Overcoming Meeting Madness
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Overcoming Meeting Madness by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine May 2001

Over three years ago, I was able to be part of a USA Today article on meetings – both the increasing need for them and the huge losses of time and money that are attached to their ineffectiveness. My three sentences of contribution in that article related to our practice of keeping meetings to a minimum at the freight carrier I was employed with. I also managed to squeeze in a mention of the microanalysis process I used to help determine where we were having problems with our meetings.

Time is a valuable commodity in the freight business, as I would say it is today in most any organization – be it a business, school system, government office, or volunteer group. Time translates directly into money, which we as Industrial Engineers directly recognize and point out. In turn, watching people spend time together in a manner that is not very effective drives me crazy. I had to block out the channel that shows city council meetings on our cable system to avoid surfing unintentionally into those waves of unproductiveness.

We have all been exposed to the basics of meeting management – use agendas, send them out ahead of time, define specific meeting outcomes, monitor the team process as the meeting unfolds, and evaluate the effectiveness of each meeting at its conclusion. We may not use these tools as often as we should, but we are aware of them. We have also witnessed a spectrum of meeting effectiveness examples over the years. We have been part of well-run meetings and we have sat there in disgust and boredom. Why can't we gain a more consistent, higher level of meeting effectiveness in our organizations?

First of all, I believe that we do not have very high expectations of what we should get out of a meeting. In other words, I think that we have become very complacent in terms how we spend that type of personal time investment. Perhaps I am biased, given my experience with formal time study, including predetermined time standards and MTM. I see both the clock and the meter running as each meeting progresses. When I see people go off on tangents, fail to use visual aids, and become defensive, I also see dollars being thrown away. I am most guilty of not saying anything when this occurs. How about you?

To help raise these expectations, we need to make them known and evaluate our performance against them. During the last few months, I have come up with two surefire ways to improve meeting effectiveness by doing this. Both tools come from the wonderful world of sports – the meeting map and videotape viewing. You can learn to use either tool on your own – you don't need to attend a two-day training session for $795.

The upside of using these tools is that your meetings will improve. The possible downside is that people will become more self-conscious and stop talking as much. Come to think of it, that might not be a downside item. People might also be less apt to say what they think, but more often than not, I wonder how many are anyway. To help us solve these problems as well however, we need to make each meeting more tangible for review.

The first tool is the easiest to use. To understand its need, ask yourself “How many football teams grade game films on a weekly basis?” and “How often have you used a video camera to perform a time study?” The answers are obvious, and yet, we don't film our meetings and grade our managers on meeting performance! What percentage of the time is your average manager or supervisor in meetings? How much money is being invested in meetings? We should probably have cameras in all meeting rooms!

I'm not kidding. I would be personally willing to be videotaped in any meeting I attended and I would love to participate in the review and grading sessions. Think of the dialogue that would be created. Things might actually improve. Now I know that some human resources people will disagree with me, but think about it. What are the pros and cons? What would we learn about each other and the manner in which we work together?

If you don't want to use that tool, or if you want to add a second weapon to your meeting improvement arsenal, you can use the meeting map. A meeting map is just like the timelines that sports statisticians use to track what happens in a basketball game. Have you ever seen one of these? Each time someone shoots, turns over the ball, commits a foul, or blocks a shot, that event is recorded. You can go back over the timeline at the end of the game and gain a greater perspective of how it unfolded.

I have used the meeting map more than I have used the video taping tool. All you need to do is capture (1) the time that each person talks in sequence and (2) what the focus of their statements or questions were. This tool will show you the percentage of time each participant talks and it will allow you to track the flow of the meeting. Its use allows you to review both the shifts in group dynamics and meeting content that occur. Color coding can be used to show when questions are asked versus statements made, or to note the emotion with which each person speaks. If the team that was mapped actually reviews the map as an evaluative effort, a lot of improvement can be gained if this review is conducted in an open, dialogue-based manner.

We waste a lot of time and money in meetings. Time for learning, coaching, and listening are all compromised when our meetings are not as ‘lean' as we expect our processes on the front lines to be. If tools such as time studies, videotapes, and maps are good enough to use on some processes and employee groups, shouldn't we being using them in all areas where a significant amount of resources (including knowledge) are being expended?

I know some meetings are confidential, but I also know that somewhere between what we are doing now and what we could do to improve meeting effectiveness, there is a whole lot of potential time and money to be saved. I know that I need to openly challenge the process more when I see a meeting going off course – I will search for ways myself to help make the meetings I am part of more effective. I do know that these simple tools will make a difference, even they are only used periodically. Keep improving!

Reference: “Team Efforts, Technology Add New Reasons to Meet”, Stephanie Armour, USA Today, December 8, 1997.

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