So You Think You Don’t Have Enough Time – Part 2

Last week we looked at how to use the Eisenhower Matrix to help determine what is urgent and important and how to handle tasks that fall in the other parts of the matrix.   This week we look at eliminating distractions, saying “no” and breaking big assignments into smaller tasks.

Set Time Constraints

You become more productive when you allocate a specific amount of time to complete a specific task.  Parkinson’s law states “work expands so as to fill the time available for it’s completion.”  If you reduce the time that you must complete a task, your brain is forced to focus on and complete it.  As an example, take a task that normally takes you 20 minutes.  Set a timer for 10 minutes and work as hard as possible to beat it.  You might not beat the timer, but by setting that goal you will force yourself to eliminate any time wasting or low value tasks that get in the way of getting it done more quickly and efficiently.

Eliminate Distractions

A study from UC – Irvine found that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to a task after being distracted.  Trying to multi-task will waste more time than if you focus on one task at a time.  Switching tasks imposes a time cost, even if it is not the 23 minutes found in the study it is still time that could have been spent on getting things done.  It takes time to regain your focus and getting back up to peak performance, so eliminating that time will automatically gain you more time in your day.

A few suggestions on eliminating distractions:

  • Turn off notifications on your devices
  • Get out of the habit of checking emails as soon as they arrive – consider finding ways to identify the important senders (such as the CEO or your top customers) and use those as ways to help you prioritize. Set up rules to send things like supplier fliers or that industry newsletter that sometimes has something to get automatically routed to specific folders that you review as part of your low priority or energy task times.
  • Leave your phone someplace that is not in your direct line of sight to reduce the number of times you look at it.
  • Use headphones to block out environmental noise. They also make you look like you are plugged in and on task, reducing the likelihood of a co-worker interrupting you with non-urgent questions or gossip.
  • Minimize your use of social media as much as possible. If you must use it, schedule specific time blocks for it and set a timer so that you don’t get caught up in it.
  • Use “Do Not Disturb” functions on workplace chat systems.
  • If you have an office, shut the door when you are working on high importance and value items.
  • Make quick decisions on things that have a small or medium impact. Spend your time on the items that will have an impact on a long time frame or impact many people.

Say No More Often Than Yes

The idea is to not say yes to do things that do not contribute to your work and goals.  Warren Buffet once said that “the difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.” He also developed a two-step rule to help set boundaries and become better at decision making:

  1. Write down your top 25 goals. When you are done, circle the five that are most important to you.
  2. Completely eliminate the other 20 goals. Learn to say “no” to anything that does not contribute to the five remaining goals.

Make sure that those 5 goals align with what your current job function is.  This will help you avoid being everything to everyone and remove the distractions that prevent you from achieving your goals.

Single Task and Break Down Big Tasks

A myth has developed that we are able to multitask.  Our brain is designed to focus on one thing at a time.  Start to single task by putting your phone away, close any apps on your computer that you don’t need for the task at hand, and only move to the next task when this one is completed.  This will avoid any switching costs.  Use the Pomodoro Technique.  This has 5 steps and works in 25-minute blocks:

  1. Choose one task and one task only.
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes.
  3. Work on that task until the timer goes and put a check mark on a tracker.
  4. Take a 5-minute break.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 three more times and then take a 15-minute break.

This will force you to get into cycles of distraction-free concentration that will improve both the quantity and quality of your work.  By breaking down large tasks into smaller, more manageable tasks you can create more realistic milestones.  Try to make all milestones so that they can be achieved in less than one hour.  Make your list, put them in order and then start running them through the Pomodoro Technique.  You will stop procrastinating and start tackling and completing large tasks in a much shorter time frame.  Large projects will not look as daunting and you find that the tasks can be focused on one at a time, causing you to gain and sustain momentum.

Let Go of Perfectionism

Aiming for perfection is a way to ensure that you will delay your work and miss deadlines.  While perfection is a goal, knowing when the return on effort has gone negative is a must.  Delivering something that is high quality is more important than being perfect. In fact, trying to be perfect will tend to make you put things off.  Know what is “good enough” and achieve that.  You may have to fix some things later but trying for perfect will result in you focusing on things that are unimportant to the user.    Mark Twain said it best – “continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.”

Batch Similar Tasks

Finally, we all have tasks that require similar mindsets.  Find what those tasks are and complete them all at one time.  This allows you to stay in a flow and minimize task-switching costs.  If you have several related spreadsheets that need updating on a regular basis, group those tasks together and get them done while your mind is in that groove.  Batching will help you to create synergies that will help you find ways to do them even more efficiently.

Regardless of what techniques you use, the important thing is to find a way to measure what is important, how much time that should take and how well you are doing against that standard.  If you are meeting or exceeding the standard, then you need to move the goal so that you are continually improving.  We all need to determine where the balance point is between being perfect and being good enough.  Time is finite, and it has an opportunity cost – there is always something else that you could be doing.  By using a framework to determine priorities that takes importance and urgency into account, you will have a way to keep your eye on what tasks need to get done and when.  It’s not easy, but if you attack it like a project, one step at a time, you will be on your way towards greater productivity while gaining back the time that you need to take care of the things that really matter.

So, You Think You Don’t Have Enough Time?

We all do things that waste time.  Some of us will do low-value tasks that we really should be delegating (or just not do at all), but we feel that no one will be able to do it as well as we do.  Others will look at a huge project and procrastinate because it appears to be too big and complex, likely doing unimportant tasks to put off that large task that scares us.  Still others are perfectionists who continue with a task long after the return on the additional effort is negative. Alternatively, a perfectionist may put off tasks because they are uncertain that they can perform at the unrealistic level that they set for themselves. Finally, there are some of us who get a feeling of importance by never saying no to requests.  It feels good to be the go-to person that everyone thinks can do the impossible.  However, by never saying no we make everything a priority, and, in the end, nothing gets done.  Let’s face it, time and task management are not something that any of us will ever get perfect.  What we all need to do is determine what is “good enough” and then use that as a starting point towards continually improving.

There are several ways that one can use to improve our time and task management skills.  None of them are one-size fits all.  You may find that some are better at one stage in your career, but they may need to be changed or modified as you change roles and responsibilities.  You may have other ways of managing that work better for you.  The important thing is to create a system that works for you and continue to improve it over time.  Holding on to things that don’t work is another time cost that we put on ourselves!

