Maximum productivity from minimum diversity?

Wikimedia: Hammu

The nineteenth century saw a revolution in German forestry. Up until that point the local government was content to levy taxes on the landowners allowing them to manage as they pleased. The forests had remained largely the same year on year coping with natural disasters, fire, drought, flood, pests and everything else that nature and man had in mind. For the people the forest wasn’t just a source of timber, but was a mainstay of the economy. Foliage was used as fodder, thatch and fruits were a source of food for animals and humans, twigs and branches were used as bedding and fencing, bark and roots was used for tanning and the list goes on. Then the state took a more active interest in how forests were to be managed. Understandably for people remote from the culture and the goings-on of the forest they were only interested in lumber and this became the measure of success. Very quickly impressive strides were made in identifying the ‘right crop’ (in this case Norwegian Spruce) and how this should be planted. The forests were cleared of undergrowth and line upon line of trees were planted. This became the visible sign of a well-managed forest that had important symbolic meaning that struck a chord with industrialisation of the time. Yields of lumber increased dramatically and the method took off across the world.

Yields of timber in second and third generation forests dwindled. Second generation production was 20-30% less than the first and a new word entered the vocabulary Waldsterben (forest death). The soil became barren, without vital micro-nutrients and wildlife. The local economy suffered from the loss of sundry materials for livestock and inhabitants. The monoculture (both species and of trees the same age) made them vulnerable to disease, storm and fire. It became a disaster, but one driven by ‘sensible intent’.

The reduction of diversity and drive towards a unified form of action is not new; from German forests to the scientific methods of manufacture inspired FW Taylor to business process re-engineering to ‘lean’ the story continues. The question that I am interested in is this: how do we ensure that there is enough diversity of thought, skills, dreams and resource to allow them to ‘speak’ alongside an understandable focus on productivity and cost. To my mind we need to move beyond the  ‘Google allows their staff a day a week to dream …’ mantra and towards asking more searching questions such as:

• What would a new recruit to our organisation say about the way we do things here?
• How would we encourage a person to have a good idea?
• If someone had a good idea how would they make it happen?

These are not ‘big’ questions to be asked by the board of directors (although that will help). To my mind each team, department, function, unit should be asking these questions of themselves.  Productivity and diversity should not be seen as two poles but as the essential grist to each other’s oyster.

Reference: Scott, J (1998) Seeing Like a Stake – How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, New Haven and London, Yale University Press

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2 thoughts on “Maximum productivity from minimum diversity?

  1. Tim,
    Thanks for your reply. You are right. To my mind what matters is to hold onto the essence of how things could be different or better whether that be at the time of implementation or afterwards. What I find dull are those ‘lessons learned logs’ that contain bland over simplified statements of the obvious.

  2. I’ve experienced conflicts with freethinking, out-of-the-box methods and productive, stay-the-course methods. It is difficult to keep one mind open for new ideas while still moving forward and getting things done.

    I have found that you can’t significantly alter a workflow while you are in the workflow. What I can do is make a note of what didn’t work or could be improved and then suggest improvements for future projects.

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