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Making that quantum leap in productivity

Last Sunday's report ("Which course to chart next for S'pore economy?") stated that "many firms are still puzzling over how to cut costs or raise prices to raise productivity".

This is a contradiction. You raise productivity to reduce costs and improve margins, not the other way round.

I can reduce the cost of producing a device or the cost of bringing it to market. I can increase the price of the device I sell but none of these mean workforce productivity has increased. But directly improving workforce productivity has a direct impact on reducing costs and profit margins.

It leads to a sustainable engine for future growth.

Apart from increasing workforce productivity, there are other options to improve the overall efficiency and effectiveness of a business.

Systems improvement through process re-engineering can have a significant impact.

But like any change, skills, knowledge and their transferability are needed.

You cannot make a quantum leap in process improvement and expect everyone to be on board if they are not engaged in the change process or trained for it.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) employ up to 70 per cent of Singapore's labour force. Therein lies the greatest opportunity for productivity improvements - but they need help.

These SMEs need the resources and expertise to bring about quantum leap improvements to their own businesses.

They need to produce three times their current capacity with half the workforce. If they are able to do this, they could double the salaries of their workers and still be very profitable.

One of the first obstacles is our past. We need to stop accepting the status quo.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs put this idea succinctly: "Think different". And thinking differently about how we do things must be our mantra if we are to create change.

Another obstacle is being afraid to fail, which we must not be. Trying new things means taking risks.

We should be cautious but not to the point of getting locked into a fear of failing.

I am sure there are experienced people who can help our SMEs make these quantum leap adjustments.

The Government can also help the talent that are already out there and match them with SMEs that are interested.

Matthew Ong Koon Lock

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 25, 2015, with the headline 'Making that quantum leap in productivity'. Print Edition | Subscribe