Organize Work Around Energy Levels

Find your most productive hours and schedule high value and high energy tasks during those times.  As an example, if you are a morning person then do your most critical work when you start your day.  After lunch, your energy level may drop a bit so use that time to do more administrative tasks.

You should also know your energy levels by day.  Most people find Tuesdays and Wednesdays as their most productive days, so scheduling their most difficult and important tasks on those days will lead to getting more done.

Start the Day with Critical Work

Mark Twain once said “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning.  And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”  He was talking about determining what is your most important or hardest task and dealing with it first.  Getting it done will bring you momentum for the rest of the day.  Think about it – if you have already achieved your most important goal for the day then tackling the rest of them will seem easy by comparison and that positive mindset will carry with you throughout the day.  Elon Musk suggests that you “don’t waste time on stuff that doesn’t actually make things better.”  Sometimes we deal with the squeaky wheel or the easiest tasks first and never get to what was important.  Resist that urge and leave those simple tasks for that time in the day that you know you are at your lowest energy.

Prioritize Tasks

Knowing how to prioritize is a must – if everything is a priority then it moves towards nothing being a priority.  One way to determine priorities is to use the Eisenhower Matrix.  The goal is to focus on accomplishing the important and urgent before moving on to the other tasks.

  Urgent Not Urgent
Important Do

Do it now

Examples:

·         Emergencies

·         Pressing clients

·         Deadline driven projects

Schedule

Decide when to do it

Examples:

·         Long-term planning

·         Calling back a client

·         Replying to a specific email

Not Important Delegate

Who can do it now?

Examples:

·         Booking a trip

·         Scheduling interviews

 

Delete

Purge Task

Examples:

·         Social media

·         Working on a dead report

 

 

  1. Start by writing down all your tasks – at this point don’t worry about the order, just get down everything that you need to do.
  2. Identify what’s urgent and what’s important and note which of them applies to each task. Tasks can have one, both or none of these identifications.  If the task has none of them then find a way to purge it.
  3. Assess value. Look at the important tasks and identify the high value items.  Determine which tasks have priority over others and how many people are impacted by your work.
  4. Now estimate the amount of time is required for each task and order them from the most effort to the least.
  5. Insert the tasks into the Eisenhower Matrix to gain a full overview of your work tasks

Some tasks will be urgent, but not important.  These are tasks that are good candidates to get delegated to others.  You don’t need to do everything yourself and moving these tasks to others can free up time to get the important and urgent tasks done. Remember that holding on to these tasks can have a large opportunity cost – they are time that could be spent doing something that is yields a greater return on your time investment.  When delegating, keep these things in mind:

  • Find the right person – they should have all the necessary skills and be capable of doing the job.
  • Provide clear instructions – write down the steps and be as specific as possible.
  • Define success – be specific about the expected outcome and the timelines.
  • Clarity – have that person explain the tasks back to you. Clarify what they are unclear about, rewriting the instructions if necessary.
  • Expect that the person will not do it exactly the way you did it – in fact they may find a better way. Don’t let your pride get in the way of delegating things that you should not be doing yourself.

Automate Repetitive Tasks

Find the things that you do multiple times a day or week and see if you can use technology to help you work smarter.  Examples include setting reminders so that you don’t forget anything; creating canned responses for emails that you keep writing repeatedly; or creating spreadsheet templates for reports that you do on a weekly or monthly basis.  Find those common elements and figure out ways to stop reinventing the wheel each time you do them.  Saving a few seconds here and a few seconds there will eventually free up 30 to 60 minutes a day that can be spent on your important and urgent tasks.

Next week we will look at eliminating distractions, how to say “no” more often and gaining more time through batching similar tasks.

Getting from Idea to Action Quicker: The GTD Method

Getting Things Done (GTD) is a time management method created by David Allen.  This method is based on the idea of moving planned tasks and projects out of the mind by recording them externally and then breaking them down into actionable items.  This allows one to focus their attention on acting on tasks instead of recalling them.  For a great explanation, David was interviewed on this edition of The Dealer Playbook podcast.  For a short version of what GTD is, David does a 90 second explanation here.  For a quick infographic on what GTD is, click here.

Most of us are too busy to work on our values, mission and ultimate purpose. Why? Even though our minds are great at creating things, it is terrible at tracking it.  (For a great example see this video from Successful by Design) There is a very good chance that you are tracking tons of things in your head right now. That stuff drains your energy and clogs your creativity because you are relying on yourself to remember it.  This stuff makes it hard to stay afloat on a day to day basis, forget about being able to think bigger.  David talks about getting in control and creating space in his TEDxAmsterdam2014 talk available here.

So, what’s the solution? You have likely been told it’s start at the top and work down.  That’s what’s got you struggling.  Start by mastering the bottom (by mastering getting things done efficiently) and then when you are no longer drowning you can think about your mission, purpose and values.

Getting Things Done is a collection of processes and habits that aim for:

  1. A clean and updated calendar of time-critical actions;
  2. A clear, current and comprehensive list of next actions you can take anywhere, anytime, without the need for further thought or clarification;
  3. A full list of outcomes (big and small) that you’re committed to achieving in the next 12 months; and
  4. A complete system to organize and keep track of all the “stuff” in your life.

By implementing GTD you will:

  • Never let anything important slip by again;
  • Always have pre-prepared options of actionable and productive things to get on with;
  • Have total oversight of everything you’ve committed to in the near future; and
  • Have a totally clear head with no need to mentally track of remember anything.

In short, it’s a way to get your life under control.  Through getting things out of your head and into a trusted system you will trust yourself more. You will know when to say “no” and still feel confident about handling anything that is thrown at you. By making space in your head that the “stuff” used to inhabit, you will have the time and energy to start working on the bigger things.  David talks about “The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” in this video here.

So how does it work? There are 5 Steps plus Planning (David gives a short overview here):

1 – Capture – Collect what has your attention.   Use an in-basket, notepad or voice recorder to capture 100% of everything that has your attention.  Little, big, personal and professional – all your to-do’s, projects, things to handle or finish.

2 – Clarify – Process what it means.  Take everything that you capture and ask: Is it actionable? If no, then trash it, incubate it or file it as a reference. If yes, then decide the very next action required. If it will take you less than 2 minutes, do it now. If not, delegate it if you can; or put it on a list to do when you can.

