ABOUT AUSTRALIAN PRODUCTIVITY COUNCIL
The Australian Productivity Council is the descendant of the Productivity Groups Movement, a voluntary association of business members formed in the middle of the last century to improve productive efficiency in areas of mutual interest.
Over the next sixteen years, the PPCA actively supported the Productivity Groups, undertook promotional activity, co-operated widely with related associations, commissioned research projects, issued awards, produced books and films, published productivity newsletters and convened expert panels to address important industrial issues. The PPCA developed and implemented training programs in conjunction with leading Australian companies and completed numerous industrial engineering projects. This was a period of intense activity and a considerable output of useful work was achieved for a relatively small public investment.
The PPCA was staffed by industry professionals and seconded Commonwealth public servants. The program design and delivery model which emerged from this group sought to combine input from academic sources with the insights of practical business people. This approach was evident in the content of PPCA publications, the nature of its consultancy work and the highly effective training programs that it delivered. The period established a tradition of joining sound theory and common sense methods, an approach which the organisation has sought to preserve into the present time. The strong bias of the PPCA was for practical programs, voluntary engagement and community service.
The era of the PPCA coincided with a period of transformation in the Australian economy. During this time, the age of protectionism that had reached from Federation (and earlier in Victoria) to John Mc Ewan’s policy of “protection all round” was steadily dismantled in favour of the liberal framework currently in place. As part of a shift in political and bureaucratic thinking towards free market ideas, the PPCA was advised that the era of public funding would be brought to an end.
To respond to the challenging financial situation this entailed, the governing board recruited a new Executive Director, A J (Bert) Holley, from the private sector to lead the change of the PPCA into a more commercial organisation.
The PPCA had also tried ways of adapting Japanese-style Quality Circles to Australian workplace conditions. This effort had resulted in the concept of Productivity Improvement Teams, a participatory training program developed in conjunction with Arnott’s Biscuits that had been widely and effectively deployed throughout Australia from the late 1970s.(2)
The individual and teams-based employee programs developed by the PPCA had been highly effective, but they were training and problem-solving approaches that fell well short of full management participation. After 1985, the new APC leadership group sought to re-balance the PPCA-derived program base; it retreated from calls for industrial democracy and moved to strengthen the range of direct technical consultancy services offered, basing these on the standard industrial and production engineering techniques.
The first fruit of this revised approach was the Enterprise Quality Improvement Program (EQuIP), introduced in Victoria, with state government support, in 1986. This program was completed by more than 190 companies and incorporated organisational analysis, employee productivity and quality awareness training, industrial and production engineering diagnostic consultancy and product design evaluation.
The EQuIP program coincided with an elevated interest in quality management in Australian business.
7. Quality Assurance
Quality issues had always been important to the PPCA and were a regular feature of Productivity Group problem solving activities. The PPCA had contributed to the raising of quality awareness in Australian business in a number of ways; it had, in conjunction with the Australian Organisation for Quality Control (AOQC), brought Dr J M Juran to Australia for a series of seminars in 1974, it proselytized and published books on the subject, including, in 1981, the widely distributed Quality Control for Small Business by F C Sandel.
8. Since Privatisation
Over the quarter century since privatisation, the APC’s program focus shifted, of necessity, towards a concentration on fee-for-service training, technical consultancy and the provision of management support services. The most important change in the Australian economy over this period has been the steady decline of manufacturing as a share of GDP. (3) De-industrialisation has led to a gradual re-direction of APC programs towards the service economy as the demand for the traditional offerings in training, industrial, production and product engineering services fell in line with the contraction of manufacturing.
9. The work of the Australian Productivity Council
The work of the APC since privatisation has sought, as far as possible, to maintain the sense of altruism and useful purpose of the predecessor organisation, to the establishment of which so many eminent Australians had given of their time and effort. After considerable experimentation, the way in which this purpose was reconciled with commercial necessity was through the development of an innovative service delivery model designed to provide beneficial expertise to businesses at a reasonable cost.
(2) Productivity improvement teams differed in form from Quality Circles in that they were task-based rather than permanent, had membership drawn from across functional areas, as needed, and operated independently from the firms’ formal hierarchy during their deliberations.
(3) In 1957, when the first Productivity Groups were formed, manufacturing accounted for 29.5% of Australian GDP, a share midway between that of the UK (about 32%) and the USA (about 27%) in the same year. As a result of the removal of tariffs, the floating of the currency and other reforms, the manufacturing share of Australian GDP has now fallen to 6.5%.