Category Archives: Time Management

Shorter Meetings

I’ve been trying something new lately when it comes to meetings. I started by looking at the number of meetings I attend. I don’t think I am too far outside the norm by saying, I seem to attend a significant number of meetings. I think I have said this before. We may have hit the point where we seem to establish our credibility and measure our value contribution by the number of meeting we attend. We have now associated attending meetings with making progress.

I then started looking at what actual portion of the meeting was I actually engaged in or contributing to. I am sure there are those that would question my engagement or contribution to any meeting I attend or participate in.

The point here however, is that I found that there were specific portions or times during meetings where the topic being discussed was germane to me and I needed to be fully engaged and participative. The rest of the time, maybe not quite so much.

When I looked further at this relative “down” time I would experience in a meeting, I found that a significant portion of it was associated with what I will call “related” meeting topics, not the specific meeting topics. I’ll give an example.

I was in a project review meeting where the objective was to detail the status of the project. An issue was identified. This is a good thing. But it quickly caused the meeting to go off the rails. Instead of identifying the issue, and assigning those responsible to work out a resolution, those responsible for working out a resolution proceeded to try and work out their solution – during the review, with everyone else waiting to contribute their portions of the review.

The issue was important. But more so specifically to a subset of all those in attendance. The rest of the meeting attendees (myself included) time was less than efficiently spent listening to the attempted resolution of a topic that may not have been completely defined, or fully germane to their areas of focus.

In other words. We sat there on the call.

The meeting dragged on. Another issue was identified which created another attempt at an on-line resolution.

The meeting ran out of time so that those at the end of the agenda had to curtail their reports.

The meeting ran over the allotted time.

Parkinson’s Law was reaffirmed.

For those of you that are not familiar with Parkinson’s Law, according to Google, it is as follows:

“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. A proverb coined by the twentieth-century British scholar C. Northcote Parkinson, known as Parkinson’s Law. It points out that people usually take all the time allotted (and frequently more) to accomplish any task.”…0.0..0.86.947.13……0….1..gws-wiz…….0i131j0i10.QQZmraKUhpQ

It seems that it may have its roots in science (Physics actually, and as we all know I am extremely fond of Physics).

”This law is likely derived from ideal gas law, whereby a gas expands to fit the volume allotted.”

And as we all know, if it is science, it must be true.

As with any scientific theory, several corollaries have been created as a result.

“The first-referenced meaning of the law has dominated, and sprouted several corollaries, the best known being the Stock–Sanford corollary to Parkinson’s law:

“If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.”

Other corollaries include Horstman’s corollary to Parkinson’s law:

“Work contracts to fit in the time we give it.”

All of this got me to thinking. And, as we also all know, this can be a dangerous situation for not only me, but all those involved or effected. It seems to me that meetings have taken on a status where it’s okay to ramble and take extra time, because invariably we make excuses for, or accept this kind of meeting behavior. The end result is that the meeting does achieve is goal, but it takes far more time than anyone is comfortable spending, and no one feels a sense of accomplishment when it is done.

My answer to this issue was pretty simple.
I made my meetings shorter.

Instead of having a one-hour review, once a week on Wednesdays, I scheduled two – one half hour reviews on Tuesday and Friday. I didn’t reduce the agendas or topics either. We covered everything in each meeting.

You might ask how this is possible? The answer is really very simple.

I became ruthless in cutting non-specific meeting discussions off.

If the meeting is a review, then it was a read-out, or reporting delivery only. If an issue was identified, it was immediately taken off-line, with an action item and an owner identified and would be resolved so that it could be read out and reported during the next half-hour call.

No exceptions.

It took a couple of meetings for the team to understand and get the rhythm of the approach, but the results have been very apparent. The project is moving faster. Ownership of issues and their resolution is much clearer. Progress is accelerated.

Just to review: we are spending the same total amount of time in meetings on the project reviews, but we are making more, and faster progress toward our objectives.

Looking back at Horstman’s Corollary to Parkinson’s Law, meaning if work expands to fill available time, that it should also contract to fit available time. Parkinson’s Law would mean if we schedule a one hour review we will conduct the meeting in such a way as to fill the full hour (and then some). Horstman’s Corollary would say that if we reduce the available time from one hour to a half-hour, we should be able to get the work done in that interval as well.

They both seem to be correct.

The issue is changing what were full hour meeting behaviors to the now necessary half-hour meeting behaviors. That means:

Ruthlessly staying on topic.
If it is a read-out meeting, read out only. Issues need to be taken off line, resolved and then read out at the next read-out meeting. If it is an issue resolution meeting, resolve the identified issue only. Don’t read out. Don’t work on other, related issues.

