Increasing productivity and efficiency in your company

While you may think you’ve done everything you can to introduce efficiencies to your operation, there’s at least one more tool essential to increased productivity: time management.

Analyze your company’s operations on how time is spent and find out where time is being wasted. Brainstorm with your employees on how time can be used more efficiently, and consider rewarding staff members for time management suggestions.

Mark Ellwood, president of Pace Productivity, Inc., an international consulting firm that specializes in improving corporate productivity, is a time-use expert with 21 years of research data. When he asked 3,247 employees about which things outside of their control get in the way of productivity, they provided the following responses, in rank order:

1. Paperwork and administrative tasks.

2. Customer requests (ironic, given that many of the respondents provide customer service).

3. Computer/system problems.

4. Phone calls and phone interruptions.

5. Other departments’ inefficiency.

“When do you think about losing 20 pounds? When you’re 20 pounds overweight? When do you pay attention to those you love? When the relationship is in trouble? When do you think about motivating people in the workplace? When they’re demotivated? When do you think about time? When your new business fails?” These are questions posed by Laura Stack, president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a time management consulting firm in Denver, Colo. Many people believe that when they start their own business, it gives them increased control over their time and lives. “Then, you discovered you are working more than ever,” she points out. “If you find yourself working harder, longer, and enjoying it less and less, be careful. Eventually, this lack of fulfillment will impair your performance at work.” That’s when it’s time to seriously consider how to manage time, she says.

Here are some tips from Stack for managing time:


• Set goals: “There are two types of goals that must be considered: short-term and long-term,” Stack says. “Ask yourself the basic journalist’s questions: what, when, why, how and who and where, if applicable. Always put these items in writing. The ‘why’ gives you the motivation and keeps you driven when you face obstacles. If the ‘why’ is strong enough, the ‘how’ is easy. The ‘how’ details the action steps required to achieve the goal.”

These action steps can be short-term goals in and of themselves that are needed to reach the long-term objective. For example, a business owner’s long-term goal may be to institute a comprehensive marketing plan to gross $40,000 in the first year through networking, a direct-mail campaign, a newsletter, writing a column in a newspaper and advertising. The “why” is to not have to go back to working for someone else. “What an incentive to make the ‘how’ happen.” says Stack.

A corresponding short-term goal might be to purchase desktop publishing software to produce newsletters for customers. Action steps would include: creating a checklist of features, researching options, selecting the top four packages, conducting a final review, and selecting and installing the system. “The ‘why’ for this short-term goal ties back to the ‘why’ for the long-term goal,” says Stack. “Keep this long-term perspective so you don’t lose sight of the big picture. One of the best things you can do is review your long-range goals daily. Post them on the wall or put them in your planner. Looking at them will help keep you focused and sort out the trivia of your days.”

• Determine priorities: Because you must accomplish a seemingly endless number of tasks, it’s normal to put in long hours when first getting a business off the ground. But, if you’re still putting in 12 to 14 hours a day two years later, you’re off-balance, says Stack.

“Business owners often become trapped by the ‘tyranny of the urgent,’ a phrase originally coined by Stephen Covey,” she says. “They lose sight of their long-term goals and objectives, and get trapped doing urgent, but not important, tasks throughout the day. You operate daily in the tension between the urgent and important. The difficulty is that you don’t have to do the ‘important’ today, but the ‘urgent’ demands attention now. And, as you push the ‘important’ back one more day, you slowly cave in to the tyranny of the urgent. If you treat each item on your daily task list as if it has the same importance, you tend to do the easiest one first,” she adds. “Nine out of 10 action items will be complete, but the one that is left at the end of the day was the most important.”

A simplified system is to number your tasks in order of importance and discipline yourself to accomplish them in that order, Stack says. “Don’t get too bogged down in labeling tasks A, B or C. Always ask yourself, ‘Is this the best use of my time right now?’ This 20-year-old counsel by Alan Lakein never goes out of style. If you know your high-priority activities for the week, you can use this question to monitor your choices each day.”

• Plan weekly: Daily to-do lists don’t work well for some people, Stack says. “They tend to be a collection of random activities that you think of throughout the day with no consistent link to a larger goal,” she adds. “A weekly plan is better than a daily plan for many business owners. It provides a larger view of what you need to accomplish and allows more room for flexibility.”

To prepare a weekly plan, ask yourself these questions:

  • Results: What are the short-term goals for this week?
  • Activities: What will I have to do to get there?
  • Priorities: What is the order of their importance?
  • Time estimate: How long will each activity take?
  • Schedules: When will I work on each item?
  • Flexibility: Have I allowed room for the unexpected?

