Know your time

July 1, 2006 By    

This is the fifth in a series on business topics inspired by the 20th century business management icon Peter Drucker.

A current retail propane industry debate is how to improve the efficiencies of retail operations. The prevailing logic is that to be a more successful company, it must be efficient, often through adapting technology.

 Carl Hughes
Carl Hughes

However, I propose that inefficiencies are more prevalent in non-technology areas of our business – specifically that of managerial time.

This column addresses management’s inefficient use of time and offers up ideas to all those who manage others, as well as those who never have enough time to accomplish their own tasks.

Time as a commodity

Time is the scarcest of all resources. It is inelastic and perishable. Our time cannot be stored – yesterday’s time is gone forever and can’t be replaced. Effective managers know that time is precious and in exceedingly short supply.

Since most people are time consumers and time wasters, and since propane operations require lots of workers, the opportunity to improve productivity in our companies is significant. I suggest that productivity first starts at the managerial level.

Ineffective managers usually begin by planning one’s work, then slotting the actions into time slots. The problem with this approach is the lack of consideration for the allocation of time among the planned activity.

Management by lists always falls short of expectations. Many of us drive our days with list upon list of action items. If an item is to be completed, we must get it on our list. We then plan our time around the lists. Management by lists has several weaknesses.

First, tasks on lists are valued equally in terms of importance, productivity or time required. We fool ourselves into thinking we are productive because we completed, say, 80 percent of our list. But if the most important task on the list was part of the 20 percent not completed, we were not very effective.

Second, management by lists doesn’t take into account the limiting factor of time. We’ll never have enough time to complete the self-rejuvenating aspect of list management.

Finally, retail propane plant managers who operate entirely by the list method of management can’t take on any more responsibilities because – by definition – they already have a list of actionable items that take up the full day. This explains why many managers in our industry have limited capabilities – they have not conquered managing their time. If you or anyone on your team intends to grow professionally, you must master improved time control.

A better way

Drucker studied executives to learn what worked and what did not. He learned that many senior executives were not aware of where they spent their time. Perhaps the most valuable of his observations was that all of the most effective executives he met begin their management process by always starting first with their time.

Drucker suggests that effective managers begin by planning around what he calls discretionary time – time that is available to accomplish tasks. He devised a simple three-step approach to improve effectiveness.

  • First, find out where your time goes. Most of us don’t spend time where we think we do. Simply start by logging all your work activity. By breaking down your work into three to five major groups and logging your activity each day, you will learn where your time is actually spent.
  • Manage the available time first. The objective is to cut back on unproductive demands on your time and begin freeing up more discretionary time, the time that you control.
  • Consolidate discretionary time into the largest possible amounts. Drucker suggests that little chunks of discretionary time are not the most productive. You should instead create large portions of discretionary time in order to be more effective. For example, discussing with an employee a key operational change, then planning out the steps to accomplish that change is better handled in a one-hour session than in four 15-minute sessions.

Finally, consider your leadership role with your team and assess your management style to ensure that you are not wasting their time. Begin by logging your own activity. You’ll be amazed at how you really spend your time.

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