Cutting them off.
Many times, presenters do not know how to end their presentations. Sideline discussions, anecdotes, stories and all other manner of communications needs to be curtailed. Then move on.

Action Items.
Just because non-germane topics come up does not mean that they are not important topics. Clearly note them. Assign an owner and a time for resolution – and move on. Do not allow the group to lose focus on the topic at hand. This will keep everyone engaged.

Own it.
If it is your meeting, then it is your responsibility not to waste everyone else’s time. Stay on topic. Cut them off if necessary. Assign the action items. Publish the meeting minutes.

I didn’t set out to prove what are widely regarded as accurate, if not tongue-in-cheek axioms regarding how time is spent in business. I actually set out to see if I could start to reduce the amount of “down” time I was spending in meetings in general.

I am reasonably well convinced that the reason we have so much multi-tasking during meetings is due to the length and engagement requirements we now seem to expect in our meetings. We know the meeting will be longer than we want. We know that we will really only need to be fully engaged and aware for a relatively small percentage of the time that the meeting is conducted.

We know we will be bored the rest of the time.

The alternatives are to either multi-task, or to reduce the total time of the meeting in order to reduce the down time. Multi-tasking is the meeting attendee approach to solving their individual wasted meeting time issue. Reducing the actual meeting time is the meeting owner approach to solving everyone’s wasted meeting time issue.

Conducting shorter meetings will take significantly more effort on behalf of the meeting owner, and by extension some of the attendees, but I have found that you can actually get more done in the meeting by taking this approach. And I think that everyone in the meeting appreciates that, since that is supposed to be the objective of the meeting in the first place.

The Optimal Meeting Length

I think that the new business reality is that it is the rare event when something actually gets done without first having a meeting. We need to know who will be Responsible for the action to be taken, and who will be Accountable for taking it, and who will need to be Consulted before it is taken and who will be Informed of its being taken. We will spend hours in meetings in this type of analysis before we actually do anything. We seem to have evolved the business approach that having a meeting about something is the same thing as taking action.

With all this time being spent in meetings trying to decide how to split the accountability and responsibility for doing anything, it got me to thinking: What would be the optimal length for a meeting, not just one of these deciding how to take action meetings, but any meeting?

I looked. There is any number of books available on line purporting to help people run efficient and effective meetings. I was in a meeting when I Googled that so I really didn’t have the time to read any of them. Who knows some of them might actually hold the key. But since we are in the here and now I will take my kick at the can (and utilize some of my own web sleuthing) to come up with what I think is the optimal length for any meeting.

There will be a few meeting ground rules.

• For it to officially be considered a meeting it must be visual in nature. That means that you either have to be there in person, or attend via video. Audio attendance at a meeting only is a phone call / conversation regardless of how you want to describe it, and it enables everyone associated with the call to multi-task doing email, play solitaire, or any other distraction they may so choose.

• If it is a real meeting it will have an agenda. If you don’t have set topics, speakers and time frames it is not a meeting. It is an unstructured discussion, or lunch. Without an agenda you should not expect to get anything done.

• The only computer that is to be open during the meeting is that of the person presenting. Open computers enable everyone to multi-task (see the first bullet above) instead of paying attention to the topic of the meeting. It’s also discourteous to the presenter.

• There should be no refreshments of any kind at the meeting. No bagels or muffins for a morning meeting. No coffee or soft drinks. The object of the meeting participants should be to get something done, not get fed and watered. If you really have to bribe people with food to get them to come to your meeting, maybe you don’t really need to have a meeting.

• Finally, there will be no leaving the meeting and coming back for any reason. No taking phone calls. No smoking breaks. And lastly, no bathroom breaks. Get that done before or after the meeting. Don’t disrupt it by having to go.

I understand that these rules will take a lot of the fun out of meetings. People will actually have to show up and pay attention. I know this is a lot to ask, but I do think it is critical that we get back to the old outdated ways of actually getting things done. Show up. Do your work. Then go do something else.

Now when we are talking about meetings, we are talking about the internal gathering of company employees. They can be called reviews, or updates, or deep dives or just about any other euphemism that you can come up with for having people get together for a business purpose. I will refer generically to all these events as “meetings”.

I am also going to specifically exclude meetings with customers from this discussion for the time being, since those types of meetings are held only with the consent of the customer and at their discretion. Many of the ground rules I have laid out would and should apply, but some (such as food and refreshments) may not.

With the ground rules in place and the meeting defined as not including customers we can get started on how long a meeting should take, or should last, depending on how you want to look at it.

