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Productivity Lag I

Each person naturally has a different learning curve. When an engineer is assigned a new task to perform on a new technical project, there will be a lag in productivity because, well,  it’s new to him/her. The person needs time to learn and understand the context surrounding the project and the details of the problem to be solved. Since each person is different, each person will have a different time-to-productivity, or Critical Mass Time (CMT). The graphic below shows a typical learning curve for a specific person. The slope increases with time because as new learning occurs, it feeds on itself and the acquisition of knowledge gets easier.

productivity 1

The CMT is a physically underive-able function of the experience and expertise (two independent qualities) of a person. It is also a function of the area of overlap between those two attributes and the novelty/depth of the problem to be solved. As the figure below shows, the person-specific CMT is at its minimum when there is 100% overlap. Note that if there is no overlap, the CMT is essentially infinity. This sad state can happen, for example, if a Radio Frequency circuit designer is assigned the task of designing and writing product software, or a plumber is assigned to perform brain surgery, or an enterprise IT software engineer is assigned the task of writing embedded signal processing software. It’s easy to find other examples of total mismatch.

productivity lag

Assuming that the experience and expertise of each person in a group of people overlaps somewhat with the project task that needs to be performed (no cases where CMT = infinity), the graphic below shows how CMT differences within the group can vary radically. Obviously, if you were a manager, you’d like to have Person 1 working the problem.

productivity 4

So what happens when an executive manager or marketer commits the company to a scheduled project completion date without knowing the learning curves of his/her people, or the difficulty of the problem to be solved? As the figure below shows, blown schedules occur. Before (and after) the schedule is missed, increasing pressure-to-complete is continuously exerted by management, mistrust grows, and the employee-management relationship suffers. Of course, since management is (at least) one level removed from the action and they don’t have to perform the task themselves, they are blameless. Because of the FAE, the employee, of course, is fully at fault and a “performance improvement” plan may be in order. If an employee ruffles feathers and dares to publicly point out the mismatch, accusations of “not being a team player“, “malcontent“, and/or “bad attitude” are the thanks he/she gets. If the employee persists, the ostracism may be followed by a stronger message to STFU – a required trip to “people-skills school“.


This pattern of dysfunctional behavior occurs so often in hierarchical corpos across the land that it is taken for granted and it is “undiscussable“. It is also one of the reasons why people do everything they can to get out of the pig sty and climb the corpo ladder to succes. The further away from the action you move, the higher the chance that  you’ll be sanctioned by the big boys(gals) to convert from a pressure-receiver into a pressure-exerter. As an added bonus, you’ll make more money because of your “increased responsibilities” (sic).

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