Productivity Improvement via Method study

There are a number of approaches to improving productivity: the best-known currently is probably ‘Lean’ (more later) but such approaches go back many years to the days of the early ‘productivity pioneers’.

Essentially – because of the nature of the productivity ratio – all are concerned with making better use of existing resources … or reducing the resources needed to produce current outputs.

This introduction to productivity improvement methodologies will focus on just one of them (others will follow – but all of them are some form of variation of the same underlying approach.

Many people (and especially people of ‘a certain age’) will immediately think of ‘time and motion’ when asked to describe a productivity methodology. This refers to the early days of ‘work study’ when the aim (as it often still is today) is to reduce the time taken by, and the motion involved in, work. This is reflected by the fact that work study was made up of 2 complementary techniques: method study and work measurement. Work measurement – as the name suggests – involves measuring how long work takes ….. as the basis of understanding how time can be reduced … and as the basis of comparing different ways (methods) of carrying out the work.

However, the ‘improvement’ methodology of work study was method study … and an understanding of method study gives a real insight into how all productivity improvement methodologies work.

Method Study

Method study is the process of subjecting work (or working methods – hence the name) to systematic, critical scrutiny in order to make it more effective and/or more efficient.

It was originally designed for the analysis and improvement of repetitive, manual work, but it can be used for all types of activity at all levels of an organisation.

The process is often seen as a linear, described by its main steps of:

  • Select (the work to be studied);
  • Record (all relevant information about that work);
  • Examine (the recorded information);
  • Develop (an improved way of doing things);
  • Install (the new method as standard practice);
  • Maintain (the new standard practice).
Although this linear representation (S R E D I M) shows the underlying simplicity of method study, in practice the process is much more one of iteration around the above steps with each dominating at a different stage of the investigation.

The process often starts with a quick, rough overview in which preliminary data are collected and examined, before subsequent passes provide and handle more comprehensive and more detailed data to obtain and analyse a more complete picture.

Work is selected for method study on the basis of it being an identified problem area or an identified opportunity (resulting from a systematic review of available data, normal monitoring or control processes, high levels of dissatisfaction and complaint or as part of a management-derived change in policy, practice, technology or location), and usually because it meets certain conditions of urgency and/or priority.

Before any method study investigation is begun, it is necessary to establish clear terms of reference which define the aims, scale, scope and constraints of the investigation. This should also include an identification of who "owns" the problem or situation and ways in which such "ownership" is shared. This may lead to a debate on the aims of the project, on reporting mechanisms and frequencies, and on the measures of success. This process is sometimes introduced as a separate and distinct phase of method study, as the "define" stage. It leads to a plan for the investigation which identifies appropriate techniques, personnel, and timescale.

The Record stage of method study is to provide sufficient data (in terms of both quality and quantity) to act as the basis of evaluation and examination. A wide range of techniques are available for recording; the choice depends on the nature of the investigation and the work being studied, and on the level of detail required. Many of the techniques are simple charts and diagrams, but these may be supplemented by photographic and video recording, and by computer based techniques.

Especially with "hard" (clearly defined) problems, method study often involves the construction and analysis of models, from simple charts and diagrams used to record and represent the situation to full, computerised simulations. Manipulation of the models leads to experimentation with possible ideas for development.

The recorded data are subjected to examination and analysis; formalised versions of this process are critical examination and systems analysis. The aim is to identify, often through a structured, questioning process, those points of the overall system of work that require improvements or offer opportunity for beneficial change.

A simple technique at the heart of Method Study is ‘critical examination’. This asks a series of primary and secondary questions, attempting to get at ‘the truth’ and at the ‘possible’ before taking decisions on how to change working methods.

The questions asked about a work activity are:

What is achieved?

Why do we need it?

What would happen if we didn’t do it?

What could we do instead?

Who does it? (Type, grade and skill level of worker)

Why that person/team?

Who else could do it?

Who should do it?

When is it done? (Where in the overall sequence of activities?)

Why then?

When else could it be done?

When should it be done?

Where is it done?

Why there?

Where else could it be done?

Where should it be done?

How is it done?

Why that way?

How else could it be done?

How should it be done?

The Examine stage merges into the Develop stage of the investigation as more thorough analysis leads automatically to identified areas of change. The aim here is to identify possible actions for improvement and to subject these to evaluation in order to develop a preferred solution.

Sometimes it is necessary to identify short-term and long-term solutions so that improvements can be made (relatively) immediately, while longer-term changes are implemented and come to fruition.

The success of any method study project is realised when actual change is made 'on the ground' - change that meets the originally specified terms of reference for the project. Thus, the Install phase is very important. Making theoretical change is easy; making real change demands careful planning - and handling of the people involved in the situation under review. They may need reassuring, retraining and supporting through the acquisition of new skills. Install, in some cases, will require a parallel running of old and new systems, in others, it may need the build-up of buffer stocks, and in others ..... what matters is that the introduction of new working methods is successful. There is often only one chance to make change!

Some time after the introduction of new working methods, it is necessary to check that the new method is working, that it is being adhered to, and that it has brought about the desired results. This is the Maintain phase. Method drift is common - when people start to either revert to old ways of working, or introduce new changes. Some of these may be helpful (and should formally be incorporated); others may be inefficient or unsafe. A methods audit can be used to formally compare practice with the defined method and identify such 'irregularities'.

There is nothing inherently ‘clever’ or ‘sophisticated’ about method study …. Like all productivity improvement methodologies it simply uses a structured approach to ensure we ask all the right questions – thoroughly!


Productivity is my 'bag' ... it is what I know about. I am President of the World Confederation of Productivity Science - and Director of the National Productivity Centre in the UK - go to this site for some good free resources and some (paid for but low price) e-learning on productivity. I also edit the International Journal of Productivity & Performance Management. My views on productivity and on learning (which I think are related) are su...

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