Research (Google) shows that the average person goes to the bathroom about six times a day. That same research also shows that the average person stays awake about seventeen hours a day. Using simple math that means that the average person goes to the bathroom on average once every three hours or so (actually a little less than that). I think this is a good upper bound for a meeting’s length.

Now if we use a little probability theory, because not everyone goes to the bathroom at the same time, we will find that on average for any meeting of two or more people someone will have to go within half the average time frame. That means that our maximum meeting length is now slightly less than an hour and a half.

Even better.

Now on to other research (Google) topics. Estimates for the length of human attention span are highly variable and depend on the precise definition of attention being used.

• Transient attention is a short-term response to a stimulus that temporarily attracts/distracts attention. Researchers disagree on the exact amount of human transient attention span; some say it may be as short as 8 seconds.

I think it is safe to assume that senior management is more Transient Attention oriented.

• Selective sustained attention, also known as focused attention, is the level of attention that produces the consistent results on a task over time. Some state that the average human attention span is approximately 5 minutes; others state that most healthy teenagers and adults are unable to sustain attention on one thing for more than about 20 minutes at a time, although they can choose repeatedly to re-focus on the same thing. This ability to renew attention permits people to “pay attention” to things that last for more than a few minutes, such as long movies.

Attention span, as measured by sustained attention, or the time spent continuously on task, varies with age. Older children are capable of longer periods of attention than younger children.

It doesn’t say anything about executives or managers. Insert your own experience based limit here, however my experience has taught me that they tend to align with younger children.

I have been writing this for an hour or two and I think I need to take a break. I’ll be right back….

Okay, if we accept that people can pay attention to a single topic for up to twenty minutes, but that they can continue to “refocus” on interesting topics in order to stay engaged for longer periods of time, the question now becomes; how many times can they refocus? This is where true science comes into play.

In baseball its three strikes and you’re out.

Asking people to maintain their attention, and refocus multiple times while limiting the number of bathroom breaks is a lot to ask. Asking people to refocus their attention three times for a total of sixty minutes seems to be about the limit of reasonable expectation.

There you have it. A scientific explanation. No meeting should be more than one hour long. If you can’t get it done in an hour then you probably need to re-look at what it is that you are trying to accomplish in the meeting.

I think we all knew this is where I was going with this topic. We seem to have broken our lives down into hour intervals starting with our classes in school. If you can teach Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to twenty five disinterested teenagers within a one hour class, you should be able to have far less than twenty five adult business people come to conclusion on just about any topic within the same interval.

By the way, time does indeed slow down, the closer you get to the speed of light.

This interval sits comfortably within the average need for a bathroom break, and it is short enough that it doesn’t require too many refocusing events. It is the optimal length for a meeting where the objective is to actually get something done. It enables the meeting attendees to get in, get out and move on to the next topic. By limiting the time one would expect (hope) to drive the attendees to come to a conclusion within that time.

If there are more topics to be covered they need to be broken down into other multiple one hour meetings.

Of course, none of this one hour meeting logic applies to how long a luncheon meeting should last.

Every Day

I read an article about Jerry Seinfeld the other day. In it he was discussing some of the secrets to his success. Now obviously they can’t be secrets if he is openly discussing them, so maybe we should refer to them as some of the tenets he adhered to in the pursuit of his goals. Perhaps tenets would be considered too strong a word for describing his approach to applying himself to his comedy craft. However you would like to describe what he did along his road to success, he boiled it down to a simple phrase. He did something every day.

The example he used related to his writing. Whether he was writing for his stand up routines or the ubiquitous “Seinfeld” show, he wrote every day. That was his goal. He didn’t set the goal to write a joke, or even a good joke. He didn’t need to pound out a chapter in his book, or a scene for the show. He didn’t even need to make sure that what he wrote was good or used in any of his multiplicity of ventures. He just needed to write.

He knew that by getting started his ability and talent would take over. Some days would be better than others and the output of a higher quality. He knew that by the continued application of his effort he would continue to improve across the board. Eventually the output from his bad days would be better than the output of his earlier good days. The objective was the activity, not some specific amount of output. He knew the output would come if he achieved his goal of doing something.

I thought this was an interesting approach to doing ones work.

I, like many others am something of a goal oriented worker. I like to set the bar at a specific and acknowledged height and then either leap over it, or find an equally impressive way to limbo under it. One day it might be a graceful hurdle that takes me to the other side of the bar and the next might be a skidding face-plant that takes me sliding under it. Others are more process oriented where they can look to a prescribed set of steps that they can embark on that should result in them getting to the other side of the bar. The Seinfeld approach did not seem to fit into either of these categories. To extend this example it would almost be described as “start moving in the direction of the bar” and eventually you will be on the other side of it.

