Monday, December 7, 2015

The yin and yang of productivity

Productivity is a late-blooming concept in human society.

Before the invention of at least conceptually accurate clocks (mid-13th century in Europe) and the subsequent advent of modern timekeeping, the notion of productivity in terms of work per unit of time was mostly unknown.

Medieval clock tower

David Landes, in Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World, points out that in the late medieval period, “the great virtue was busyness—unremitting diligence in one’s tasks.”
In today’s workplace, “keeping busy” is most definitely not the acceptable definition of doing good work and being productive. As anyone who’s read “Dilbert” recently knows, it’s possible to stay busy without actually doing anything.

When workers and bosses could accurately keep track of time, they created an inescapable transformation of workplace culture. If Hans made six shoes while Jakob made five shoes and Gretel (with six hungry kids) made four shoes, and Hans could do this repeatedly during measured time periods that everyone acknowledged, then it was obvious who was doing more work and thus who was more productive.

That is to say, it was obvious if each of them had the same training, and each of them had the same access to raw materials and similar tools, and each of them had the same working conditions, and if….

David Landes, Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1983), 25 and passim.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

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