Leadership

Time management techniques improve staff performance and follow-through

Discover how a simple time management approach can not only boost your staff's follow-through skills, but increase productivity and improve project results at the same time.

Following through on tasks is a skill that is often under-trained or ignored. But consistently following through fosters enterprisewide efficiency, performance, and productivity gains.

If you help your staff apply time management processes to their work, you can increase productivity and efficiency. This is especially important if you have had projects fail, have had to redo work, or find that your staff becomes frantic during the last weeks of critical deliverables.

Keep a detailed log of activities
One effective initial step toward improving follow-through is to have your staff keep a log of daily activities. I like a format that lists the time of day in half-hour or 15-minute intervals down the left-hand column. At the top, I include headers for activities, an activity category (daily task, weekly task, etc.), the start/end date, the estimated duration, the actual duration, and comments.

Direct your IT management staff to keep track of everything they do using the logs. Explain that it isn't being done for any heavy-handed management or micromanagement concerns, but is a way for the staff leaders to improve the organization's productivity and efficiency and their own career performance.

It is critical that the IT managers list every activity: breaks, time when corporate friends stop by to talk, performing work on projects/operations/team tasks, phone conversations with friends or loved ones, or personal business. Every activity must be listed to optimize your chances for success.

Assessing the log
Once you have a week or two of logs, have the staff assign numbers to each category in the activity column. Then have them tally each activity by the time spent on that category during the week. They'll start to see real and practical ways to optimize their time and effect improved levels of follow-through.

This is the beginning of creating an organizational culture that can enhance enterprisewide time management.

The next step is to begin assessing and analyzing how time is spent during work while paying keen attention to the following areas.

Time wasters
Have your staff look at areas that seem to be time wasters, such as personal phone calls, coffee breaks, corporate friends stopping by for nonwork discussions, or personal Internet searches. That's not to say that these are areas that must be avoided—everyone needs a break and the ability to take care of reasonable personal issues.

This is only done for analysis purposes to see where wasted time is spent and to create an awareness of time wasters and typical weekly amounts. Staff are often surprised about how much time is wasted on trivial things. In becoming more aware of actual time spent, they can easily find ways to use time more wisely. This is where follow-through, or organizational time management, truly begins.

Actual vs. expected project durations
This area will show many surprises and benefits. In tracking their work activity, managers get a clear view of how much time they thought a task would take in comparison to actual timeframes. This will promote better estimating practices for tasks. Project task estimates will become more realistic, and company project plans will vastly improve in regards to time, cost, and scope.

Likewise, operational, team, and all other tasks will become better estimated as this process evolves. Staff will find ways to meet expected durations better by becoming more aware of the reasons they missed deadlines. Not only does this area provide for better estimates but also improvements in their use of time in delivering assigned tasks.

By enhancing this knowledge of task durations, managers will provide better estimates for each new task, know when existing tasks may need to be re-scheduled or adjusted, and will not agree to unreasonable timeframes that cause time management problems.

Task delays
Another valuable element of the time log assessment/analysis process is seeing where critical tasks get delayed. Projects are delayed for many reasons—staff may view the effort as either too difficult or boring, fear failure, or lack motivation. With the log, managers can investigate to find out what causes task delays, and from this awareness, find ways to prevent it.

One side benefit I've found here is that staff often find ways to prevent delays by grouping similar task startups to make better use of their time.

Meetings
Meeting improvements will result from staff knowing their schedules better and coordinating other meetings or conference calls without time-wasting conflicts. They'll look at which meetings are productive, and which aren't. Unnecessary meetings can be easily identified.

Viable meetings must be looked at for ways to improve the time spent there. Preparing for meetings better by communicating meeting goals, agendas, and expectations so all participants are better informed are some time improvements you can expect to see in this area. Also, delegating other staff to attend meetings is a time saver often discovered through this process.

Scheduling new tasks
The time assessment process will show managers where the free time lies. New tasks, whether they come from projects, operations, team needs, or special projects, will see improvements in follow-through. Iterations in the time assessment process will enable staff to better estimate task time and true completion dates. Competing tasks will be known and rescheduled where needed.

Project, operations, and team deliverable schedules will become more realistic. Enterprise planning and expectations will improve, and many time management problems will be avoided.

Assigning tasks
Another benefit seen in this awareness process is a twofold improvement in the assignment of tasks by IT managers. They'll be better able to schedule time spent helping their staff with their tasks.

A second benefit is that managers will clearly be able to identify the best player to perform tasks. A manager who had been taking on the work of direct reports to ensure that it was done correctly can then more effectively delegate work and stop micromanaging tasks.

Getting more value from staff meetings
Staff meetings should be held regularly, but they can also be incredible time wasters. The assessment process typically yields improvements here beyond those found in meetings in general.

Work plans that cover the entire scope of team tasks are one good result I've seen. Keeping a living record of all team tasks, assignments, start/end times, expected durations, actual durations, and comments can be a very effective tool for driving and managing the staff meeting.

Usually a team player is designated to take notes on changes discussed at the meeting, update the team task plan appropriately, and resend the document to all players in advance of the next meeting. This allows staff to correct defects, provide timely updates, and plan for the upcoming meeting.

Completed tasks can be moved away from the main plan to a separate area of accomplished tasks. The plan serves as a list of current tasks and becomes its own team time management tool. It also provides detail on completed tasks that becomes extremely beneficial.

I recall numerous instances when superiors have requested information regarding team accomplishments or when I needed to review this detail myself. You need records of team accomplishments for a multitude of reasons, and without a record of this kind, gathering that information can require a great deal of time-consuming work.

Lastly, handling the staff meeting in this way creates an effective use of time and knowledge transfer that vastly improves team follow-through.

Communications and follow-up
During the course of a day, many comments or requests from executives, senior management, middle management, supervisors, analysts, or line staff occur. To ensure that vital communications are transformed into goals, and, ultimately achievements, some form of note-taking tool combined with follow-up works best.

This can be done with a daytimer, PDA, notebook, or laptop PC, or with a basic notepad. A good practice for your staff to follow is to clarify requests and ideas right away so there's no miscommunication or misunderstanding later in the process then make the notes into a to-do list.

Final thoughts
With these techniques, you'll see noticeable improvements in time management by managers and staff. You should see noticeable results in increased staff efficiency, performance, and productivity.
  • The results can be startling:
  • Managers will see more project baseline timeframes meeting expectations.
  • Redoing work will be reduced because staff focus will be directed toward preventing waste.
  • Critical deliverables will be achieved without last-minute panic rushes.
  • Burnout will be minimized because staff will know what they can accomplish and what tasks need to be reprioritized to achieve new deliverables.
  • Unexpected fires will be reduced because time usage and delays will become better managed by all.

Achieving follow-through isn't difficult. By creating an organizational culture that is aware of the benefits of these techniques, and employing them, you'll begin to see benefits. If these techniques are performed on an iterative basis, continual improvements in staff efficiency, performance, and productivity will result in positive bottom-line results.
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