Triage—Best Served Regularly

Triage helps us decipher between the important and unimportant and is essential to ensuring we do the right work at the right time and to/for the right person/thing. But be aware: Avoid the trap of triaging work just for the sake of keeping workflow moving.

Blindly triaging work can cost more than stopping the flow to challenge whether the work is necessary in the first place. This is particularly relevant to such things as writing reports that no one will ever read, creating programs that no one will ever use, or creating new departments that have limited (or no) usefulness to stakeholders or to the organization. You have an obligation to your organization to challenge when the work you are doing has no value.

But if you are doing the right work and for the right reasons, then managing work through triage can be very effective.

Triage is about prioritizing work based on its importance and urgency. It is particularly useful when applied to managing information. By triaging information such as correspondence and e-mail, you can save a lot of time if the most important gets done first. In fact, many people might say that triage is like applying the 80:20 rule to everything you do—you create 80% of your results from 20% of your efforts by focusing your efforts primarily on the important and urgent.

How do you determine what is important and urgent? Here are five suggestions for dispatching your important and urgent work to create superb results for you and your organization:

  1. Keep an updated “to-do” list and focus on completing medium-importance, high urgency goals most of the time. This will give you 80% of your results. Constantly scan your list and drop items that are of low importance or have no urgency.
  2. Standardize work whenever you can. For instance, have procedures in place on how to write reports, how to format documents, how to handle email, etc. The more standards in your organization, the more time you will have for high-productivity and high-creativity items instead of thinking about how to write a report, how to format a document or how to handle email.
  3. When making decisions, don’t focus on the decision. Instead, focus on options that may result in the right decision. It’s much easier to make a decision based on a few options instead of making a decision based on the entire case.
  4. Close your email and browser when working on important work. You will get the important work done much sooner.
  5. Stop multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is counterproductive. In fact, everyone’s brain slows down considerably when trying to juggle multiple tasks.

And if the above still falls short of helping you and your organization achieve exceptional workflow, outsourcing of work is another option. It costs much less to hire experts than it does to fumble through work that is not within your or your organization’s area of expertise.

The fact is that none of us are good at everything, but all of us are good at something. Determine the areas where you and your organization create the most value—and outsource everything else.

Working to Death

A recent reader survey shows that British Columbia’s business professionals are working long hours, trending to near 70-hour work weeks. If you’re in this group, you’re setting yourself up for serious health and safety problems, most of which stem from sleep deprivation. In addition to these concerns, working long hours is counterproductive and does more damage to your organization than you might think.

The more you work, the less efficient you become. This results in more waste and less productivity. If the cycle continues, the end result can range from absenteeism due to stress and sickness to accidents on the job and even to death. One of the best ways to get yourself off the cycle of overwork is to pay attention to your work when you’re at work. Become efficient and productive during your regular working hours and you’ll never again need to put in regular overtime.

Here are ten things you can do right now to improve your productivity – i.e., do more in less time:

  1. Eliminate your physical and electronic clutter. Both are wastes that inhibit your performance. A clean office with sparse décor and no stacks and piles of stuff is more conducive to productivity.
  2. Zone in on your work. Organize your work items in zones based on how frequently you access or need an item. For example, if you use a paper cutter only once a month, there is no need for it to be in your office (zone 1).
  3. Move email out of your inbox daily. At the end of the day, your inbox should contain ZERO items – each email you open must be handled immediately. Use the B-F-A-T rule. After you open an email, read it and then B-bring it forward (if further action is required), F-file it (no action is required), A-act on it immediately (if a short response will do), or T-delete (toss) it.
  4. Prioritize tomorrow’s activities the day before. Then work on your priorities as scheduled. Stick to your schedule.
  5. Stop procrastinating at work. Socializing and playing computer games while at work only adds to your workload. Get help for procrastination – it could be as simple as taking a day off to refresh and recharge.
  6. Don’t ignore overwhelm. Figure out why you’re overwhelmed, resolve your issues, and move forward. If you’re constantly overwhelmed with work, maybe you’re in the wrong job.
  7. Think before you act. Productive people spend a lot of time thinking about and planning how to accomplish tasks before they actually do them. This helps prevent re-doing work.
  8. Configure your office space. The most efficient office space is a U-shape. It enables efficient workflow, saving you time. Better yet, ask your boss to consider an open space design for the entire organization. It will help improve your creativity and productivity.
  9. Use project management skills for big projects. If you’re new to project task estimating, take a best-guess at how long a task will take and then multiply that time by three to get a true timeframe.
  10. Use standards and procedures. If your organization does not have standards and procedures for EVERYTHING that needs to get done, then you are spending more time on tasks than necessary.

