I cut out a Dilbert cartoon from the New York Times a few weeks ago that I found amusing and shared it with my new Head of School. Dilbert informs his boss that he will be taking advantage of the new unlimited vacation policy by being away for 200 days in the coming year but will still double his productivity. His boss replies that there is no way to measure productivity for engineers.
Of course, bosses are very interested in measuring productivity and marketing executives like to brag about the productivity or efficiency of whatever it is they are selling. Engineers know that it is easy to cheat on measures of productivity and efficiency, for instance, by carefully drawing the boundaries of the system to exclude some inputs or some wasteful outputs [see my post on ‘Drawing Boundaries’ on December 19th, 2012 ]. So claims of productivity or efficiency that sound too good to be true probably aren’t what they seem.
Also in the New York Times [on October 15th, 2013] Mark Bittman discussed the productivity of the two food production systems found in the world, i.e. industrial agriculture and one based on small landholders, what the ETC group refers to as peasant food webs. He reports that the industrial food chain uses 70% of agricultural resources to provide 30% of the world’s food while peasant farming produces the remaining 70% with 30% of the resources. The issue is not that industrial agriculture’s claims for productivity in terms of yields per acre are wrong but that the industry measures the wrong quantity. Efficiency is defined as desired output divided by required input [see my post entitled ‘National efficiency‘ on May 29th, 2013]. In this case the required output is people fed not crop yield and a huge percentage of the yield from industrial agriculture never makes to people’s mouths [see my post entitled ‘Food waste’ on January 23rd, 2013].