Improving productivity is one of the key challenges facing many businesses today, from large multinationals with operations spanning the globe down to local-level SMEs.

Fundamentally productivity is about getting more from an input of limited resources. But productivity is not about simply working harder or putting in longer hours.

Rather it is about changing mindsets and working smarter – using analytics and data – to raise output.

At a recent forum on the issue at NUS Business School, Professor Hum Sin Hoon opened discussions by examining the question of whether good management can drive up productivity.

A member of Singapore’s National Productivity Council, Professor Hum, said the impact of management is often given scant attention simply because the answer to the question is generally assumed to be simple – yes.

Sin Hoon landscape_280Hum Sin Hoon: If you want people to be productive on the ground, you must be able to tell them what to doIndeed, he said, that assumption is backed up by the data. But by overlooking what makes goes into making good management itself, firms are at risk of failing to understand the real game-changing lessons for productivity.

“The first question we have to ask is ‘what is good management?’ Then we need to know, have we practiced it?” Hum said.

“Then you can say, OK if this is good management, I’m going to design it, I’m going to put it into action, I’m going to put it into systems and procedures.”

Good management, he said, starts with communication.

“If you want people to be productive on the ground, you must be able to tell them what to do.”

Next, Hum said, “once you’ve told them what you want them to do, you must pay attention to whether they do it or not.”

That comes down to effective monitoring, identifying the right measurements that allow you, the manager, to assess whether targets are being met and to facilitate improvement.

After that, effective managers recognise, reward and incentivise their employees to achieve their targets – as well as ensuring they have the skills and resources to do so.

When you raise the bar with a higher target, people will figure out new ways of doing things and therefore reach the bar again.

Prof. Hum Sin Hoon,
NUS Business School

“But you can only do that if you consciously measure, consciously figure out, that they are actually achieving their objectives that you set in the first place,” he said.

Finally, good managers look for ways to raise the bar, and raise it again, as a way to increase productivity.

“You then try to be smarter, you try to figure out what else can I do to reach a higher target.”

That doesn’t mean working longer hours, Hum said, but rather working smarter to build a cycle of continuous improvement.

“When you raise the bar with a higher target, people will figure out new ways of doing things and therefore reach the bar again.”

These four measures – setting targets, monitoring, managing people, and continuously raising the bar – form a management foundation for improving productivity, Hum said.

In turn that enables everyone, from top managers to frontline staff, to know what is expected of them as individuals and as a firm.

An early role model, he said, was Chinese admiral Zheng He, who led a vast fleet of hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of sailors on several voyages across Asia in the early 15th century.

Organised by NUS Business School, the seminar Enabling Productivity through Good Management featured:

Professor Hum Sin Hoon, Deputy Dean, NUS Business School

Richard Chua, Managing Director, Yamato Asia Pte Ltd

and Ian Wilson, Senior Vice President of Hotel Operations, Marina Bay Sands Singapore as speakers for the event.

Hum has done extensive research on the business lessons from Zheng He and is author of the management book Zheng He’s Art of Collaboration.

In an era before satellites and electronic communication, Zheng He relied on an elaborate system of sight and sound to communicate with his fleet. Using flags, bells, gongs, drums and lanterns the system allowed the fleet to operate flawlessly and efficiently across thousands of kilometres of ocean.

That system, Hum said, was an example of good management working smartly with available resources – the technology of the time – to build a communication simple system that was clear for all to understand and execute their roles smoothly.

What that translates to today is the equivalent of standard operating procedures (SOPs).

“It is about formalising and standardising processes, as well as communicating and teaching their people to do things well,” Hum said.

In Zheng He’s time and today, the benefit for employees from such systems is that they will find it easier to learn and get up to speed on processes.

“This is what we call professionalisation of management,” Hum said.

“A company grows to a certain point but in order to break through to the next level you need to put the processes in place, the SOPs, and Zheng He did that way ahead of his time.”

Ian Wilson, Senior Vice President of Operations at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands hotel, explained how monitoring of targets and performance is put into practice as a driver of productivity in the hospitality trade.

Managers at the Sands – Singapore’s largest hotel with 2561 rooms – are able to measure the performance of the hotel staff down to the individual level from a variety of sources including specialised personnel management software, as well as guest satisfaction surveys and employee audits.

From these the hotel management is able to rank staff members in terms of performance, as well as pull data on how long it takes for a particular housekeeper to clean a room and compare that as a way to measure individual productivity.

Wilson said the availability of objective data helped to promote a “more collaborative organisational culture” where the manager becomes more of a coach to employees.

“It is now a case of ‘how do I help you do better’,” said Wilson.

In the coming months, he said, these systems will be used to centralise the scheduling process for hotel staff, helping to better forecast manpower requirements. This mitigates any negative impact on Marina Bay Sands Singapore’s service levels to its hotel guests.

Wilson’s advice to managers seeking to raise productivity is to take a slow and steady approach. “You need a consistent focus to how you can continually improve,” he said.

Richard Chua, managing director of transportation and delivery firm Yamato Asia, spoke about using technology to add value to its logistics service and hence contribute to improved productivity for its customers.

Chua said the group’s strategic initiative was aimed at ensuring that Yamato went beyond a standard logistics distribution operation for its customers.

“In many organisations logistics has been a cost function, but we challenge this idea. We think of logistics as the means for generating value for customers hence contributing to productivity growth in society,” Chua said.

Yamato’s value-add concept involves 24-hour integrated logistics hubs that enable just-in-time bulk delivery of merchandise from various suppliers to the retail stores of Yamato Asia’s clients.

This reduces the inventory volume of manufacturers, shortens lead time and improves productivity at the stores.

Supporting the network, Chua said, is the company’s proprietary Free Rack Auto Pick System (FRAPS) technology. Instead of the conventional method of storing and sorting, the system sorts packages as they flow through racks, reducing overall inventory and delivery times.

As it is automated, the system removes human errors from picking operations.