For the majority of my career, I have been blessed with a long commute. My blessing may be your curse, but 90 minutes of solitude affords me the opportunity to do nothing but drive and think. I spent one particular morning analyzing my company and the way in which we used to operate. I struggled with the fact that my staff was working, on average, a whopping 180 hours per month. Given our standard month should have come in around 160, including vacation, I realized profits were made only after my staff exceeded regularly scheduled time. For a professional services business like mine, I don't pay overtime. So why the concern? Well, because I asked myself a question I couldn't answer. Why, in a hot industry with powerful clients, were we unable to produce effective, meaningful, and profitable work in a normal 130 to 145 hours each month?
Time to face the music
Although I like to challenge the status quo, I was surprised to discover we were guilty of working in a constant state of overcapacity. What was equally clear was that our clients were just as guilty as we were. How could we all operate for any extended length of time at such a heated, frenetic pace of activity? On-site for client meetings, I witnessed the rat race firsthand -- people being pulled in every direction, putting out fire after fire. I thought to myself, what a novel concept to give our employees more time to sit back, look at the big picture, and actually think. After doing some research on the idea, I stumbled upon a story which said that Google implemented a rule years back requiring every employee to have 20 percent free time. It was during this time they were tasked with idea generation on how to increase company and overall performance. In fact, it was during free time that Gmail was created. If Google could do that, how could we get to a place where innovation time is built into the equation?
Where are we maxed out?
I first had to look at our current operations and why we were working the way we were. Operating in a state of overcapacity is nothing new. It's a common culprit that can be found in three areas of your business:
We're simply not giving enough time for our employees to produce quality, thoughtful work. Unless you operate a manufacturing line that dictates a specific cadence and pace, the quality of creative work (from legal to landscaping) increases when team members have more time to think through what they're doing. With the proliferation of smartphones being an extension of our computers, we take our work everywhere we go. I'd go as far to say it's a nationwide epidemic.
Rather than giving our team members one thing to do well, we give them three. Interrupting their work negatively impacts their attention capacity. Rather than taking an hour to do one task, they're now juggling back and forth between three. Recapturing attention and switching tasks takes time and causes a state of overcapacity.
How many times do we say, "Because you're so talented, I'm going to entrust you to handle this project?" We reward our hardworking, able employees with more work, yet we fail to provide them with the proper training. Example -- you send your rock star team members off to present to an important audience, but you fail to coach and train them. Imagine the level of stress that puts on your team. If you give assignments without tools and educational resources, you're going to receive mediocre output, and more importantly, you're setting your team up for failure.
In 2009 I came across a fantastic read on the subject. "The Generative Organization: from Reactive Behavior to Inspired Performance" by Bill Schwarz is a diagnostic narrative on how companies evolve into a state of operating beyond their redline. It's really this book and the consultative education I've received from Schwarz that opened my eyes to the corrosive effects of operating at overcapacity.