other issues, each of us can identify our own time allocation, assess the quality of our activities and identify gaps in our activities in relation to our own goals. Once we have these facts, we can start planning more productive days and years. Why not start now? We can start the new year with a refreshed spirit.

Yoko Ishikura is a professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University and serves as an independent consultant in the area of global strategy, competitiveness and global talent. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council.