Implementing these ten tips will help you decrease your hours at the office, so you have more time to spend with family and friends doing the things you love. And at the end of the day, you owe it to yourself and to your employer to return to work mentally refreshed the next day.

Procedures Par Excellence

Did you ever work for an employer where when you arrived for work on the first day you weren’t given any documentation relating to the job’s role and responsibilities? I did. On my first day on the job, I was told to just “take it easy” the first few days and deal with the work as it arises. Relying on the job description and job title for guidance, I performed my role as best I could and managed to stay with the company for two years. Perhaps no surprise, a few years after I left, the company went out of business.

The benefits of having documented procedures cannot be overstated. Among their many benefits, procedures make training of new employees easier. When new employees do not have procedures for their job, they invent the job’s procedures. And when that employee leaves, the next employee reinvents or layers their invention on top of pre-existing process. This leads to inefficiencies.

In addition to training, procedures provide a baseline for all continuous improvement activities in the organization. If you want to make improvements in a specific process, how do you know what to improve if you can’t specifically identify how the process should have been (or was) done in the first place?

Procedures are useful for documenting standardized work. Organizations that have and use procedures are ahead of those that don’t. If your organization does not have documented procedures, there is a 100 percent probability that your organization is inefficient. No procedures? No surprise then that you won’t be in business for long (or at the very least, you will never be as profitable as you could be otherwise).

As well as a baseline for continuous improvement and standardizing work, procedures enable problem solving. If an error is made in a process, you will be able to pinpoint specifically in the procedures where the error occurred and then correct that procedure so the problem does not reoccur. You won’t need to correct process “on the fly” or “wing it.”

Another benefit of procedures is the freedom they allow management to not micromanage. When management knows that standard operating procedures are in place for work processes, they do not need to stand over their employees’ shoulders watching how work is performed. Instead, they can focus on developing and working the company’s strategic vision all the while knowing that standard operations will get done consistently and effectively.

That’s all great, you say, but your company already has procedures and problems still seem to occur. Remember that procedures are living documents and will need to be updated from time-to-time. Look for tell-tale signs such as an increase in your company’s number of accidents, higher failure rates and costly returns, or if employees start to question “normal operations” and there is a higher incidence of employee sick leave due to stress and overwhelm. Notice also what your customers are complaining about. Any of these situations may be a clue that your procedures are due for a refresh.

And don’t forget: The most effective procedures are those developed by the people doing the work. They don’t necessarily have to write the procedures, but they certainly have to provide the input.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

What’s the secret to working smarter, not harder? The answer is standardized work methods. If you do not have documented standards for your work, then you are working much harder than necessary.

Standards, by their nature, imply that they are good. And they are. When we have standards for the way we work, we have a method that enables us to improve control of our operations. Documented standards provide us with the baseline against which to measure our performance. When we have standards, we are able to optimize our performance by reducing waste and variability in our operations and improving the quality of our product or service.

When developing standards for work methods, here are some considerations to help you get started:

  1. Standards must be followed. In order to achieve this, buy-in must come from all of those who are using the standard. One way to accomplish this is to engage the people who will be following the standards to develop them. This approach enables a “self-governing” process. Also, locate a copy of the standards at each workstation (or ensure people know where to find them online).
  2. Standards must be monitored for improvement opportunities. Continuous improvement is key to ensuring that your standards are always current and that they meet the organization’s and customer’s needs.
  3. Manage exceptions by documenting, reviewing, and acting on the exceptions. If exceptions are too frequent, this is an indication that the standards need to be changed.

Without standards, an organization cannot improve. Trying to do so is like trying to hit a moving target. If the current process is in control and stable (through standards), then it can be improved. If it is not subject to standards, then it cannot be improved, since there is no baseline on which to gauge improvement.

The benefits of standardizing work methods through documented procedures cannot be overstated in terms of benefits to the organization. These benefits include enabling problem-solving, reducing costs of continuous improvement, highlighting waste and problems in processes, making new employee training easier, and improving operator control of operations.

In short, standardization is the best, safest, and easiest way to do your job. It’s a way to work smarter, not harder.