What drives productivity?
What exactly are we asked to do when we are told to be more productive? Are we asked to merely produce more? What if we are producing lousy stuff? The question suggests that productivity cannot and should not be measured in terms of output alone. What then is productivity?
I think the most complete definition was given by Asian Productivity Organization (APO): "Productivity is an attitude of mind. It seeks to continually improve what already exists. It is the belief that one can do things better today than yesterday and better tomorrow than today. Productivity can be a common object of everybody. It aims to make life better for all." The Tokyo-based APO, an inter-governmental body for the Asia Pacific region, has 20 members among them Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Japan and Singapore.
How can the attitude of people be changed? Well, Japan did it thorough a productivity movement back in 1955 with three guiding principles: job security and expansion of employment, cooperation of labour and management through joint consultation, and fair distribution of the fruits of productivity. The third principle forms the foundation of any productivity movement particularly in overcoming and resolving the various contradictions inevitable in market economies.
Following Japan's example, Singapore started taking interest in productivity in its early days of independence in the 1960s. In the early 80s, the government launched a productivity movement, aiming at mindset change in all sectors of the economy. Factors that led to its huge success were: commitment of top leadership, a country-wide campaign combined with company-based consultancy, tripartite cooperation among the government, industry and labour unions; and developing management consultancy capability in the private sector by designing systems and incentives for trained human resources.
And more recently, the National Productivity and Competitiveness Council of Mauritius launched the first phase of a campaign in 2001, focusing on making Mauritius Muda-free. Muda is a Japanese word for waste, idleness or uselessness. The Muda-free Mauritius campaign was launched for the education sector promoting tools such as 5S, Gemba Kaizen, CATs or Civic Action Teams modeled after Quality Circles, knowledge centres and computer proficiency. In 2012, another campaign was launched by the NPCC to focus on the term productivity itself, to demystify the concept by popularising different perspectives of productivity as experienced by people in different sectors of the Mauritian economy, ranging from agriculture to manufacturing, from corporate bodies to citizens at grassroots level and from potential entrepreneurs to NGOs.
Bangladesh joined the APO in 1982, and subsequently, the National Productivity Organization was established under the Ministry of Industries in 1989. The National Productivity Council, the highest level multidimensional body to formulate national productivity policy, plan and programmes has also been formed. Can the success of productivity campaigns in these countries be replicated here?
It certainly can with a well-designed marketing strategy. Campaigns on sanitation, family planning, and immunisation have achieved significant success under different governments. Promoting the idea of productivity, however, is a totally different ball game. It falls under the domain of "social marketing", which aims at improving the quality of life by bringing about positive changes in the society. The primary aim of "social marketing" is "social good"; while in "commercial marketing" the aim is primarily "financial".
In 1951, the psychologist G D Wiebe asked the question, 'Can brotherhood and rational thinking be sold like soap?' In his paper, 'Merchandising Commodities and Citizenship on Television', Wiebe proposed that organisations which successfully 'sell' intangible social objects - such as goodwill, respect for the environment or community development - would be more successful if they sold their social objects the way marketers sell sports cars or mouthwash. The more social campaigns resembled commercial marketing practices, the better their chance of success, he suggested. And that's exactly what Japan, Singapore and Mauritius have done.
The NPO in Bangladesh, despite having a paltry annual budget of a little over Tk 3 crore and 67 staff, is doing the best it can. Md Abdul Musabbir, Joint-Director of NPO, says, "Almost half of our budget is spent on salaries and benefits. We organise several training programmes and provide consultancy services. There is a proposal of expanding the operation of NPO at the regional level."
Bangladesh faces significant economic and social challenges as it transitions from dependence on trade preferences to open competition in the global economy. A campaign is one of many tools that can be used to promote productivity. "Productivity is a long haul, a marathon without a finish line," Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore said when his country embarked on another phase of the productivity drive in 2014.
The writer is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.