By BOB VAN DE KUILEN*

There has been considerable discussion in the media about New Zealand's daunting target for raising annual productivity growth fourfold (New Zealand Treasury, 2002).

Moreover, New Zealand productivity growth in comparison with other OECD countries is relatively low.

Commentators in general are in two minds about the root causes of this lag in productivity.

On the one hand, it is clear we are a small, geographically isolated country with few natural resources at our disposal.

On the other hand, this argument is incomplete; there are many more useful levers that New Zealand can work on to improve our position.

If New Zealand wants to be more productive, it must be more structural and rigorous in its approach to managing business. It should come as no surprise that the most productive countries are the ones that apply a more consistent, stable and longterm approach to business management.

While we may easily surpass European countries in our creative abilities, we lack the consistency of action to really make use of them.

Businesses improve only when there is consistency, structure and rigour around their core processes. That may seem an obvious point at first glance, but how many businesses really practise this?

In many instances, managers fall into the trap of spending too much time devising ideas and initiatives but little time effectively implementing them.

Working as a consultant with large businesses, I have often encountered great ideas that are partly implemented and then put aside.

Subsequently, these organisations are left with a legacy of unfinished initiatives that create more ambiguity for staff about what they are supposed to be doing and how. It also creates a culture that says it is okay to lack rigour.

Why would New Zealand be more susceptible to this than other countries? It lies in our overall cultural outlook.

Colloquial terms such as "kiwi ingenuity", "No 8 wire", and "she'll be right, mate" have been emblems of a mindset that prefers a carefree and improvisational approach to issues - including in the workplace.

While many European countries are regarded as overly structured to the point that they lack spontaneity or even a national sense of humour, New Zealanders have rarely been accused of possessing these characteristics.

Whereas in Europe the structure sometimes hinders the desire to do something novel, the opposite applies in New Zealand - we lack the structure to consistently implement our ideas.

How then can we translate this into practical points for productivity improvement? Let's approach it by looking at the basic behaviours that managers need to adopt.

First, managers ought to begin by installing a structure in their workplace that creates transparency, consistency and rigour around its core processes.

That means actions are always centred on the primary goals of the business. The steps required are straightforward: install

measures at short intervals, understand variances, and identify corrective action.

Secondly, managers should minimise activities that contribute little to the core business and maximise the time on the shop floor, "practising" the key activities until they can be repeated consistently and excellently according to a proper structure of real numbers, problem-solving, and rigorous action.

Thirdly, the number of initiatives and ideas should remain simple and prioritised.

Implement the most important ones first and adopt a binary mentality - it is either 100 per cent implemented or it is not.

The litmus test here is whether the behaviours of staff consistently mirror the initiative itself. Do not overload staff with too many initiatives that distract them from what is important.

Lastly, there is no substitute for practice. As Aristotle said: "Excellence is not a singular act

but a habit - you are what you repeatedly do."

Consistency of behaviours towards structured activity is the cornerstone of improvement. Inconsistency is the basis for mediocrity.

* Bob van de Kuilen is the general manager of Novo Management Consulting.