3 – Organize – Put it where it belongs. Put action reminders on the right lists. For example, create lists for the appropriate categories – calls to make, errands to run, emails to send, etc.

4 – Reflect – Review frequently. Look over your lists as often as necessary to determine what to do next. Do a weekly review to clean up, update your lists and clear your mind.

5 – Engage – Simply do. Use your system to take appropriate actions with confidence.

6 – Plan complex projects to get from multistep outcomes to actions.

Here’s a short video where David walks Dutch TV host Linda Geerdlink though getting started with GTD.

Let’s look at these in more detail.

Capture

This includes all your outstanding stuff. Gather every out of place and unfinished thing in your head, your e-mail, your briefcase and wherever else it is stored and put it into a few external inboxes.  An inbox can be a basket, a notebook, a spreadsheet or any other way of getting it all into a small number of places.  You want to get it external to yourself because otherwise it will stay on your mind, eating energy and killing creativity.

Stuff is anything (an action, commitment, project or object) that:

  • You want, should, could, ought or need to act on, now or later; or
  • Anything that is even slightly unfinished or out of place.

Allen refers to this stuff as open loops.  By not having been closed yet, they cause stress because they are things that we could forget.  They are constantly telling your brain to “think about me”.  That stress is what is killing your energy and your creativity.

By collecting you empty these external inboxes so that you can move to the clarifying and organizing stages.  It’s sort of like doing spring cleaning.  Once it has been collected you will have an overview of everything that is unfinished or out of place in your life and it allows you to do the next steps quickly and effectively.  Once you have the system set up, collecting on a weekly basis will become shorter and easier.  While collecting, do not process as you go – you will be much more efficient if you batch all collecting first before trying to process it (the only exception is for items that can be completed in two minutes or less).  If the item is impractical to move (say you need to sell your old car, boat, etc.), use a physical or digital note as a placeholder so that it gets into the system.  Tooodledo.com offers a great infographic on how to do a brain dump here.

Clarify

Clarifying is the process of determining what stuff is, what’s the desired outcome and what is the next action.  You need to answer all these things.  If you don’t know what something is, how can you tell if it is important? The desired outcome lets you know when the thing has been completed.  The next action follows determining the outcome as this is the next step required to move towards that outcome. By not answering these three questions the item will sit in the system and you will not act on it until you are forced to.  Allen says that “you often have to think about stuff more than you realize, but not as much as you’re afraid you might.”

When determining the next action, be complete enough that someone else could do it without needing further clarification or thought.  If the next action is “call garage to schedule an oil change”, include the phone number.  If you don’t know it, then the real next action is “find phone number for Joe’s Garage”.

A few rules for working through your inbox:

  1. Always start with the top item on the pile.
  2. Handle only one item at a time.
  3. Never put anything back into an inbox.

Not sure how to get your inbox to zero? David offers some advice from his blog in response to a help request from a user here.

Organize

This is the process of:

  • Doing, delegating or deferring next actions;
  • Tidying up useful but non-actionable stuff into its proper place; and
  • Trashing what is left.

There are a few tools that you will need for organizing:

  • A calendar for time-critical meetings, events and actions;
  • A way to take notes for lists of actions, outcomes, plans and ideas;
  • A filing system to store information you may need to reference but can’t act on; and
  • A trash can or paper shredder depending on how sensitive the document is.

Allen prefers physical systems but the choice between physical and digital is yours.  Just make sure that the setup is relatively easy and works for you. Want to know what apps David uses to keep his lists?  He discusses them in this short clip here.  David offers some other ideas on what tool to use here.

In the note taking tool create four new notes with the following headings:

  • Waiting For – a list of all things that you are waiting for from others;
  • Next Actions – a list of every doable next action to progress to an outcome;
  • Outcomes – a list of every multi-step outcome that you’re committed to realizing in the next 12 months; and
  • Someday – outcomes or actions you may like to undertake one day under different circumstances.

In your filing system create two new sections or folders inside of it:

  • Plans – visualizations, milestones and next steps for complex outcomes; and
  • Ticklers – stuff you will “mail to self” for later re-processing.
    • Within the ticklers, set up 43 folders:
    • 1-12 are labeled with the name of each month; and
    • The remaining are labeled 1 through 31.

How does this work?  Say you received an email for and event that you want to attend that opens registrations in February.  There is no actionable item for right now, but there will be, so file that invitation in the February folder for later re-processing.  The remaining folders are for items in the current month.  The items will go into the folder representing the day that they are due.

Once an item has been clarified, you now have five choices:

  • Do – if the next action takes 2 minutes or less, do it now;
  • Delegate – if the next action can be done by someone else, delegate it;
  • Defer – commit to acting on a next action at a specific or general time in the future;
  • Tidy – find a proper place for everything and put everything in its proper place; and
  • Trash – dispose of anything that is no longer important or needed.

The best approach is to keep things simple.  Have one proper place for everything and put everything in their proper place. Try to only use one list and fewer folders wherever possible.  Sort things alphabetically – avoid the urge to categorize by sequence and priority.  Reducing complexity will just add thinking that will result in things not getting done and undermining the system.

The one place where many is better is in your next actions list.  Allen recommends splitting next actions across several lists by context, such as place (where you must be), person (who you must be with) or tools (what you must have on hand).  These contexts will help you to remember to be in the right place, with the right people and at the right time.  They will also allow you to batch similar actions together.

David explains what he means by being organized in GTD in this short video here.

Reflect

At a minimum, do a weekly review where you look for items from the previous week that have not yet reached their desired outcome, have been deferred for various reasons or just have not been actioned on yet.  Re-run steps 1 to 3.  Review, update and refresh every one of your folders and use your freed-up headspace to get creative, think big or maybe start a project from your someday list.  For each item answer the following questions to determine what to do with it:

  • Where am I on this?
  • Is it still relevant?
  • Is it still in the right place?
  • What’s the next action?

Engage

Once your system is up and running, this is where you will expend most of your time and energy.  At this point all that is left is the doing and because it has been organized, the doing is much simpler. Everything has been funnelled to your calendar and your master list of next actions.

So how do you decide what to do next?  First, rule out things that you can’t or shouldn’t do based on:

  • Context – what can’t you do based on where you are or what tools you have available?
  • Time available – What can’t you do based on the time until your next appointment?
  • Energy – What shouldn’t you do based on your mental or physical state?

