Boosting productivity will need a change of mindset, businesses say

Boosting productivity will need a change of mindset, businesses say
Deputy Prime Minster Tharman said Singapore needs a workplace culture where employees’ views and contributions are valued, up and down the line. Photo: Today file photo
Time to think about altering the ‘mindware’, and giving employees greater say in improving efficiency
Published: 4:05 AM, February 24, 2014
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SINGAPORE — After Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam called for a cultural shift among employers and Singaporeans to drive the push for increased productivity, leading business figures have agreed that a mindset change is necessary for Singapore’s economic restructuring, even if the process will be long and arduous.

“We need a workplace culture where employees’ views and contributions are valued, up and down the line,” Mr Tharman said during his Budget speech on Friday. “We also need a culture of mastery of the job. As individuals or companies, and as a society, we have to take pride in developing expertise and flair in every vocation.”

This notion is timely for the Government’s productivity push after years of slow progress despite the vast resources poured into helping businesses upgrade technologies and processes, said Mr Victor Tay, Chief Operating Officer of the Singapore Business Federation (SBF).

“We need only look at last year, when our labour productivity growth was a flat zero per cent. So it has perhaps come to the Government’s attention that, after the initial phase of focusing on the hardware, it is now time to think about the ‘mindware’,” he told TODAY.

A mindset conducive to growing productivity has not taken root in Singapore because “companies have been trained to focus on the dollars and cents in our high cost environment,” Mr Tay added. “We have some way to go before we can be like Japan, where productivity is ingrained in the culture at every level of a business’s operations.”

Part of this cultural shift involves having an open communication process which allows employees to play an active role in improving productivity, said Mr Sam Chee Wah, General Manager of electronic manufacturer Feinmetall.

“A lot of firms tackle the productivity issue only with a top-down approach. When there’s no clear communication with staff on an initiative they won’t buy into the programme, because they won’t feel the benefit in simply being told to do something,” he said.

Feinmetall has around 35 employees, who participate in informal, monthly lunch meetings where everyone sits down to share what they think will make their work processes more effective and efficient, Mr Sam said.

“It is sessions like this where we really stop looking at challenges from a broad-based perspective and come up with good, realistic ideas, such as having a screen in the company lobby to show our production schedule, which helps workers in their planning.”

Mr Bernard Yang, Director of retailer Nanyang Optical, agreed that staff engagement is a new priority, and something that companies like his are learning to focus on. He employs around 100 people across 15 branches in Singapore.

“But it’s not easy — people are used to being told by the boss to do something, even if it doesn’t work. We’re still taking the baby steps to change that mindset,” he said.

Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman’s call for Singaporeans to take pride in their work regardless of industry will also be a tall challenge, especially for sectors like retail and food services, Mr Yang added.

“Singaporeans grow up being taught to look at certain jobs as more desirable and others as more suitable for foreigners — this has been ingrained into the national mindset,” he said. “So it’ll take some time for people to finally see genuine career prospects in the retail industry.”

The SBF’s Mr Tay agreed with that view: “Our education system has been training individuals to work for multinationals and move up this value chain. So this cultural shift will be one that involves a wholesale change of our entire environment, from the government down to all parts of the private sector as well as individuals.”

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