When a manufacturing line in a factory is running efficiently, one can see lines of robotic arms working synchronously, conveyor belts moving smoothly, and goods being produced. Unfortunately, when it comes to knowledge work, it’s much tougher to get an understanding of how much a team of people is producing.
There comes a point in every organization when if you want to keep growing, you simply have to hire more people. But it can be difficult to know when you’ve reached that point. For example, every year, during the annual business planning cycle I always notice that managers propose a larger budget. When I have asked “Why can’t we do more with our existing budget?” the answer is usually, “My team is telling me that they’re all too busy with existing initiatives and do not have capacity to take on anything new.”
Project overload is real. But as a leader, how do you know whether your team is really needs more resources, or whether they could be working more efficiently?
To answer this question, the first thing that a leader should do is to understand how their teams spend their time. A simple way to get a holistic view of this is to ask people to explain three things:
- The key activities each person performs as their primary job responsibilities
- The amount of time in a given week each person spends on these key activities
- The types of activities that are above and beyond core job functions or special projects
Once you’ve collected this data, the next step is to focus on the areas that the team is spending the most amount of time. To find more time, leaders will need to identify opportunities to eliminate work, reduce workload, or improve productivity by working closely with their teams.
Eliminate Work: Are there tasks that the team is doing that are no longer needed?
When a business is growing fast, it is often not the first priority to really take a step back and understand if all efforts are truly being focused on driving current business priorities. For Instance, in one of my past organizations, we uncovered that team members were spending up to 40% of their time on internal projects rather than customer-facing projects.
To figure out why, we asked team members to provide the names of all their projects, the purpose of these projects, when the projects had started, and how close they were to completion. We uncovered that the top reason people were spending so much time on internal projects was that these had launched when these initiatives were a business priority. As the overall business focus changed to be more customer-focused, leaders including myself had not explicitly communicated that these internal projects should be wound down. As a result, team members continued to work on projects that were inconsistent with our current business goals.
By eliminating these lower-value internal projects, our teams were able to engage with our customers more deeply, leading to increased product adoption rates. We were also able to invest 20% of the teams’ time in projects that were aligned with our new strategy.
Reduce Workload: What can we do differently to reduce the volume of tasks being performed by the team?
A perennial management challenge is figuring out how to minimize the amount of time employees spend on low-value tasks — the repetitive, transactional tasks that have to get done, but often seem to take up an inordinate amount of time. It’s not possible to eliminate all transactional tasks, but by diving into the details of existing processes, leaders can challenge the status quo and help simplify processes that reduce these tasks.
For instance, one of our teams was responsible for launching online advertising campaigns. They’d work with our customers to understand the goals of the campaign and ensure that we had the right creative assets to launch the campaign. The team was spending a lot of time waiting for customers to respond to their emails — over 25% of their time was being spent simply following up.
As we worked to understand the process, we learned that process was comprehensive and resulted in launching error-free campaigns. However, when we dug deeper to understand why we needed so many customer approvals, the reasons were rooted in the product’s past. When this product was originally launched, customer awareness was low. To ensure that all campaigns launched correctly, the team had created a process that had all the checks and balances. Even though the product had improved significantly and customers now understood how to employ the product, we had not updated the process.
We changed the process where all customers with standard campaigns would have 48 hours to disapprove our execution proposal. By making the approvals passive for our standard campaigns, we not only eliminated tasks that our teams found tedious but we also shortened the campaign launch time by 48 hours on average. These changes allowed each team to launch more campaigns.
Improve Productivity: What can we do to complete tasks more quickly?
While process improvements can drive some productivity increases, the biggest productivity improvements are often a result of automating groups of tasks. When automation is coupled with process changes, the resulting impact can be substantial.
For instance, one of our teams was responsible for working with our customers to help them integrate with our product. It typically took five weeks to do this, which seemed like an unduly long amount of time. When we asked why, the answer surprised us. The customers would start to write their integrations and whenever they had a problem they would request a meeting. We found that not only were a lot of our customers’ questions very similar, but our customers would also schedule a call and then share the details of the problem during the call. This resulted in follow-up meetings to completely resolve the question. The team was challenged to use technology to solve this problem and they came up with an ingenious solution. They wrote a software tool that would check for all the common errors. They then changed the customer engagement model — instead of just describing the process of integration, they would leave the first conversation by giving the error checking tool to the customer. We established a new protocol, so that when customers ran into issues, they would use the tool and send the report from the tool before we scheduled the call. These simple tweaks allowed us to shave a total of 30 hours (nearly a full week) from the total integration time. Our team members were able to engage with a larger number of customers to meet our growing needs.
Most people are usually doing their best — from their perspective, they have the best interests of the business at heart. Doing more with less may sound very challenging, especially when business is growing and the bar for customer expectations is rising. To create more time in people’s schedules, managers need to engage with their teams to deeply understand daily operations. This will allow teams to scale the business and meet growing customer expectations by doing more with less. And if the three steps above aren’t working, managers may need to admit that it’s time to hire more people.