Out of what is left, trust your gut and do what feels most important right now.  Even if you procrastinate, as long as you are working from your list you will be making progress on something.  However, as you get more proficient, there will be less and less reason to avoid doing anything.  David discusses procrastination here.

Something to keep in mind is to never respond instantly to work as it shows up, no matter how “urgent” it is.  Spend a couple of minutes running the request through steps 1, 2 and 3 of GTD. Review any next actions you have identified within the context of all your next actions.  Only engage with the new request if it still is the most important and urgent thing on your plate.  David offers more tips on how to deal with interruptions in this 4-minute video here.

Plan

Sometimes just a moment of thought and effort that’s needed to identify a project’s next action, but its usually better to have a plan.  A good place to start is:

  • Define the purpose and principles – why are you doing this and what are the constraints?
  • Visualize outcomes – what does success look like?
  • Brainstorm – what are all the ideas that you can think of and eliminate the bad ones.
  • Organize – what ideas will you use, which are the most important and what order to do them in.
  • Identify next actions – what is the very next physical action you can take to progress the project?

The goal of GTD is to get things done, so don’t make planning an end in itself.  It must draw out next actions!  Jacob Bronowski puts it as “the world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation.” If you are spending half of your time building and maintaining your system, you just aren’t doing it right.  Trust your instincts, simplify your system and get things done!

Further Resources

Want more information?  Start with David’s website – https://gettingthingsdone.com David does a monthly podcast where he talks with people who use GTD – https://gettingthingsdone.com/podcasts/ or subscribe to them on iTunes, Stitcher, Libsyn, Google Play Music, Spotify or Soundcloud.  The site also has a blog (https://gettingthingsdone.com/gtd-times/ ) that David updates every few days.  His book – Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity – is available on Amazon or at your favorite bookstore.  Buy the 2015 edition as it has been updated with the most current information and research. He has also started a YouTube channel with several short clips that help you understand GTD better that is available here.

Mashable offers a toolbox of 100+ resources for Getting things Done here.

Crafting the Roadmap: Getting from Idea to Action

In last week’s post, we reviewed the S.W.O.T. process. This mechanism, regardless of industry or size, is a crucial step in developing a short and long term strategy for success. Specifically, discussing and owning your company’s current weaknesses and failings is the type of introspection that should occur regularly, with feedback from all roles in the business – from the C-Suite to the Driver’s seat. Further, I’ve always felt that successful businesses, and their leaders, should always be a bit paranoid – in both good times, as well as bad. After you’ve gone through the S.W.O.T. process, and you’ve determined the major objectives for the business (see Part 1 of this series), it’s time to put the plan into action. In general, all well-executed plans have the following key components:

  1. The goal is well defined. Each team member understands what IS to be achieved, and the impact on the business – whether from a financial, as well as from a corporate culture point of view. Each member of the team assigned to the objective should be able to clearly communicate verbally the objective, and the key benefits to the business.
  2. A timeline is established. Execution does not happen without a deadline. Put that on the wall in every room of your business. Conversely, if you want to remain on the treadmill of mediocrity, don’t set deadlines.
  3. Make your people accountable. This part may seem like a no-brainer, however, being a fan of business, I’ve read about (and witnessed) many well-known businesses that got too comfortable. This comfort was rooted in a lack of accountability – from the Board room, all the way down to the front lines (e.g. Kodak, Sears, Toys R Us). Making specific people and teams accountable will ensure continued momentum. This step is also an important vetting process for future business leaders. The ones who step up, and want to reap the rewards (and the potential penalties) are the type of people you build your business around
  4. Incent, Incent, Incent, Succeed. All top performing companies use variable compensation to light the fire for success. Outside of asking your people to become shareholders, there are very few other tangible ways to ensure that your people have Skin in The Game, other than variable compensation. Proper variable compensation plans need to aligned with, and constantly readjusted to make sure they tie to the goals, deadlines and the overall financial impact of the individual actions and decisions made by people and teams. While contemplating these programs, ensure that the compensation program methodology is easily understood, and the objectives, variables and measurement are within the control of the individual and teams being rewarded.
  5. Review and Adjust Regularly. No explanation needed here.

In all industries, leveraging existing frameworks for the above process can vastly improve the speed of developing and executing on a strategy. Many high performing companies have implemented third-party programs such as the Four Disciplines of Execution. Using 4DX or another third-party program narrows the focus, and clearly defines the steps needed to rapidly move forward. Next week, we’ll move from the Macro to the Micro, and discuss the importance of time and task management to executing on your plan.

For your Sunday viewing pleasure, here’s a short video about the 4DX program to get you thinking about your action.

It All Starts with a SWOT

No General leads his or her army into war without knowing both the terrain he or she will face and what the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy they will face. In the current market environment, achieving profitability should not be difficult, even with pressing weaknesses. However, just like seasons change, the market will swing the other way. The smart companies know this, and are reinvesting their profits into building networks and advantages, to put themselves ahead of the their competitors when tide goes out. Knowing what your business needs to do next comes naturally to some business leaders, but for most, setting a course for the future requires equal parts Collaboration, Introspection and Honesty. An excellent way to get you started on this path is with a SWOT analysis.

SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Strengths and Weaknesses are internal business factors while Opportunities and Threats are external factors and variables. There are several different templates out there that can be found with a quick Google search and each organization will have their preferences. However, the physical form is not as important as actually doing the exercise.

This analysis is not just for use at the enterprise level. It is equally powerful when done at the division, department or even product line/customer account level. You are probably already doing a similar analysis on all your top accounts but possibly not in as formal a framework. By using this method in conjunction with being closely integrated with your large account you should be able to foresee any threats to that client and be prepared to fend off any attempts by other carriers to take over some or all of the business.

Strengths
Look at factors such as:
• What are the organization’s advantages?
• What do you do better than others?
• What unique resources can you offer (ideally ones that a customer will pay for)?
• What does the marketplace see as your strengths?
• What is your unique selling proposition?
When looking at your strengths, also look at where you are in relation to your competition. If all your competitors are achieving 98% on-time deliveries then you achieving that is not a strength, it’s a market necessity (a table stake). Also take the viewpoint of the customer as they are the ones making the buying decision!

