Productivity must begin and end with the individual. Boosting the technology and processes can only take businesses up to a point. (Image for illustrative purposes only.) Image Credit: Supplied

Something has long bothered me. When it comes to boosting productivity, people immediately point to the need for process improvement, automation or outsourcing, while overlooking the most important factor of all - the human worker.

It’s strange when you think about it. Many companies seem happy to splash cash on technologies and strategies that promise process gains, yet they baulk at the idea of investing in the productivity of their people, even though that is precisely where the need for improvement lies.

So common have human productivity failings become, we don’t even see them for what they are. In fact, you have probably experienced the same kind of shortcomings that I endured on a recent trip to New York.

It all started at the Marriott Essex House hotel. It was 11am when we arrived – too early to check-in – but we wanted to drop our bags and pre-check in to confirm our reserved room type: two rooms, each capable of accommodating two adults and one child.

With mission accomplished, we headed out to enjoy the day, that included a mid-afternoon phone call stating that our rooms were ready. Great news, I thought to myself. Only that wasn’t to be.

As it turned out, the rooms we had reserved were not available. Instead, we had been allocated two rooms, each with one king-size bed and neither with sufficient space for roll-away beds.

“We’re fully booked tonight and can’t change your rooms,” said a rushed employee. Minutes later this escalated to the manager, who started out our conversation by saying that I should have informed them of our requirements in advance.

Poor customer service aside, the display of incompetence was astounding. Not only had I stated our requirements in the reservation, I had also sent a follow-up note directly to the hotel and reiterated the same face-to-face that very morning.

A productivity meltdown

Some might call this a failure of processes, but to me it was a classic case of poor human productivity. What shouldn’t have even been a problem in the first place took three employees two long hours to resolve. Had they been productive, they wouldn’t have wasted their time, or ours.

Retaining my composure, I calmly made my feelings known to the staff before deciding to put the whole incident behind me and get on with enjoying some precious family time – it was Christmas after all.

But the blunders didn’t end there.

The next morning, I woke early and decided to get some work done before my wife and kids surfaced. Slipping out of the hotel, I made my way to Starbucks, but when I arrived, I found the doors firmly shut.

I was confused; it should have opened at 6am, and I was right on time. With little alternative, I joined the other early risers braving the cold for a pre-dawn caffeine shot, and I waited.

Smart intervention

By 6:10am, a line had begun forming and the owner of the neighboring mini-mart strolled over. “What time do they open?” he asked, feigning concern. “Ten minutes ago,” I replied sarcastically. “Well, I have coffee inside,” he announced, pointing to his store.

With that, the Starbucks line gratefully filed into the minimart. Clever guy, I thought to myself.

Was Starbucks’ failure to open at 6am a process breakdown? No. Like the Marriott debacle, the mistake was down to the employees, whom I had watched through the window as they prepared for opening, apparently oblivious – or indifferent – to the time.

Starbucks and Marriott might be successful multinational brands, but even they have overlooked the real key to productivity growth. Don’t make the same mistake. Whether you’re heading into a year of growth or tightening the belt, you need to increase output per hour worked, and the way to do that is not through automation, new processes or outsourcing, but through bringing the very best out of your people.

- Tommy Weir is CEO of enaible: AI-powered leadership and author of “Leadership Dubai Style”. Contact him at tsw@tommyweir.com.