Boosting productivity on projects

building up from the basics


Feature Editor: Paul C. Dinsmore

How do you go about boosting productivity on projects?

  • Use the latest planning and control techniques?
  • Develop productivity indices for monitoring progress?
  • Change the organizational structure?
  • Motivate the project team?
  • Launch a major training program?

Part of the response to these questions derives from the definition of productivity itself.


Productivity in project work is determined by observing the relationship between final results and cost or time. That ratio if consistently measured at regular intervals. A record of productivity trends.

Productivity can also be seen as the product of effectiveness and efficiency. Effectiveness relates directly to the final result and its application towards meeting desired objectives. Efficiency, on the other hand, represents the measurement of task performance in terms of cost or time, based on a given methodology. The product of effectiveness and efficiency results in the productivity index.

Components of Productivity

Fig. 1. Components of Productivity


Here are the cornerstones for achieving high productivity levels:

1. Establish clear objectives.

For a given objective to be reached, it needs to be clearly outlined and be consistent with overall organizational goals.

2. Communicate the objectives effectively.

The communication process requires line tuning (using the right combination of written, visual, participative, and didactic approaches) to ensure that the goals are understood.

3. Involve those who perform the work.

Consensus decision making and joint-planning efforts are required to stimulate team members to achieve project goals.

Peter Drucker has spoken of lack of clarity in communicating objectives as a major cause for lagging productivity. He also points out that low levels of productivity in managerial and engineering functions are more attributable to what the professional doesn't do than to what is done, thus, the need for involvement in order to spur the individual on to higher levels of performance.

There are other factors that contribute toward greater or lesser productivity. For example:

Managerial Philosophy. Since McGregor identified the X Theory (“employees are fundamentally lazy and not inclined to work productivity unless driven and controlled”), the question of how to stimulate groups to reach goals has been under debate.

The X Theory, where managers concern themselves exclusively with things, has largely fallen by the wayside in favor of the more people-oriented Y Theory, particularly when “knowledge workers” are involved. Even in the case of blue-collar laborers, YTheory approaches such as the Japanese-inspired Quality Circles have been highly successful. Especially for managerial-level employees, approaches that stimulate joint effort and participation tend to increase productivity.

Adequate Organization. When the organizational structure fits the project needs, effort for increasing productivity are greatly facilitated. For instance, if projects are numerous, relatively similar in nature and involve a limited number of specialties. Standard functional organization may do the job just fine. If, on the other hand, the project is completely different from that normally conducted by the company, or is of unusual magnitude of technological complexity, a task-force structure is probably the way to go. When there are several projects underway that involve extensive interdisciplinary coordination, the matrix structure will best fit the need.

The Right Project Management Technology. Proper use of systems, hardware and software makes a big difference in project management productivity. Some of the available instruments include: computer-aided engineering and design, systems for critical path networking and resource allocation, data bases, spreadsheet, word processors and artificial intelligence for project planning. Adequate systems configuration is also important to avoid the extremes of “overkill” and “underpunch”.

Professional Development. Productivity is also increased by improving the team members' technical, managerial, and interpersonal skills. As team members develop abilities in interfacing, negotiating, communications, planning and control, project work tends to be conducted more effectively. Some of the conventional ways for developing the team member skills are: the good example (your own), on-the-job training, lectures, round-table discussions, seminars and workshops on topics such as modern management techniques, negotiation, effective use of microcomputers, time management, technical specialization and interpersonal behavior.


Measuring productivity in absolute terms is an impossible task since the resulting number is meaningless, unless compared with other information, such as:

  • data collected from prior experienees
  • industry indices (local, national or international)
  • productivity of direct competitors.

Numerous productivity indices directly apply to projects. It is questionable, however, whether these indices measure productivity or simply the efficiency of a given operation or group of activities. Here are some samples of indices used in project-related work:

Generally applicable

  • actual versus scheduled time
  • budget cost for work scheduled
  • budget cost for work performed
  • actual cost for work scheduled
  • performance of final product versus specified

Design engineers

  • man-hours per drawing
  • documents completed per period cost-of-design in comparison to similar designs
  • cost-of-design in relation to total project cost


  • constructed area per number of workers
  • cost per constructed area
  • applied versus programmed labor
  • applied versus programmed equipment
  • applied versus programmed materials
  • cost per unit of work


Productivity falls below par on projects for lots of reasons. Listed below are some of these reasons:

1. Lack of time. Time runs short on projects for two reasons. First, because of poor estimating of the time required to carry out project tasks, and second, because of faulty performance in carrying out programmed tasks. In both situations, it's the project professional's responsibility to correct matters—which means realistically estimating the time required, and then carrying out the schedule as programmed.

2. Lack of information. The accelerating waves of technological advances make it increasingly difficult for project personnel to keep up-to-date on technologies. Missing bits of administrative information also set project productivity back. Technological data banks, management information systems, and an information-conscious project team are the solutions to the lack-of-information syndrome.

3. Lack of ideas. Good ideas may be scarce due to lack of “gray matter” in the heads of those who do the thinking, or more commonly, because of a non-creative atmosphere that provides little stimulus for bright ideas to bloom. If gray matter is lacking, the solution is to recruit or borrow more qualified thinkers. If the atmosphere needs changing, then creative techniques like brainstorming and interchanging professionals with other groups are appropriate.

4. Incorrect premise. One of the worst errors in project management happens when the wrong premise is used to outline plans or to make decisions. Lack of upfront premise screening causes project decisions and plans to be built on sandy foundations. Review boards, outside specialists, devil's advocates and creativity sessions in the beginning of the planning process are ways of offsetting the incorrect-premise problem.

5. Bad habits. All humans are creatures of habit. In project work, some habits work in favor of meeting projected goals. When those habits involve creativity and solid methodologies, then the project benefits. Other habits, that involve repetition of prior practices without questioning applicability in new situations, have a detrimental effect on project productivity. Habits need constant questioning to ensure that project goals are met.

6. Poor attitude. “We can't get better results because they won't let us.” (“They” refers to upper management, the client, the Government, in other words, others). This attitude places a drain on project productivity. The opposite stance, on the other hand, boosts productivity: “Let's see how we can get the job done, in spite of the obstacles.” This up-beat approach, coupled with solid planning, organization, direction and control, sets the tone for successful projects.

Other factors cause low productivity on projects, such as politics, both within and outside of the project arena, and “force majeure”. Combinations of all those factors decrease project productivity.


Boosting productivity on projects is like putting a puzzle together: it requires patience, persistence and a vision of the overall picture.

Increased productivity stems from objectivity, communication and involvement. Other influencing factors include: managerial philosophy, an adequate organizational approach, the right project management technology and professional development of team members. When all these pieces are properly put together, productivity tends to rise.


1. Drucker, Peter. May 7, 1986. Productivity of Knowledge Workers. Speech.

2. Dinsmore, Paul C. 1982. Human Factors in Project Management, Amacom.

3 Zimmerman, Larry W., Hart, Glen D., Van Nostrand Reinhold. 1986. Value Engineering.

Paul C. Dinsmore is President of Dinsmore Associates and Director of Management Consultants International with offices at Rua da Lapa 180, Rio de Janerio, Brazil (FAX 5521 232 4932). He has authored five books including Human Factors in Project Management.



October 1989 pm network



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