Weaknesses
• What could you improve on?
• What should you avoid or eliminate?
• What does the marketplace see as your weaknesses?
• What does your competition do better than you do?
• What causes you to lose sales?
• Are their perceived weaknesses that you could easily overcome?
Be honest in this step as downplaying weaknesses will not allow you to move forward and address them.

Opportunities
• What are emerging trends?
• What changes in technology are coming in the near, medium and long terms that you are posed to exploit?
• What competitors are family owned and are showing signs of cash flow issues?
• What new developments are your current customers working on?
• What new businesses are coming to your marketplace?
One approach to take is to look at your strengths and ask if they open any opportunities. At the same time ask yourself if the elimination of any weaknesses could also create an opportunity.

Threats
• What obstacles do you face?
• What are your competitors doing?
• What technological game changers are coming that you are not ready to exploit?
• What is your financial position – any cash flow or debt problems?
• Are quality standards or specifications for your product or service changing?
• Are there any weaknesses that could seriously threaten your business?
• Are there any Political, Economic, Socio-Cultural or Technological (PEST) factors to consider?

Once you have made an exhaustive list for each category, it is now time to pare down the list and prioritize each item. Finally make sure that any options generated are carried through to later stages in the strategy formation process. Make certain that you follow through and create a strategy once the analysis has been done.

An important task is to measure the gap between where you are and where you want to be. This helps you create goals that can be measured and verified. It’s much better to say “achieve a 5% increase in miles per gallon” than it is to say “improve fuel efficiency”. Understanding what these gaps are will guide both you and your staff towards implementing an effective strategy to get to where you want to be.

Finally, be prepared to revisit this analysis on a periodic basis – possibly yearly for the entire enterprise, more often at the product or customer level. Look at what has changed. Did you improve or eliminate any of your weaknesses? Did your competitor find a way to close the gap on your price advantage? Did something new that has the potential to be a game changer come on the market recently? This should not be a static document and it should be one of the first things you turn to when a new threat or opportunity comes on the horizon. By understanding what is happening on the playing field means that you can make the proactive moves of a market leader instead of reacting like a follower.

Knowing vs. Doing – Part I: Setting Priorities

This post is the first in a series of five focused on narrowing or eliminating the gap between ‘Knowing’ vs. ‘Doing’. In our personal lives, we all know what we ‘should’ be doing, but our daily habits and tactics don’t always line up. Similarly, in business, a business without an achievable strategy, a business will ultimately deteriorate to the point where it’s simply a series of fires being put out.

Setting Priorities

Most senior managers are very aware of the things they need to do to reach greater levels of profitability and growth. However, many don’t have the time to come up for air to determine which actions they should take, and in what order to build momentum. .

Now, let’s stop for a moment and remind ourselves of the following quote:

“Well done” is always better than “Well said”.”

There will be a small percentage of readers who can state, with confidence, that they have a well-defined strategic plan, and have assembled a series of tactics to achieve this plan. For everyone else, it’s time to set step back, catch your breath and prioritize.

My two favorite methods/systems of prioritization are extremely simple, and are/were used by two very successful individuals – Warren Buffett and President Dwight D Eisenhower.

The Buffett Method of Prioritizing Strategies and Goals

You can read about the Buffett method here. In a quick summary here’s how it works:

  1. Write down up to 25 goals – big and small, that you have for your business. This needs to be done by both principals and senior managers.
  2. Combine all the goals you listed with those of the rest of your team
  3. Circle the top 5 goals that are achievable in the next 12-24 months. This is your ‘List A’. The remaining goals are your ‘List B’.
  4. Although it’s not technically part of the Buffett method, when it comes to execution, size and scale matters. For Large operators (e.g. over 200 buses), 5 important goals is a ‘doable’ thing in 12-24 months. However, for smaller operators, I would pare the five down to 2 – max. For mid-sized operators (50-200), 3-4 should work.
  5. Now that you have List A and List B. What’s next? Simple develop a strategy and a project plan to achieve each item on List A and adjust where necessary. Make sure every person on your team knows what is on List A, meet weekly to discuss. List A needs to become ingrained in the fabric of your team.
  6. What happens to List B? Easy, store each of those goals away and don’t consider them until you’ve completed / achieved List A. They are not given any more time!

The key difference between the Buffett Method for personal vs business is collaboration. In order to build long-term business value, the decisions on which goals make List A must be done in conjunction with those in c-suite right through to the driver’s seat. You want buy-in, and a thorough understanding of what is achievable, and what’s not. For larger companies, this typically would involve departmental goals, and strategies, for smaller companies, company wide goals and strategies.

The Eisenhower Method: Prioritizing Daily Tactics, Tasks and Habits

Everyone has the person on the team that fills their day up with ‘busy work’ that provides little or no value to the business. People always ask me what is the number one cost-saving opportunity for companies, regardless of the industry, it will always be removing those people from your businesses. The longer you wait, and the more you grow, you are tacitly telling your team this behavior is acceptable, and suddenly you have a business full of ineffective people. Cut them from the team. It will improve culture, set a new course for that role in the business, and add to your bottom line.

Each if us also has daily habits and tasks we all do that are either redundant (not needed or done by someone else), or those that are not moving the business forward. Doing an audit of your daily and weekly habits and tasks is an important one that should be done by everyone in your business. Once you have that cumulative list, it’s time to prioritize. The Eisenhower Matrix is a phenomenal way for people in all roles, and at all levels of responsibility, to do a gut-check on their daily activities. How does it work?

President Eisenhower would regularly create a matrix to properly categorize and prioritize his daily activities. This eventually turned into a mental model that his team used to decide which things they should bring to him, and which things should be immediately delegated, or perhaps eliminated. Here are sections within each matrix, and how to consider those daily tasks and habits:

1.Urgent and important (tasks you will do immediately).

2.Important, but not urgent (tasks you will schedule to do later).

3.Urgent, but not important (tasks you will delegate to someone else).

4.Neither urgent nor important (tasks that you will eliminate).

Although setting priorities can sound boring, it can be the main difference between success and failure. Hopefully the above two methods provide you with some food for thought. Are you expecting too much from your team, from yourself? Do you need to be part of that email chain? Are you going to keep allowing people to use their time ineffectively and inefficiently? Does your team know their collective priorities other than the daily ‘busy work’? Take some time, give this some thought. Take action.