• Batch administrative tasks: Don’t become distracted with low-priority filing, copying, reading, faxing, mailing, computer work and communication. “Instead of performing these tasks in bits and pieces throughout the week, schedule an afternoon to complete routine administrative items,” Stack suggests. “Do all your faxing, copying, computer entry [receipts] and filing at one time.”

• Protect your time: Keep external challenges from destroying your focus and eating up your time. “Be assertive,” says Stack. “Be honest when someone phones you and asks, ‘Got a minute?’ If you don’t have a minute, tell them, ‘I’ve got my back up against the wall on an important project right now. Can I call you back at 2:30?’ Do both of you a favor – if you take the call, you’re not really listening to them and you’re losing valuable time.” Grouping outgoing calls is another time management strategy.

Another way to protect time is by investing in needed equipment. “How many times have you had to print out a document, trudge over to the fax machine and send it manually?” Stack asks. “Wouldn’t fax software save you an incredible amount of time each day by allowing you to fax directly from your computer with just a few keystrokes?”

A contact management database and accounting software package are also time-savers.

Also, never put off until tomorrow what you can have someone else do today, Stack says. “Determine the value of your time and delegate at every opportunity,” she says. “Be careful with appointments. Never leave your office if you can resolve things over the phone. If you must meet in person, try to get the first appointment of the day so you won’t have to wait. Confirm all appointments before leaving and have a written agenda.”

• Relax: “Self-care also has a direct impact on the quality of work you produce,” Stack says. “Don’t forget to take care of yourself during these long days. Eat well, get enough sleep and exercise sufficiently. Know when to take a break and what kind of break will best restore your energy.”

Lisa Anderson, a senior business and operations executive, and founder and president of LMA Consulting Group, Inc., works with executive leaders and management teams to transform people and processes into profit, focusing on the areas of change management, process control and project management. She also is author of a newsletter, “Profit Through People.” “In my 20 years of experience – both as a practitioner as a vice president of operations and supply chain and as a business consultant and entrepreneur across multiple industries and globally – I’ve learned a few secrets to success in time management,” she says.

The top three she’s learned are as follows:

• Do not get bogged down in technology. “It’s amazing how much time is wasted in trying to utilize technology to enable efficiency,” Anderson says. “Sticking with pen and paper lists works.”

• Ruthless prioritization. “The largest time waster is working on nonessential tasks,” Anderson points out. “Instead, prioritizing ensures that your A priorities are complete. It’s interesting how often the B and C priorities no longer matter.”

• Keep a list. “Not only do you remember your A priorities, but you also get the satisfaction of checking off items and seeing progress,” she adds.

Linda Henman, president of the Henman Performance Group, says meetings can be one of the biggest time wasters for any company “by a factor of 10.” The second biggest waste of time? “A focus on activity rather than results; input instead of output,” she says. Strategies for managers and employees to make each day efficient include reducing the number and duration of meetings, Henman says, as well as setting and discussing priorities. Lastly, give feedback about how people are meeting deadlines and increasing productivity.

In managing time, technology should serve only as a tool, Henman says. “Some of the most successful people who exhibit successful time mastery don’t use technology for their scheduling,” she says. “They use a paper/pencil tool.”

Dr. Billie G. Blair is an organizational psychologist and president and CEO of the international management consulting firm, Change Strategists, Inc., consultants for Fortune 500/1000s. “The biggest time wasters are the acts involved in looking for things,” Blair points out. “That can take the form of searching files, which might be disorganized or unfamiliar, or asking co-workers where needed information can be found and getting caught up in peripheral and extended conversations.” Blair says, “Form a complement of employees who are dedicated to value-added actions on behalf of the company,” says Blair. “It’s certainly not an easy task, but far less costly than the amounts that are currently spent on time wasted.”

Blair outlines that process as such:

  • Review hiring practices – hire with different goals in mind.
  • Plan on an ongoing orientation for employees as opposed to a 10-minute lecture by human resources.
  • Engage employees in the critical actions of the company. Have them understand what those are, what they are to do in response, and why it’s important.

Overall, the boss, owner or manager should keep in mind that developing a value-added organization where good time management practices are utilized with little prompting is a process in which they must be engaged directly on a daily basis. “You can’t just wind ’em up and send ’em out,” says Blair. “You’ve got to work with employees.”

Carol Brzozowski is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has written extensively about environmental issues for numerous trade journals for more than a decade. She resides in Coral Springs, Fla.