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A Productivity Paradox --Dickeson

August 2003
Productivity begets a paradox. It's ugly, but it's wonderful. It liberates us while it demeans us. Love and hate are all mixed up in the paradox. When we increase productivity we increase throughput per hour of human time. We need fewer hours of labor to produce the same production units. Great! We need fewer people so we reduce headcount. Bad! Layoffs disrupt careers and families.

It's said that Gutenberg and movable type displaced 10,000 monks producing books by hand. The Age of Enlightenment dawned. Great universities were fostered. But what happened to the careers, the hopes and plans of those 10,000 trained monks?

In Belgium, workers threw their sabots (shoes) into new machines to disrupt devices that increased productivity. English textile workers rebelled as machine looms took weaving jobs. Trade unions in printing plants now bargain to maintain jobs despite increasing productivity of presses and binders. The half-section family farm disappeared with the coming of tractors. Love/hate is the paradox of productivity.

Human Factors

Globally, increasing productivity frees humanity from drudgery. Locally, increasing productivity displaces family tranquility. It isn't, however, a linear relationship. It's constantly out of balance. Productivity creeps steadily upward but headcount doesn't creep downward at the same rate. In an industry like printing where improving technology is a given, capacity, in terms of human labor, is constantly out-of-balance.

As we increase the productivity of presses we decrease the need for press labor, for example. But, at the same time, we increase the need for bindery and finishing personnel to handle increased press output. We find ourselves with too many press people and too few in finishing. We can't just move people from press to bindery. Skills and rates of compensation are different. People's lives, family lives, are disrupted.

Do we let our skilled press people go—our buddies—to find other work? Where have all our typesetting, composition and prep people gone? How have they, and their families, coped with change?

The glib answer of economists is: "Retain your personnel and increase sales and marketing." Yeah! Easy for the economists to say, but they haven't had to hit the pavement and find other work, have they?

So what is the honest answer to increasing productivity? Throw shoes in the machines? No, that didn't work and won't work. Human capacity will continue to increase. The need for certain skills will continue to decrease. We'll continuously be in an over-capacity condition. We can't eliminate people as quickly as we can eliminate the need for people.
 

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