Building a New Facility – Follow Up

I spent some time this week talking with Jarit Cornelius, the Vice Chairman of the TMC’s S.5 Study Group (Fleet Maintenance Management). He mentioned that the TMC has developed Recommended Practices for New Facility Development.  This was a result of many consultations among various industry experts and real-world experience.  While having been created with a truck focus, most of the recommendations are directly applicable to a bus operation.

Some of the relevant Recommended Practices (RP) when looking at a new facility include:

  • RP 510A – New Facility Development offers a great overview of what steps are needed to design a shop either from scratch or renovating an existing one. It offers guidelines on things like layout, energy efficiency, how to calculate or estimate the number of services required and much more.
  • RP 518A – Fuel Station Planning offers similar guidance for developing on site fueling stations.
  • RP 512A – Mechanic Staffing Determination – provides a formula to calculate the number of mechanics required to adequately staff a heavy-vehicle maintenance shop
  • RP 513 – Estimating Number of Service Bays – gives an analytical methodology for estimating the number of service bays required in a facility
  • RP 515 – Maintenance Shop Design Considerations – a listing of critical elements that should be considered in the design
  • RP 517 – Managing Environmental Compliance – guidance on compliance education/training, self audits and recordkeeping.

These have undergone many updates and amendments over the years as the study group constantly looks at new and upcoming technologies and how to integrate them into individual shops.

Other Recommended Practices offer guidance from the following study groups:

  • 1 – Electrical
  • 2 – Tire & Wheel
  • 3 – Engine
  • 4 – Cab & Controls
  • 6 – Chassis and Brake Systems
  • 7 – Trailers, Bodies and Material Handling
  • 8 – Cost Control Methods
  • 11 – Sustainability and Environmental Technologies
  • 12 – Onboard Vehicle Electronics
  • 14 – Light & Medium Duty and Specialty Trucks
  • 15 – Specialty Trucks
  • 16 – Service Provider
  • 22 – Onboard Data Systems

Copies of the entire Recommended Practices Manual are available at https://www.atabusinesssolutions.com/ATA-Store/ProductDetails/productid/3921373 where you have your choice of hard bound books, CD or PDF formats.  You do not need to be a member to purchase these manuals.

Finding the Ideal Facility – Part 2 – The Building

Now, let’s turn our attention to the building itself.  The first thing you need to do is determine what activities will go on in it.  Obviously, you will need some office space for your operations and admin staff.  You might need some warehouse or cross-docking space for your internal needs.  A shop area is probably on your list as well.  Here’s a few things that you may not have been thinking about:

  • Space for your drivers while they are waiting for maintenance on their buses or while they are waiting to be dispatched.
  • Do you need to provide showers or other amenities for the drivers?
  • What about file storage space for those documents that have a retention period?
  • Will there be lockers, or a change room required for any of the staff, such as mechanics?
  • Lunch room and any meeting/conference spaces
  • Washrooms – both placement and the number of them
  • Parts and equipment storage
  • An IT room with adequate power and cooling
  • Adequate clearance in any shop or warehouse areas to allow for their safe use

Develop your list of things that you must have but at this point, try to keep things general.  Many design engineers will tell you that good layouts develop from the general to the specific, not the other way around.  Don’t go in with a set idea of where things will be as they will act as constraints on where other things can be put.  Knowing what areas should be adjacent to each other is good but getting too many specific items such as “the tire machine should be here, and the parts room should be there” will likely result in a suboptimal design.  Next, determine what activities will occur in the facility, both now and in the future.  As an example, if you think your warehouse activities will grow over the next few years, you may want to place it at the back of the facility so that future expansion is a possibility.

Determine what areas are the priorities.  Many designs focus on the front end where the main entry and the offices are.  However, other areas may have more of an impact on your revenue stream, such as the shop.  Sometimes it is better to start with the rear of the facility and work your way to the front.  One question that needs to be asked before focusing on any individual department or area is “How does it impact the movement of people and/or product throughout the entire building?”  A way to look at this is the product to be handled will determine the warehouse and equipment needs.  Equipment locations determine workflows. Eventually you will need to put the pieces together on paper and determine what area needs to be adjacent to each other.

Some other considerations at this stage include the following:

General Building:

  • Try to anticipate any future needs by designing spaces to be potentially converted or expanded.
  • Anticipate any future loading docks, truck space and car parking and leave enough space for them
  • Include enough structural capacity to handle any additional rooftop equipment, such as additional HVAC units.
  • Avoid block or poured cement walls as much as possible to allow for future expansion. Ideally a curtain wall construction is used so that the outer cladding can be removed, and a new section added with a minimum of disruption.
  • Try to specify the use of energy efficient items such as LED lighting and proper insulation. These will cost a bit more in the construction phase, but they tend to have a lower overall cost of operation.  LED lights also tend to last longer than other options, reducing the amount of building maintenance required.
  • Try to avoid dark colours on the outside of the building and roof as these will result in additional cooling capacity. A more neutral colour will also be less restrictive if the building needs to be remarketed in the future.

Warehouse/Parts Room Space:

  • Consider what products may be stored in the space and include enough fire protection based on the anticipated fire hazard.
  • Allow for adequate circulation paths in both the dock and the parts areas. This includes walkways as well as paths wide enough for forklift trucks to safely operate.  In the shop this includes walkways for staff to circulate, safely move required parts to their service bays and allowing for the required number of egress points.
  • Ensure that the floor slab is capable of handling not only today’s uses but allow for potentially heavier loads in the future.
  • Use racking that is sufficiently rated for the products being stored. Racking should also be considered to maximize the parts room’s capacity and utilization as well as to maintain proper laneways for both people and materials handling equipment.

Office Space:

  • Try to anticipate any future computer or telephone locations. Cable drops are much easier and less costly to install before the wall cladding is installed.  If the exact locations are not known, consider running cables that are coiled and secured in the drop ceilings with enough extra length to allow them to be installed relatively quickly.
  • Allow for natural lighting in the design for as many workspaces as possible.
  • Take into consideration any fumes or smells that may infiltrate into the office areas. In some cases, the mandatory fire breaks may be enough but additional ventilation or air barriers may be required if the shop must be adjacent to the office space.
  • Looking specifically at the office area, consider having the structure capable of supporting either a mezzanine or the ability to add an additional floor above it if expanding to that end of the building is not feasible.