I think I like this approach because of the daily activity goal. It seems that we spend more and more of our time on conference calls and in meetings and in other activities that might be considered to have questionable value-add in the conduct of our business responsibilities. We seem to have reached a point where we have to consider the output of these conference calls and meetings as part of our business responsibilities, even though we seem to achieve very little in the way of definable progress in them.

It would be at times like these where I would start to apply the “Every Day” business scenario. The idea here would be that leaders in the various disciplines that they are responsible for, would need to set a goal of doing some work in their discipline that is additive in moving that discipline forward.

For example, research and development leaders would need to make sure that every day they do something that furthers the research and development of the business. That does not mean reporting on their team’s progress, nor does it mean explaining to management what the latest development release is looking like. It means doing something directly associated with furthering an aspect of a products research or development. Sales leaders would need to spend time each day actually selling, not reporting or tracking, etc. Operations leaders would need to set time every day to work on how to improve their business’ efficiency.

This is obviously pretty simple stuff, but business in its proper form in not necessarily complex. After all, how many times have we heard people say that they are so busy that they don’t seem to be able to get their real work done? What Seinfeld seemed to have found was that the focus should not be on getting the real work done, but rather getting started on the real work. He realized that the getting done part of it would actually take care of itself.

On the surface this seems a little counter-intuitive to me, but the more I think about it, the more comfortable I get with it.

It seems that leadership roles have a tendency to attract a significant number of non-productive and “office-trappings” types of responsibilities. These functions usually take the form of making and presenting status reports, attending peer team meetings and calls to assure coordination, reviewing, approving or denying requests, and other similar such activities. I am hard pressed to find a way to associate these responsibilities with leadership, other than in how fast one can discharge and complete them and get back to the real functionality and responsibility of the business at hand.

Unfortunately it seems that as leaders matriculate up the corporate chain they may be judged more on how well they perform these attracted functions, and less on how well they actually perform their Research and Development, Sales or Operational responsibilities, to extend the previous example.

This is where “Every Day” would come in to play.

We should all look to find a way to make sure we perform some of the specific activities that are required to further the goals of the business, every day. This does not mean that we should be happy with making progress on the charts for the next business review. It does mean that we should work on something that would eventually need to be reported on in your business review.

Put simply “Every Day” means to me that we don’t need to report on something every day. Every day we need to do something that may need to be reported.

It may end up that it does not need to be reported. It may not provide the expected or desired impact. On the other hand, it might eventually turn out to be a game changing improvement to the business. The point is that none of those things will happen unless you are applying yourself to the objective.

Seinfeld knew that not everything that he wrote was going to be used, or maybe even good. He did however recognize that he would never have anything much less know what was good or not unless he wrote. He saw that the goal should not have been to only write good content, because he could not clearly discern the good from the not so good unless he had them both available to compare. Hence his objective was simply to write.

The analog to this approach that I would choose for leaders in business would be to focus some time every day on the non-administrative work that you and your team are responsible for accomplishing. I know this sounds silly to the point of almost being inane, but
having been through the days where it seemed that the administrivia and process ruled over work and performance, I think it bears repeating: It is easy to get lost in the busy of busy-work and forget to try and accomplish some real work. And it is the real work that needs to get accomplished, every day.

Six Months Out

I was watching TV the other day, which in itself is not too interesting or inspiring. I find it actually kind of numbing as I am not too much into the police procedural shows that seem to be constipating the multiplicity of channels that are now available. However, I did see a new commercial that got me to thinking. It was by an electronics manufacturing company (which I won’t name here) that I had heard of in the past, but who I had never seen advertize on TV before. Their concept was interesting and their catchphrase was different. They were urging people to be “five years out”.

The focus of the ad was on innovators who created products and inventions that were ahead of their time. I didn’t quite catch the connection between Nicola Tesla (and others) and a modern day electronics manufacturer, but I guess that is what literary license is all about. It was however far more interesting and entertaining than the prime time video pabulum that was sandwiched around it.

What it did convey to me was that thought leaders depicted in the ad were thinking far ahead of the standard process. While being “five years out” might be a little excessive for a business leader (I am hard pressed to recall what our five year strategy was five years ago, but I am pretty sure it is not what we are doing now) I don’t think that it is excessive for a business leader to be “six months out”.

Six months out is that uncomfortable gray area between what we are doing right now in this quarter to make our numbers and what we are expecting to be going a year from now. It is the area between the immediate and tactical, and the long term and strategic. It is the area that a successful business leader can either see or anticipate what will need to be done today to align with the goals of the next year.

