Martin  Leuw
Martin Leuw Non-Executive Chairman

The first business I ran taught me an important lesson about productivity. Our small factory in Balham, south London, manufactured a range of three thousand specialist cartoon cell paint colours that we shipped to the big animation studios worldwide. Our production capacity, which had historically been limited to two colours per person per day, was struggling to meet demand so we trialled piece work per colour to give our team “skin in the game”. That is, we rewarded the people who produced the most. Our output doubled overnight and, crucially, everyone benefited.

Recent data from the Office for National Statistics shows that UK productivity continues to lag behind other G7 nations. Historically, to achieve 2.5 per cent growth in GDP, 2 per cent of our increase in output has been made up of a growth in productivity and 0.5 per cent from the growth of the workforce.

Hidden within these worrying macro statistics are dynamic enterprises that punch well above their weight. The task for business owners is to learn more from each other to ensure that we collectively bridge the productivity gap.

I have worked in a variety of different industries and find that visiting other businesses with reputations for “best in class” (often by function, eg service, production or sales) is time well spent. For example, one trip to the telesales centre when we were setting up our own inbound sales team at IRIS Software was like a fast-track training scheme.

Drawing on your contacts, or simply cold-calling people and telling them that they impress you, does pay dividends. The transformative power of business networks is immense yet too often we get blinkered by the relentless daily priorities that reduce our field of vision and slow us down.

I love the challenge question "Will it make the boat go faster?" coined by the GB Men’s 8 rowing team, who won gold in the Sydney Olympics, and used by Ben Hunt-Davis, one of the winning team, to successfully adapt the lessons they learnt to business. They came first by letting go of trying to control winning and focused on the things they could control to optimise performance. It requires a relentless focus on probably no more than six factors, eliminating all the distracting initiatives that dilute our efforts from the things that really matter. It is a simple but powerful way to improve output and, in a trading environment with more factors outside our control than ever, vitally important for all businesses.

Two areas where our expectations often do not match reality — value leakage, in the corporate jargon — are employee and customer losses. Those losses can be minimised if employees, customers and your company are all aligned around a clear goal: in our company’s case it is to create, maintain and sustain the environment. In the case of employees and our field team — all self-employed businesses in their own right — we have created “skin in the game” through wide employee equity ownership and contracts based upon performance principles that reward quality and productivity. There is nothing better than being challenged by a colleague about a decision we have made because, they say: “I’m a shareholder and I care and want to understand.”

Although boardroom discussions at times like these are crucial there is nothing like a bit of time in the field to listen to the challenges faced by our people first hand. Last month I attended one of our Ground Control Field Team events, where we have been catching up with the hundreds of independent contracting businesses that deliver our environmental maintenance and biodiversity services to our corporate clients at more than 60,000 sites.

I wanted to understand better what we could do to help to improve their business and operational performance, which in turn will drive our own. Their biggest costs are payroll and transportation (fuel, vehicles and equipment), so how they use their time is the key way they can improve their productivity. Every day they have to adapt, among other things, to changing weather conditions, unscheduled maintenance repairs, accessibility to sites and the impact of all these things on their route scheduling.

Our teams do not compete with each other directly, so we have a good opportunity to share best practice, as it is in all our interests. We work hard to reduce their admin so they can focus on the job in hand, using automated invoicing to accelerate cashflow and introducing technology to support scheduling and photographic proof of work completed.

Rapid growth in recent years and a tight labour market coupled with inflationary pressures have shown that processes and behaviours that worked in the past need constant refinement if our boat is to go faster. That means smoother onboarding of new teams, training and learning, as well as assistance to reduce carbon emissions (the field teams are part of Ground Control’s scope 3 emissions).

Finally, when we look at productivity, measurement (of the right things) is key, as is the accumulation of data to track performance. Financial measures such as revenue/profit per employee are common but I prefer assessing “capacity” through units such as work done, calls received, cases closed and customers supported, per person, including the impact of technology and training to drive our economies of scale and the efficiency of our service delivery. Our time is such a valuable and finite commodity that I am always on the lookout for the time bandits intent on stealing it from us.

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