Shop Space:

  • Shop bays should be designed with enough space at the sides to allow for both the storage of tools and equipment as well as the safe passage of employees.
  • Where possible design shop bays in a drive through configuration. This will not only minimize the need to shunt vehicles around but also reduces the need to back vehicles out which can result in a visibility issue.
  • Allow space for shared equipment, such as tire machines, bearing presses, etc. so that mechanics can access them without having to move vehicles that are being worked on.
  • Consider the use of either a lift or a pit for doing fluid or tire changes to minimize the reliance on jacks or jack stands and to provide a more efficient workspace.
  • Ensure enough airlines and/or fluid delivery lines are placed in each bay as retrofitting these is costlier than installing them during the original construction.
  • Orient the overhead doors to allow for ventilation during warm weather but at the same time try to avoid orienting them directly into the prevailing winds. This allows the doors to be left open when the weather allows it while minimizing any snow or rain infiltration into the bays.

This is not intended to be a complete list but gives you an idea of some of the unique things for our industry that should be taken into consideration.  Make certain to look at any other items that make you different and ensure that those needs are put into the design.

As much as possible use an architect and/or engineering firm that has experience with truck terminals and repair shops.  They will understand some of the ways that our industry works and what questions they need to ask of you.  At the end of the day it is more important to spend a couple of extra days planning up front instead of having to bring in a construction company to retrofit something a short time later.  Getting it right the first time is always less expensive in the long run.

 

 

Finding the Ideal Facility – Part 1 – Picking the Location

When trying to create the perfect facility there are many different things to consider – site location, site layout, building layout, lighting, security, etc.  There also is no such thing as a “universally perfect” facility.  Each company will have a slightly different priority list and even within the same company you will find differences at each different location.

In general, we have several common items that need to be considered:

  • Site location and size
  • Building construction type and layout
  • Required infrastructure
  • Parking for employee vehicles and buses
  • Environmental considerations
  • Political/social considerations

This week we will focus on the site location and size.

When considering the ideal site, the following should come into your planning process:

  • Size of the lot.
  • Shape of the lot
  • Proximity to a major highway
  • Proximity to your customer base
  • Commuting distance for your employees

Regarding size, you will need to calculate how much space that the fleet to be domiciled at that location requires, including space to maneuver vehicles without causing any damages.  Assume 45 feet for a motor coach or a school bus.  That means you need a minimum of 100 feet (55 feet + 45 feet), and more likely 110 feet between rows of buses to allow for enough space to pull them in and out of the rows.  Additionally, you will need about 11 feet in width for every bus to allow room for the mirrors. As an example, if you have 80 buses and the lot is 350 feet wide, you will need to have enough room for 3 rows of 28 buses (allowing enough space for a laneway at both ends).  You will then need approximately 330 feet in length to fit the 80 trailers.  This is before we find space to park the employee vehicles, put up the building, etc.

There are a few other major considerations with a site:

  • Being close to your customers as well as a major highway means that you will be minimizing unpaid miles – this is a cost that needs to be considered when choosing a site as it is effectively a fixed overhead charge that will eat into your profit on almost every trip.
  • The physical shape and landscape of the property. Ideally the lot will be either square or rectangular.  This will reduce the amount of wasted space that reduces parking capacity.
  • What is the natural drainage of the lot? Will it need significant ground preparation and a catch basin system?
  • Are there any waterways or aquifers in the area? Those could result in restrictions put on your ability to refuel in the yard as well as the storage of items like used oil or anti freeze.  You may need to construct a berm for any spill containment.
  • Zoning – ideally any site you select will already have the proper zoning from the municipality. Having to apply for a variance or zoning change will result in additional time and expenses as well as injecting some uncertainty into the project.   The municipality may reject your application.
  • What is the planned use for surrounding properties? Will those uses have a potential impact on your planned operation?
  • If you think that you may need to expand in the future, gain an option on an adjacent lot. Otherwise you could find yourself land locked in the future.
  • What is the tax structure in that municipality? Pay attention not only to the rate but how the value will be calculated.  It is not uncommon for nearby jurisdictions to have vastly different property taxes on similar sized and priced lots.
  • What services are currently available for the property and what will be the buyer’s responsibility to provision? Pay attention to things like natural gas and fibre optic availability as the cost to have these brought to your property can be high.  Without some form of reliable high-speed internet, you could find your staff unable to work effectively. What sort of electrical service can you get, and will it be enough to power your planned operations?
  • Were there any previous uses that may require environmental remediation? Remediation can be very costly. Take this into account if buying a property that has already been used as a terminal.
  • What sort of soil does the lot have? The soil composition may impact the footings required for your desired building.  How stable it is may impact the amount of earthworks are needed before you can use the property.  The soil can also impact any environmental concerns (example – a fuel tank leak in sandy soil may go down several feet until it hits bedrock or clay.  It may then run for hundreds of feet underground.  If you need to do a remediation this could easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars).
  • Surrounding neighbours – will your drivers be coming and going at all hours or will they mostly be operating during daytime hours?
    • What sort of surface the yard has have an impact here. If you have a dirt or gravel parking area you may run into a dust issue, resulting in the need for periodic applications of some sort of dust abatement product.
  • There needs to be adequate parking for both your staff and any visitors.
  • The building that houses the terminal should have enough room for future expansion without causing onsite traffic flow problems.
  • Are there any location specific needs, such as where to pile snow? You will either need to leave aside space to pile snow, have some sort of melting system or have someone in place to truck it away.
  • Depending on the fuel used, there may be a need for plugs to operate block heaters in the winter months.

This list in not exhaustive and may differ depending on the location you are searching in.  The take away is you need to do your homework before you start looking.  Spend the time up front to know what you are realistically looking for will allow you to have a list that you can use to compare different options against each other. If you are not sure of what you need, enlist the help of an expert.  Many commercial real estate brokers will have people on staff that can give you the necessary guidance.

A final point – not all real estate brokers are equal.  Don’t just go with the person who helped you buy or sell your house.  A residential specialist is unlikely to have the skill sets or supporting services to help you through the maze of regulations that you will face in the commercial/industrial marketplace.  Go with a commercial real estate agent from the start as they will be knowledgeable about things like zoning or acceptable uses as well as knowing the questions to ask and have the resources to let you get things right the first time.

Next week we will look at how to design your ideal terminal building.