As we approach the end of another third quarter we should all begin preparing for the annual planning process. This is the process where we set the goals and objectives for the business for the next year. We also usually try and set a three year strategic plan for which the next year is the first year in the three year plan. We seem to do this every year without referring to either of the previous two years’ strategic plans. This in essence means that you are setting an annual plan and hoping that the sum of your last three annual plans is at least in the direction you need to move the business.

Profiling is something that American Civil Liberties Union quite accurately points out is an unacceptable policy for those with authority. However it is a necessary part of any planning process. Having a sales order target for the year is a good thing; however closing all of those orders in the last week of December will leave little time for the business to translate them into revenue, and beyond that into cash, which will be needed to pay all the sales commissions.

A business leader needs to be able to profile the timing of events across the planning period in order to anticipate the needs of the business. In the planning process an annual goal has been set. Instead of trying to plan and profile an entire year I have found that it is easier to break the year into two, six month sections. I can more readily visualize and anticipate what I will need and where I will need to be six months from now based on where I am and the trajectory that I have today.

Failing to take a six month out approach to profiling a business’ year usually results in what is commonly referred to as a “hockey stick”. This is where a business sets three quarters worth of relatively modest objectives and growth only to run head first into a significant and usually unattainable spike in desired performance in the fourth quarter.

I think we have all either been party to, or victims of the dreaded “year end push”.

Nothing happens immediately in business, unless you unexpectedly announce bad financial performance. Then your stock price immediately drops. Aside from that type of event, it takes time to affect change. Adjusting staff size either up or down to meet business needs takes time. Adjusting production capabilities to meet demand also takes time. Increasing sales doesn’t just occur because it is in a plan. Suspected new customers need to be identified, then qualified into prospects, have their issues addressed and their solutions proposed, contracts agreed and then closed.

That’s a sales order. There is then the time associated with the process to deliver on the contract and turn that order into revenue. Then there is the time it takes to get paid and turn the revenue into cash.

While “five years out” is a great concept for a commercial, it is a difficult idea to run a business on. It’s too far out. However a good business leader should have the ability to be at least “six months out” in order to connect the tactical activities of today to the strategic objectives of tomorrow. Being six months out enables to the business leader to anticipate and avoid many of the business issues and pitfalls that seem to plague the standard business manager.

Einstein said: “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” While I am absolutely nobody to question a mind like that, I think that hoping for tomorrow will not be the appropriate approach to business.

I think I would more agree with Benjamin Franklin, who said: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

Procrastination and C. Northcote Parkinson

I was sitting here thinking about what my next topic would be, but I kept putting off getting started. Maybe it was because I just didn’t feel the urgency of writing a new article yet. Some of the topics and articles seem to flow so easily that I begin to think that I might actually be getting the hang of this writing thing. Then others, like this one seem to require significant effort in order to perform their extraction and conversion into cogent thought. When that happens, I do the only logical thing. I procrastinate.

The fact that I was just sitting here trying to avoid writing something got me to thinking of the story of John Lennon when he was in the throes of writing the classic Beatles tune “Nowhere Man”: He said that he was “…lying there trying to write a song and was getting nowhere, man” and it hit him. The rest is musical genius and history. If I should ever be so fortunate as to possess one tenth the talent for writing that he had in his little finger, in my entire body I would count myself lucky. None the less it did give rise to my self examination of why I was having any sort of writers block.

Those of you that know me have often stated that usually I don’t know when to keep my mouth shut. You should be smiling at my difficulty at finding something, in this case the right thing to say.

What I did come up with is that C. Northcote Parkinson, the author of “Parkinson”s Law” was correct when he postulated:

         “Work expands to fill available time.”

The logical corollary, which I will modestly dub: “Gobeli’s Corollary” is:

“Procrastination reduces the perceived amount of work done by reducing available time for it to expand into.”

Think about it. I believe it explains a lot about who we are and why so many of the businesses, and for that matter so many of the political institutions that we have, operate the way they do. It is also probably at least partly responsible for the deadline mentality we seem to have evolved to. If you know that work will expand to fill all available time that it is given, the obvious solution to getting more work done is to provide a deadline that gives less time for each assignment to get done in.

I think we are also all familiar with the relationship between procrastination and “cramming”. We learned it early, probably in high school or college. Instead of spending a little time each day studying, we save it all for the last day or two before the exam. Why study every day when we can study really hard at the end and probably get the same result. We seem to have evolved this concept into our working structures now as well. We have even codified it as an accepted method of reducing the time required to compleat our projects. It’s called “Crashing”. We no longer work on our assignments ahead of time, or a little bit each day. Instead we wait till the deadline looms and then try to kick it directly into high gear.

