Spend Your Time Wisely!
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“If you want to retain those who are present, be loyal to those who are absent.”

-- Dr. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

“Learning cannot be disassociated from action.”

-- Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

“The most important measures are both unknown and unknowable.”

-- W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis


Spend Your Time Wisely! by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Magazine January 2004

My definition of work is simple – people spending time and money to make money. While that definition does not match the official definition of work that we are taught as fledgling Industrial Engineers (mass moved over a distance) and might make more than a few physicists cringe, it nonetheless represents what I feel work is really all about. By showing up at work each day, each of us spends time and money (capital and non-labor expenses) to make money.

It is for this reason that I feel job design from a macro perspective is one of the most critical processes that an organization has. The degree to which the job design of each position in a given company is implicit versus explicit might range drastically between organizations, but as creatures of habit, we spend our work time in consistent, habitual ways regardless of what our job description says. These behaviors in turn become our ‘real' job designs, whether they match our job descriptions to a significant degree or not.

I believe job descriptions are one of the key tools that help make each employee's (person's) job design more explicit. This is especially true if the job description defines how time should be spent from a percentage of total job time for each key job function. In an integrated company, there is strong correlation between each job description and the company's activity based costing model. I do not feel however that even job descriptions of this nature are complete, as something seems to be missing.

My learnings from serving for seven years as a Baldrige Examiner have led me to conclude that there are really only two key dimensions that should be defined for each position in a given organization. The first dimension represents the degree to which an employee is expected to spend their time working alone versus with other people. The second continuum reflects the amount of time that should be spent working on projects as opposed to processes.

By defining these four percentages for each person's job, and then aggregating those values across a work group, site, or corporation, one can define both their current state of business orientation and possible future states that they might want to strategically move towards. Unfortunately, few organizations view job design from these two perspectives, even though their inclusion and review in our planning efforts alone can have significant effects.

For example, what should the ratio between time spent working alone and the time spent with others on average be for a given job? Should a manager work alone more of the time than a supervisor? What key distinctions exist between these roles from a strategic perspective to make such a question relevant? To what degree should we be trying to shift our job designs over time? Do your leaders spend enough time working with other people in your company?

I have found that in high performing organizations, people spend a greater percentage of their time working with others as opposed to working alone. This does not mean that the goal is to drive this percentage to near 100% over time however. I think that a yet to be defined optimum mix exists, with my theoretical projection falling near 75 to 80 percent. How much of your time do you spend working alone? To what degree would it impact performance in your company if more people spent a greater percentage of their time interacting with other people in a value added manner, instead of sitting in the office all day?

Hopefully those questions lead you to ask “Well, it would depend on what I was doing when I was with those other people.” Your response might also be based to some degree on who those people were. This is where the second dimension comes into play – time spent on projects versus time spent on processes. This dimension also tends to generate a greater level of debate and scrutiny than the first does. That said, I could easily show you how the different tasks I performed each day as a Plant Manager fit into one of these two categories.

Meetings, for example, are held to find ways to improve processes or to work on developing projects. Most managers and supervisors spend a lot of time in meetings of one variety or another. In fact, I struggle to come up with a good operational definition for a meeting. I once came across a memo that said that the front desk should be informed of any meeting that takes place and who is in the meeting. The consequences for failing to comply included possible termination. Fortunately, this policy was modified before the poor receptionist was besieged with cell phone calls every time two people, fearful of losing their jobs, bumped into each other in the hallway and started a conversation.

Instead, I think it makes sense to look at how we spend our time, be it alone or with others, working on either projects or processes. If we can clearly define which project or process we are working on whenever we are at work (not counting the official and unofficial ‘breaks' that are taken), we achieve greater levels of synergy across the company for our performance improvement efforts. If we have failed to even define which key projects or processes each person is responsible for however, we may find that we are wasting a lot of time. Why are you really going to that meeting? What was the intent of that discussion you just had from an organizational improvement perspective?

Learning is part of the personal development process. Spreadsheet analysis can be related to both projects and processes. The time we spend thinking about work alone while we sit at our desks might seem difficult to track, but it still represents time and money being spent each day in the hopeful pursuit of greater levels of customer satisfaction that will lead to greater profits. If you are struggling to match your daily efforts to a given project or process, then you may also be on the trail of some possible areas for waste reduction or higher levels of performance improvement alignment.

I feel that it is important to spend the majority (more than half) of our work time interacting with others – the potential for additional learning and relationship building is too great to compromise. I think that clearly defining our project / process focus and the degree to which we focus on one as opposed to the other are key. I have been fortunate to witness the power and focus that comes from highly aligned personal efforts, both within and across work groups.

To what degree have you assessed the manner in which you spend your time each day? What types of adjustments have you made over time to help better meet either your personal needs or those of your company? Do you think it is important for people to spend more, as opposed to less, time with each other at work? It really all depends on why you show up each day and the value that you are currently getting from the way you spend your personal time. It's that simple.

Would You Like to Learn More?

Great Systems! can help you design and improve your key work systems in three ways – system assessment, one day system design workshops, and ongoing system evaluation and improvement coaching. If you are interested in learning more about these services, please send Kevin McManus an e-mail at kevin@greatsystems.com or give him a call at 206.226.8913. Keep improving!

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Last Revised - March 1, 2015
Contact me at: kevin@greatsystems.com