A lot of my friends are initially surprised to know that one of my professional strands is as a Life and Productivity Coach. I don't know why. I guess it might be that my life appears fairly chaotic from the outside and ceratinly managing several channels of activity simulatneously including a young family is sometimes challenging. In fact I am obsessed with the arts of productivity and efficiency which for me means CREATIVITY!

I've always said that a guy with both feet on the floor is a guy who can't put his pants on but on the other hand a guy with no feet on the floor is either levitating or about to fall over. For me it's all about BALANCE. That also includes being out of balance because if you are in a permanent state of anything you're probably dead.

My productivity principle thinking today has centred around COMPETENCE. I think of that as a central value whether you drive a bus or run a large organisation. Even buying a newspaper from someone who treats you like shit can be a disheartening experience. And it is corrosive because the disenchantment of activity that leads to an uncaring dismissive service is contagious. So that's why, when I'm asked about performance and standards in any kind of organisation I always look first at the experience of the customer, of the service-user. Competence is defined in the OED as adequacy, being qualified. But I want a bit more than that frankly. In my own organisation Excellence is one of the permanent items on every monthly team meeting. I am constantly challenging my team to keep re-defining it in terms of their own performance, their ongoing self -appraisal. So if competence is the bottomline then excellence is the upper point and the constant tension between the two creates the momentum towards an ever-improving service. Do you ever get an organisation that is functionally excellent? Rarely in my experience but I have to say First Direct was one hell of an impressive bank when I used them a few years ago. I am no longer with them and use the Cooperative's smile.co.uk almost purely because of their rather unique ethical policy but although reasonable and certainly much much better than the utterly abysmal high street cousins they couldn't hold a candle to First Direct. What was the difference? Responsiveness/the clear delegation of authority to make decisions to first contact employees/Excellent first contact practices like quick uptake of telephone calls and timely responses to queries and questions. Excellence is not complicated-it's when something just works!

So competence is the first rung on the ladder but without some idea of service, that connection with the client, it can become heartless efficiency which is the plague that affllicts the modern workplace. If you want to see a kind of soulless efficiency at work visit your average state secondary school where you will see the mindless sausage factory of state education, with disillusioned teachers and unsatisfied pupils, a complete disconnection with what matters. W B Yeats said that education is about lighting a fire not filling a bucket but these days it seems to be about dousing any sparks of originality or creativity.

Competence is about getting things done and the productivity guru David Allen has developed a great system (known as GTD) for doing just that in his book of the same name. This forms the bedrock of my own working life where I am juggling several different activities as writer, social care executive, musician and performer and father with many projects running simultaneously. It can be done! The thing about competence is that doing something well makes you feel good while doing something badly makes you feel crap.

The woman in the Post Office blinked at me when I asked her what was the matter.
'It's only that you look like you've had some really bad news or have I done something to offend you? Please tell me if I have.'

Make it a practice that when treated with incompetence you draw attention to it politely but firmly. Maybe that way we can get rid of it. And it is kind of important. If the world's environmental crisis was a project, everyone involved with it would have been sacked long ago, but that's another story. The one about preserving the illusion of incompetence as a means of maintaining the status quo. Sometimes greed doesn't want anything to happen.

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