We also see this type of work process with our current federal legislature. They are so good at procrastinating, and have recognized their own predilection for it, that they have had to create their own either artificial or real deadlines in order to get anything done. As a result we seem to be lurching from one crisis (read: deadline) to the next. This process does seem to keep the talking heads on the various news channels happy as they now have a continuous flow of issues to talk about, but is probably not the most efficient way to get things done.

I once worked a company where they had evolved a similar culture. They knew that they were excellent at managing in a crisis. The only problem was that they evolved to a point where everything had to be a crisis in order to get anything done. Being in a continual crisis mode does have a tendency to wear out the team. To think of it in sports terms, imagine a football team running their “Two Minute” offense for every play of every game for the entire season. It might work for a while, but the wear and tear on the team will eventually cause them to break down.

Gobeli’s Corollary would have us believe that by procrastinating, we would actually end up having to do less work. We seem to believe that doing two days of non-stop hard work is less work than doing an hour or so of less intense work across the term of a two week assignment. That logic just escapes me. For a culture that loves to multi-task while on conference calls, we seem to eschew the opportunity to multi-task on our longer term work assignments. Go figure.

I know I probably sound like a broken record (an interesting allusion since for all intents and purposes records are largely extinct and have been replaced by CDs and MP3s) but I am convinced that a lot of this crisis process is the result of our recognition and reward structures in business. Since we are largely working in “crisis” mode due to looming deadlines, we seek out those who can work well under this kind of pressure. I have referred to them in the past as fire fighters.

These are the “go to” staffs that are relied on to meet the deadline. They receive the recognition and rewards for being able to deliver in the clutch. It seems that those who practice “fire prevention” by taking steps ahead of time to complete their assignments in a non-crisis mode, do not garner as much management attention and perceived respect. The net result is that it doesn’t seem to pay to do the job efficiently and ahead of time. If you want to get noticed, you need a crisis.

And how do you get a crisis? You procrastinate.

So while Parkinson’s Law says that work expands to fill available time and Gobeli’s Corollary says that Procrastination reduces the perceived amount of work needed by reducing available time, there might also be a logical extension here regarding the relative rewards associated with “crisis work” as opposed to doing the same work in an orderly, non-crisis oriented manner. Perhaps the corollary should also incorporate an extended axiom:

“Work becomes more visible to and seems to be more valued by managers as proximity to the deadline grows”

That would play well with the observation that managers seem to recognize the contributions of fire fighters more so than the same contributions associated with those who perform the same work in non-crisis situations, and also explains why so many people seem to procrastinate in doing their assignments until they approach crisis proportions. It has been my experience that business leaders neither value the work of fire fighters more nor procrastinate to crisis levels. They get the work done on time because they know that they do not need to create crises of their own. There will be enough business issues for them to deal with.

Wow. And I got all this because I didn’t yet feel the urgency in having to come up with an article topic and getting written down. I suppose I should also say that I actually had two or three other articles already written, and though I was procrastinating there was probably a good reason why I wasn’t feeling the urgency to get this one done. I guess this early preparation thing can be a two edged sword.

Report by Exception


Have you ever attended an operations review or a monthly review meeting and at the end of it wondered why you were there? As competition continues to grow fiercer, and we are asked to provide more capabilities with fewer resources, we still seem to find the time for review meetings. Whether we are calling the review, or just attending the review we need to be much more aware of one of our most precious business resources, our time.

Limitations to our travel budgets as a result of increased cost consciousness have reduced the number of face to face reviews. In response to this we have seen the significant growth in the number of conference calls with associated NetMeeting or LiveMeeting visual or chart content. The value of the review can still be there, but the cost has been reduced.

As we look at other ways to continue to drive the cost out of the business and efficiency into it, we should start looking at both the content and the needs associated with the review itself.

If the business is on track and performance is within acceptable control boundaries, is a review even necessary? If only part of the business is off plan, does the entire business need to present? Are there other scheduled shorter interval reports that are in place designed to track performance that can be used?

The numbers of people and the associated man-hours spent at reviews are significant, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. The number people and associated man-hours spent preparing for and generating the information and presentations associated with the reviews are enormous.

We need to be rigorous in asking ourselves if each activity we are performing is providing value to the business. If our businesses are on plan, will standard interval activity and financial reports be sufficient? I would think they should be. How much time can be saved and returned to the actual running of the business if just one operations review can be avoided in a business year?

Please do not misunderstand me. I believe in the value of reviews, when they are called for, and have a defined and focused objective. We need to evolve the standard general review away from the usual progress report to management for the entire business, and transform it into a session designed to generate solutions to performance issues for those aspects of the business that are in fact off plan.

