Do You See Too Much Meeting Waste?

by Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer and Systems Guy, Great Systems

When I first became an Industrial Engineer back in 1981, we had regular meetings in our company, but not nearly as many as we tend to have in organizations today.  In my opinion, we have too many meetings going in this day and age.  I also think that a large percentage of these meetings are much less effective than they could be.  Too much meeting waste. Think about it – what is your reaction when you are invited to a meeting?  Do you look forward to the meeting date and time with anticipation and enthusiasm, or does the invitation invoke a series of bad memories about boring or otherwise unproductive meetings in the past?

It really pains me to think and state that we are having too many meetings in our companies today.  For over thirty five years, I have been a strong advocate of employee involvement and participative management.  Meetings used to be, and still can be, a key vehicle for involving a higher percentage of your people in decision making and keeping the workforce informed about what is important to the organization.  Unfortunately, I feel that we have really lost our focus about what meetings should be used for and what a successful meeting experience should really look, sound, and feel like. In short, today’s meetings contain too much meeting waste and are largely unproductive!

Reasons for Meeting Waste

While technology has enabled more people to get together more frequently, I feel that we have abused our capacity to meet via video or telephone in the name of cost savings.  We have compromised the true value of face-to-face communication in favor of approaches that may make sure that people have the chance to hear what they need to hear, but does not ensure that they really do hear what they need to hear.  It is likely that for many of you reading this article, meetings make up the majority of your work day.  In other words, your organization invests a lot of money in meetings.  Are they getting what they are paying for? How value added are your meetings? What percentage of meeting waste does each meeting contain on average?

If we could be (and felt comfortable being) honest about our opinions on meetings, I think we would find that most of us feel that meetings are often ineffective and sometimes do more damage than good.  The mere fact that we may not feel comfortable about honestly stating our opinions on meeting effectiveness indicates a problem with openness, and without openness, a majority of our meetings are destined to fail.  How much time and money does your organization spend on meetings each day?  What percentage of this investment is value added?  How significant is your meeting waste stream?

DISCOVER More: How Great are Your Communication Systems?

Since industrial engineers (or people who have an industrial engineering background) are supposed to be time management experts, one would expect that meetings led by these people are the most effective in any organization.  Is that the case in your company?  Do you even analyze the way time is spent is your company’s meetings, and the degree to which that time investment is value added?  I have had the chance to interface with a lot of people in many different organizations, and I have met few, if any, that measure and trend meeting effectiveness over time for the sake of improving this key, yet costly process.  Most leaders don’t know what the cost of their meeting waste is.

From Meeting Waste to Meeting Value

In order to assess the degree to which a given meeting is value added, you have to first determine what the goals of the meeting are.  In other words, who are the customers of the meeting’s output, and what requirements do these customers expect the meeting process to meet or exceed?  Do you consistently identify the customers of your meetings and what their requirements of that ‘get together’ are?  Do you see each meeting attendee as a customer of that gathering, or does the term customer not even enter into the meeting effectiveness discussion (if such a discussion even takes place).

From an idealist perspective, meetings should be used to create dialogue which in turn leads to higher levels of understanding and an improved level of problem solving, planning, or systems improvement.  My meeting reality has unfortunately been quite different than this in most cases.  I have seen too much meeting time used to simply share information that could have been read, or otherwise reviewed, prior to attending the meeting.  I have seen too many tangential discussions occur that result in meeting waste (lost time) because they are not focused on the customer requirements of the meeting.  I have sat in too many meetings where agendas were not even used, or if they were, they were not followed as planned.  How different are your meeting experiences?  How well do you plan and manage your regular meeting processes? What is the monthly cost of your meeting waste?

I see this costly problem getting worse as opposed to getting better.  While most people would agree that a significant portion of the message being communicated gets lost when we can’t observe body language or facial expressions, we continue to gravitate towards meeting approaches that discount the need for face-to-face communication.  I’m not being a technophobe here as much as I am trying to define in my own mind when it is appropriate to use video or telephone conferencing as opposed to holding an ‘in person’ meeting.  Quality human interaction is needed to build strong relationships, and strong relationships are requisite for high performance.  Is our current approach to conducting meetings building or tearing down relationships?

EXPLORE More: Frequently Asked Team Engagement Questions

The possible solutions for breaking out of this downward spiral are not that complicated to implement.  We can start by simply defining who the customers of our meetings are and what those customers expect from a given type of meeting.  We can measure our effectiveness in satisfying these expectations at the end of each meeting, and we can trend meeting waste and effectiveness over time to see if we are improving.  We can identify the common types of meeting defects we have, and use basic quality tools to find the root causes of those defects. Given the lack of time we all seem to express having and the obvious costs of the meetings we hold each day, is the time investment required to make and adhere to these simple changes not worth it?

I have been fortunate in my work career to experience the power of true dialogue.  I am still capable of recalling meetings in my work life that I did enjoy going to.  I am still convinced of the power of team-based problem solving and decision making.  As a degreed industrial engineer however, I am also deeply affected by the amount of time and money we waste in meetings each day around the world.  Are you bothered by the ineffectiveness of the meetings you attend?  If so, do you have a responsibility to help minimize meeting waste, or are you willing to just sit there and listen?  Ironically, only time well tell.

Keep improving! – Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer and Systems Guy, Great Systems

If you would like more information about the tools and systems I have to help you stop meeting madness for good, please send me an e-mail at kevin@greatsystems.com.

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