Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Productivity Wrongly-Defined

...since we are dealing with an organic process, analysis of what happens in any particular part of it-say, in an individual concern or industry- may indeed clarify details of mechanism but is inconclusive beyond that. Every piece of business strategy acquires its true significance only against the background of that process and within the situation created by it. It must be seen in its role in the perennial gale of creative destruction; it cannot be understood irrespective of it or, in fact, on the hypothesis that there is a perennial lull.

Joseph A. Schumpeter
Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 1942

This morning on CNBC, the Squawkbox crew debated recently-revised “productivity” data for the US economy. I use quotes because I have my doubts that the popular use of the term promotes clarity of thinking, as I hope to demonstrate in this piece.

Steve Liesman spent a considerable amount of time discussing how the improved physical output of a machine would improve productivity of its worker, and also profitability of the firm using it. If only life were that simple.

As my old boss and mentor, Gerry Weiss, SVP of Corporate Planning & Development at the old Chase Manhattan Bank used to say, producing another poorly-selling Cadillac Cimarron more efficiently adds little, if any value to the US economy.

Simply put, there is a major difference between efficiency and productivity. I find most classically-trained economists make this mistake, Schumpeter’s passage notwithstanding. To understand the difference, we need to understand the “background,” as Schumpeter stated in his 1942 book.

Liesman made a common mistake in assuming that whatever that machine was producing could be sold at a market-clearing price, thus improving overall profitability and margins. However, this isn’t correct. Productivity didn’t improve from that machine’s added output- efficiency did. We only know about the physical output of the machine per unit of time or other resources- workers, maintenance expense, etc.

We know nothing about the sale price of the product into which the machine’s output goes, nor the price elasticity of the product, the demand for it at various prices, etc. These elements affect what I call the product’s, or sub-component’s “resource value productivity.” This would be the value-added to the firm of that component or product divided by the particular resource, in this case, a more efficient machine.

Confusing efficiency of output with the ability to create more value-added per unit of resource shows a lack of understanding of how economics is morphed in a company into marketing.

For example, what if the management of the firm in question has mis-estimated demand, and the newly-efficient machine is producing unwanted product? Think this is rare? Look at GM, Ford, Merck, or even a Hollywood movie studio. If GM more efficiently produces an SUV that will sit on a dealer’s lot, to be sold at deep discount, was there any productivity gain? Or was an unwanted, little-valued product made more efficiently?

It strikes me as odd that reporters on a leading business program can be so well-versed in economic theory, but miss the major difference that an advanced, consumer-driven market economy has over a production-driven economy. That difference is the need for producers in the former to get product development and price-points right, in order to sell highly-valued merchandise and services to a demanding and selective market. Once you grasp this, you immediately can grasp how production efficiencies are not at all the same thing as resource (value) productivity.

Schumpeter’s observations about the perennial gale of creative destruction makes this so. Too bad so many business people and economists recall the two-word phrase, but not the author’s deeper analysis of its implications.

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