Controls and reports within the business should enable issues with performance, or deviations from the plan to be made visible before the review. The purpose of the review then changes from everyone reporting their issues, or lack of issues to reporting on the solution to the issue. Those aspects of the business that are not experiencing issues should not then be required to expend the resources on the creation of review materials. It becomes exception reporting instead of general reporting.

The result should be a shorter meeting with fewer presentations, and a greater focus on the exceptions to expected performance and the solutions to issues instead of the reporting of them. The time and effort that usually is expended on the preparation for the review can be reduced and the time returned to the business for greater value activities.

Travel, Productivity, Cost Savings and Golf

As we continue to look for ways to keep our business’ costs down, one of the first things that get looked at is travel. Travel limitations, restrictions and freezes are all well known approaches to trying to reduce costs. I guess the success of these approaches depends on the goals that you are setting. If the idea is to bring down the hard dollar costs associated with your budget, then a true travel freeze can work, up to a point. However, there are not many businesses that can function properly or continue to grow without some amount of travel.

That leads us to travel limitations, restrictions and of course lowest cost airfare routing. This is where business and job productivity come into the travel and cost savings equation. I am going to use a hypothetical, if somewhat tongue in cheek example to help illustrate my point.

If I live in Dallas and I am asked to attend a meeting in Boston, I have several decisions to make. The first question is; do I need to go? If my boss has asked me to go, then the answer is easy; yes. If somebody else has asked, then I probably need to do a little more work to truly identify the need for my travel. Let’s assume my boss has asked me to go. For those of you that know me, the second question I always ask is; can I play golf there? Boston, March, probably not high on the golfing opportunity list.

Boston is approximately a four hour direct flight from Dallas. However, direct flights are usually more expensive. Most companies now require you to take a less expensive set of flight arrangements if available. I am now faced with the decision of either explaining why I have chosen the more expensive direct flight, or taking the less expensive connecting flight arrangements. Let’s assume that the president of the company is not currently available to authorize my more expensive direct flight travel arrangements, so I take the connecting flights.

This now brings up a couple more important points. The first is that in my 25-plus years of travel, I have never heard of an airline actually successfully keeping a traveler and their golf clubs together on connecting flights. They always get lost. Golf is definitely out in Boston.

Unless I decide to rent clubs.

The second point is that due to airline connecting schedules, what was initially a four hour flight is now a seven-plus hour set of flights. By selecting the connecting flights I have added 3-plus hours of travel time to each direction of my trip. That is the equivalent to adding almost the time of an entire round of golf each way. I have essentially added an entire day (two rounds of golf) to my trip. I will now also have one incremental day worth of meals associated with this trip, as well as potentially depending on connections, another night worth of lodging expenses.

This entire extra day of travel associated with going to this meeting is not spent being productive at my job, or playing golf. It is spent in airplanes and in airports. I am not going to get into the actual loaded hourly rate that is being paid or absorbed by the company while an extra day is spent traveling. What I am going to say is that it is my belief that the productivity value lost to the company by my (or anyone else) not being able to do productive work, as well as the incremental attracted costs (meals and lodging) for an incremental day due to travel are probably greater than the perceived savings difference between the cheaper connecting flights and the more expensive direct flights.

I am sure there will be instances where this lost productivity / airfare analysis will swing the other way and it will not make sense to fly direct. I do believe that in most instances it will be in the company’s best interest to get me or any other employee to our business destination and back home again, as quickly as possible in order to maximize the time where we can be productively working, and not sitting on airplanes and in airports. Besides, it’s hard to work on your putting in the airport. My putter has a tendency to set off the metal detectors, and people in the terminal don’t seem to pay attention and keep kicking my golf ball.

A Not So Novel Approach – Use The Phone

Is it just me, or is the office getting a lot quieter? Part of that trend toward silence may be the fact that so many people are now opting for “Virtual Office” and are now working for home, or some other location. I have tried that. On occasion it works when I have very early morning, or late evening calls with other time zones, but for the most part I find that there are two reasons that I don’t like to work from home. The first is that there are too many other distractions for me at home. Games, TV, family, etc., all are within easy reach and can be a distraction. The second is that I like to think of my home as a refuge from work. I think that a home office would be an invasion of this refuge that I would not welcome.

Let’s get back to the quiet office. Its quiet because there are so few people talking. My computer beeps when I get an email. It does it quite often. It has a different tone when I get an instant message. There seem to be a lot of those as well. My mobile phone “pings” me when I get a text message. I think I need to find some way to coordinate these tones so that they make some musical sense because they go off so frequently.

I down loaded an application on to my smart phone that allowed me to create some specific ringtones for my phone using some of my favorite songs (late 80’s alternative rock, in case you are interested). I can’t remember the last time I actually heard the song / ringtone played.

