Machines Can’t Flow: The Difference Between Mechanical and Human Productivity

In her article ‘Machines Can’t Flow’, Linda Stone boldly asserts that as technology has progressed, our methods for quantifying machine productivity have merged with human worker productivity standards. Today’s view of efficiency has become more work at a fast pace to maximize productivity and output could actually be working against quality. In interviews about time management, mid level managers expressed concerns and anxiety. They lamented that they simply could not get everything done in the amount of time allotted, and those who did reported higher levels of distress at work. While mid level managers spoke about time, surgeons, midwives, and high level managers focused on time and attention in tandem. They engage fully in each task, reaching a state of “flow” for maximized productivity and attention. Surgeons perhaps in particular, are required to adopt the flow state since rush and sole focus on time will only lead to mistakes, sloppiness, and even risk patient’s life.

Stone believes that engagement hold the key to a redefined productivity, a productivity that focuses not on output per time unit, but the process, outcomes, and quality of the overall product. Most companies measure telephone staff on markers of output: minutes on the phone and effectiveness of selling to customers. Prevalent companies instead measure their employees on engagement, not on an output quantity. GoDaddy and Zappos work to train telephone personnel to engage and interact with customers resulting in both increased job satisfaction and customer loyalty. Stone suggests that schools should not quantify students and teachers on standardized tests but instead measure their engagement in the classroom. Engagement leads to positive outcomes.

By measuring engagement productivity can be redefined and companies can increase production and customer satisfaction. Humans are not machines and standards should be shaped as such.