The forest brigades of the former USSR Gulag in Yertsevo, Siberia, were the basis of the labor camp’s production plan. Wood cutting was divided among several teams of four or five prisoners, who felled pines with a thin curved saw, stripped the trees of bark and bough and burned the detritus. They then sawed the trunks into logs of a prescribed length and stacked them in piles a yard or two high. A forest brigade’s work output determined the “norm” or daily food ration per worker. If their daily production capacity reached or surpassed 125% they could stand in the serving queue for the third cauldron. Their morning meal would be a large spoonful of thick boiled barley and a scrap of salted fish. The second cauldron was for prisoners with a daily productivity of 100% — a spoonful of barely without the piece of fish. The first cauldron was for workers from those brigades with production so low, it was impossible to calculate in percentages. This queue presented the most terrible view — a long row of beggars in torn rags waiting for their spoonful of the thinnest barely.
The norm for wood brigades was excessively high and impossible to beat, except with the help of „toufta” — an ingenious system of cheating for survival. Without the toufta no brigade could ever have reached even a 100% output.
I read this story in A World Apart: A Journal of a Gulag Survivor, by Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, and it still resonates with me. How does the productivity measurement approach in Yertsevo differ from our daily project life? In which rations queue would your team stand? Have you reached or, better, surpassed your goal? Is your goal realistic and attainable?
Though it is unbelievable, a significant number of companies are still stuck in the productivity mud. Management is often maniacal about measuring efficiency and optimizations across teams or even per developer. They set overly ambitious productivity goals to challenge people, to ask them to deliver more. They stopped (or perhaps never started?) believing that everyone will do the best job they can given the situation at hand. Though in reality, we are not able to do more than we are capable of, given our knowledge at the time, skills and abilities. In many cases, it’s impossible to surpass the daily productivity rates except with the help of toufta. A hungry man simply does not stop to think, but is ready to do anything for an extra spoonful of soup.