We don’t talk to each other anymore.

Instead we have email chains that are 10-15 emails long where we conduct a slow-motion discussion back and forth over the course of several hours to several days. We “copy” multiple individuals whose electronic mailboxes are clogged with the ping-pong discussion, and the interjections of others on the copy list. When we ask about the topic we are invariable met with “It was in the email I sent you.”

We are blasting instant messages back and forth to multiple recipients, across the day. Some of the information contained in these messages can be quite useful. Most of it truth be told is not. It seems to be the electronic equivalent of meeting someone in the hall and saying hello and asking about the weekend activities, personal health, or plans for the next weekend’s activities.

I have a business phone on my desk. It is an amazing piece of modern technology. There are no less than 62 buttons on it, including the 12 used for dialing phone numbers. This is true. I actually counted them. Less than 20% of the buttons on my desk phone are directly associated with placing a call. I don’t know why I waited till now to make that observation. I have had this phone for a couple few years.

We buy the most advanced mobile hand held devices in history and we type out our messages and happy / sad faces –    using our thumbs or index fingers to our friends. We have a new generation of automobiles that will automatically link to our mobile phones using Bluetooth technology, so that we can speak hands free while driving to anyone on the planet, but texting has replaced drinking as the cause of most driving accidents.

Instead of taking all day to have an electronic conversation with someone in the internet arena, I have tried to take a small step back in time to a happier age, the age where when I needed something, or wanted to communicate something, I just called someone. I picked up the phone and I spoke to them real time. This may seem incredibly old school, but you know what? I seem to be getting more things done faster.

I now have a discussion on the phone, capture the key points and then send a single email, to those interested or effected parties, with only the salient information. There is no need to scroll through 4 – 5 screens to find the pertinent information that is being communicated. No more email discussions. If I think it will take more than one email, I call. It’s faster and more efficient.

If I am driving my car and have a need or a question, I call. I still get text notifications on my phone while driving. I ignore them. If it was important, and the vast majority of them (probably all of them) are not, or they can at least wait the 15 – 20 minutes that it will usually take me to get where I am going and have a chance to respond. If it was really important, they would call me, and I would use that snappy hands free technology I talked about earlier.

We should remember that phones, both mobile and business were primarily created to enable the real-time verbal / oral communication between people. That type of communication contains the most information for communication and provides it in the shortest time. If you want to try and gain back part of your day and be more efficient, try using the phone to talk to people, instead of typing at them.

Clock Your Time

I recently read “The Sales Messenger” by Mary Anne (Wihbey) Davis. I don’t normally read books like this and I am a bit out of the habit. I guess I will have to get back in the habit.

The Sales Messenger touched on a topic (one of many actually) that had aspects of both the concept of “the difference between activity and work” and “the choice of what to do and what not to do”. I found this very interesting in our current times where we are all asked to do more with less. The key here was choosing work that resulted in progress, and then performing it, instead of activities that kept us busy.

This is probably pretty simple, right? Surely everything that we are doing is associated with generating progress toward our professional objectives and goals. After all, we are all so busy at the office. The point was that we are all so busy, but when we really get down to examining what we are doing, I think that we will find out like those individuals profiled in “The Sales Messenger” that we are probably doing a lot of activities that don’t necessarily result in progress.

The idea that was proposed was that we should all create a tracking log of our time. We should note how many minutes (or hours) of each day or week are spent on which specific tasks we have been given, or chosen to do. Then we need to go through, or better yet, have someone help us go through the professional value that we derive from each task. This is the key. We have to be honest in the value assessmants.

If what we are doing is not directly helping us achieve our goals, or is not efficiently achieving that purpose, it is a candidate for an activity that should either be discontinued or changed. A prime example of this was provided in the form of “Networking”. We have all networked. We are all familiar with its concept. The example provided was in using networking to generate sales leads.

If you are spending time networking to generate sales leads, you need to quantify both the time you spend networking (time card) and the number of sales leads you have developed in each networking period, and assess if this is the most efficient use of your time. If it is, obviously you should keep at it. If it is not, you then need to decide to either stop doing that activity and free up the time to do something more productive, or change how you network.

Either way it comes down to clocking your time on the tasks you are performing, and then measuring the value that you get from each task.  I think we will all find that there are things that we are doing at our jobs that have little to no relationship to the work we need to accomplish. Sometimes it is hard for us to sort this out on our own.

I thought the simple idea of specifically clocking our time spent on each function, and then basically doing a micro – cost / benefit analysis on how that time was spent, was one of the best and most effective ways I have seen to help identify how we can devote more time to making progress and reduce our time spent on activities that are clogging up our already too busy days.