SOPs for 2018 and Beyond – Start Improving Now!

Many of us have a procedures manual that sits on a desk somewhere, collecting dust and probably only used when a new employee comes on board.  At a previous company we had one that was called Big Red.  It was in a 3-inch red binder (hence the name) and it was so detailed that it included specific screens, keystrokes and entry fields for many processes.  It should have been a great resource, especially for new hires, people covering for vacations or for those processes that only happened a couple of times a year (such as inventory counts or year end processes). The problem was that it was a static document and a lot of the time it showed how a process “should” be done, not how it was done.  Missing would be things like customer-specific items (such as company A requires a consolidated invoice).  They can also be lagging people finding a better way to do something, making some pages out of date as soon as they are published and distributed.

The reality is that unless you are ISO certified it is unlikely that you are doing many reviews or audits of your SOPs.  It can easily happen – most of us run lean staffing levels, there is always something customer-related that is “top priority” and various other reasons that cause us to push a review off.    However, if you are trying to maintain a culture of continuous improvement failing to update your SOPs is a lost opportunity.

Think of the changes that could happen in a year.  Upgrades to any of your ERP, Accounting, HR, Payroll or Shop systems.  New regulations that may require different record keeping. New customer requirements that have been implemented across the board.  New training that has shown employees a better way to do something.  These are just a few examples, we can all think of many more.  Now think of how many are documented.  How many of those are handled by only a single person? Now what happens if that person leaves the organization?  So why is the SOP review considered to be something that can be put off yet again?

So how do we make sure that our SOP documents are effect and up to date?  Consider having them on an intranet site that is only accessible to your employees.  This will help make it more easily accessible, which should result in it being accessed more often.  Being more visible should result in discrepancies being identified more often and more quickly.

When writing your SOP, make it as detailed as possible.  An SOP should be something that you can give to almost anyone within your organization so that they could take over the process and complete it.  One of the best ways is to have a few different views of the process with each one getting progressively more detailed.

Step One – Flowcharting

Show the process as part of a flowchart.  Allow the audience to see how that one process fits into the larger organization.  Many processes may seem trivial or “just busywork” to the person doing the tasks.  By displaying how that process fits into the larger picture, you can increase employee satisfaction by showing them that a group of tasks helps to contribute to customer satisfaction and the company’s success.  Alternatively, the diagram may bring to attention processes and tasks that do not contribute value and are candidates for either re-engineering or elimination.  If the process is to satisfy the requirements of a small number of customers, now would be the time to have your account managers approach those customers to ensure that the process is still being used or perhaps needs modification.  There is no use trying to optimize a process only to find out that the audience for it has changed their requirements.

Being as detailed as possible will assist in doing an optimization for two reasons – one, it allows an auditor to identify unnecessary tasks; and two, it forces you to check if those are still the required steps.  As an example, an accounting process may call for 8 tasks to occur in a specific sequence.  However, your accounting software has been recently updated and three of those tasks are no longer needed because they can now happen as part of a single command instead of running them individually.  The new SOP should reflect the reduced number of steps.

Step 2 – Checklists

The next step is to create a checklist that provides more detail than the flowchart.  This should have enough detail that an experienced operator will understand what steps are required, but not quite enough that a new employee would be able to do the process without additional information.  For example, a very simple invoicing process may look like this:

  • Ensure that all documents and data for the billing period have been entered
  • Ensure that all required documents have been scanned into the system
  • Perform the invoice run
  • Determine how the customer wants their invoices and either e-mail them or print and mail them

At this point assume that the process will be performed by a competent employee and this document is just to assist them in assuring that all parts of the process are carried out.  If they have not already been involved, make sure that all the relevant stakeholders are onboard with the process as it is currently documented.  This allows them to buy into the process and identify and redundancies or improvements.  Identify pain points within the process.  Know where things currently break down and determine with the stakeholders how to correct them.

Step 3 – A Detailed SOP

The last step is put together a detailed document that spells out all the tasks and sub-tasks that go into that process.  This is where you document specific screens, fields to be entered, etc. This document provides enough detail that a new employee could use it to complete either a process or some of the tasks that make up that process.  An example of a task from above could look like this:

  • Log into Dispatch system
  • Go to Invoicing module
  • Run XYZ report to identify any missing information
  • If no missing information, go to 6.1.11 performing a billing run
  • If there is any missing information go to trip screen, etc.

Getting into this level of detail will further allow the identification of changed or redundant steps.  It also provides a high degree of risk management because the knowledge of how to run a process is fully documented.  This means that if an employee has an accident and is on short or long-term disability, or just goes on vacation, how they performed their job is not just stored in their head.  Another employee will be able to step in and backfill for them.  It also allows for easier transitions when an employee is transferred or promoted.  Having a detailed document means that the new person does not need to take notes (because they can easily access the document) and can focus on learning the task instead of writing things down.

A few final tips:

  • Use simple and easy to understand language in all steps.
  • If jargon or specialized terms must be used, provide a definition for the reader.
  • Keep sentences short or use point form, especially in the most detailed document.
  • Use the active voice. Utilize terms like “identify”, “direct”, “evaluate” or “review” to get the point across without requiring interpretation
  • Avoid ambiguity, such as using terms like “periodic”, “typical” or “should” as they do not give any consistent direction or execution
  • Be careful around important terms. Remember that “may” allows the user to decide. “Must” is always mandatory and “should” is always conditional. Make certain to use the proper term!
  • Use bulleted items or lists to focus attention and slow the reader’s pace. Long dense paragraphs are more likely to be either ignored or only skimmed over. Make it so that people can scan the document to quickly find the information that they need.
  • Use revision numbers and archive previous versions. This ensures that should you ever have to go back to (or defend) a previous process you have the necessary documentation.
  • At the same time, ensure that employees only have access to the most current documentation. You don’t want to make changes to a process only to find out later that an employee was using an out of date document.
  • Use a consistent format for all processes. Having your operations team use one format and accounting using another will just lead to confusion and time will be wasted by having to figure out how the other team formatted things.

The final thing is must be a living document that someone is the process owner and then updates it whenever situations change (such as software updates, regulatory changes, etc.).  Concurrently the process owner should be looking for redundancies and efficiencies every time the document is reviewed.  In the end you should get more done with less wasted effort, resulting in not only an improved bottom line but also in more satisfied employees who know that they are contributing value.