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Rich recently completed the audiobook Undaunted Courage by Stephan E. Ambrose. It is the account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, set in the 1804 timeframe. All communications were proportionate to the distance and the quality of the travel routes between the two or more communicating parties. There were no telegraphs or telephones, only hand-delivered, written communications. Sometimes even the most urgent messages took weeks or months to deliver.
This inherent delay in all communications drove both the practices and the expectations of people everywhere. When President Thomas Jefferson authorized the expedition, he created very detailed instructions to Meriwether Lewis describing his expectations for the expedition as well as guidelines for how members of the team were to conduct themselves. Then he authorized Lewis to act on his behalf and provided financial letters of credit allowing Lewis to progress without detailed oversight.
There was an expectation that some communications would never arrive due to the messenger’s untimely demise en route. The wilderness was not a safe place for many reasons. There was also an expectation that any response might be crafted over a number of days, even weeks, then transmitted back over a path similar to the one taken by the original message.
The costs varied greatly but it was often quite expensive. One might get interrupted by such a letter a small number of times in a year. It was a welcomed and feared interruption.
Fast forward to 2019 — skipping past the Pony Express, the telegraph, the land-line telephone and the teletype — and most of us have the fortune or misfortune of being able to receive messages from anywhere on earth in a matter of seconds.
We say fortune or misfortune because the stunning speed of message delivery has radically changed the expectations of people throughout the world, as well as the frequency of interruptions. When one of your customers sends his salesperson an email or text, right or wrong, he might expect the salesperson to drop everything and to respond immediately.
There is a great scene from the movie “Up” where a dog, Dug, is laser-focused on his objective of capturing a bird until he sees a squirrel. Dug’s pursuit of the squirrel completely derails him from his “bird capturing” project. After losing the squirrel, he is forced to start over again, losing all the progress he had previously made in capturing the bird.
So, your laser-focused salesperson is working on a quote to a new prospective customer, a bird, when he gets a text from one of his customers, a squirrel. What does he do? In our experience, in most cases, he will abandon the bird prospect and chase the squirrel just like Dug.
In the movie, the interruption by the squirrel caused Dug to abandon 100 percent of his progress regarding the bird. It’s not as if he could reenter the chase where he left off by going back to some bookmarked place in time. All the energy expended chasing the bird netted a zero return on investment. We hope your salesperson saved the document when the urgent text came in so his work on the quote was not lost.
He must now create a to-do on his list — whether it is managed in his brain, on a piece of paper or some electronic device — to remind himself to restart his quote creation task at some point. Sometime in the future, he decides to reattach his brain to the quote creation project. He opens up the document containing his progress on the quote, reopens any reference materials, reacquaints himself with where he left off and starts to make progress again.
We would submit that the re-engagement overhead in this example is far more significant than we might imagine. As additional texts and emails and interruptions occur, some individuals reach a state of inefficient equilibrium wherein the startup and bookmarking of the many tasks on their plate consumes a majority of their time. In computer jargon, this phenomenon is called “thrashing” — all the computer’s power is consumed just keeping track of the list of things it must do.
Time Management Tips
1. Make time management an explicit priority. Unmanaged time is often squandered. Of course, there are lazy and nonteam players in the world who care little about what is good for the customer or good for the company. We will assume that you have already encouraged those people to work for one of your most difficult competitors. (If not, a little management time focused on the topic might be a good investment.)
We will assume your team consists of people who care and are trying, every day, to do a good job. As we have said before, it’s management’s job to create the vision of what “a good job” looks like. When management fails in this regard, it can expect that each individual will, in the absence of direction, come up with something.
Sometimes it will contribute to the betterment of the company and sometimes it will only contribute to the individual’s social media status.
2. Continue to encourage the thoughtful consideration of how to use the scarcest of resources, time. We will refer you to an expert on the topic, Stephen Covey. We have talked before about the Urgent/Important matrix he published in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It continues to be critically relevant. ¬¬ His main point is that urgent tasks, both important and unimportant, seem to trump nonurgent tasks, even when the nonurgent tasks are vitally important.
In hospitals, they train the emergency room team to ignore the volume of the screams (urgent) and to focus on the volume of blood being spilled (urgent and important).
3. Personal interruptions abound and must be limited. Personal phone calls, emails and texts from your significant other, your children, your doctor, your dentist, your auto repair provider, your bank, your credit card companies, your stockbroker, your social media updates and your multiple calendars provide a large and growing list of barriers to productivity. Each of these squirrels causes your team to take their eyes off the bird or, if they are driving, off the road.
We must not forget that these electronic squirrels can distract your team from critical tasks such as driving, forklift operation, crane operation and other tasks requiring full focus for safe operation.
Create Best Practices
We are strong endorsers of the creation of best practices in the area of productivity. The concept is to create processes representing the best thinking and experience of the members of the team, as many heads are better than one. Then insist that all players adopt these practices in the performance of their jobs.
There are so many side benefits of adopting best practices. Performance reviews can focus on whether an individual performed as expected; without set expectations, the review process is subjective and often unfair. Best practices also become the operational framework allowing the operation to continue smoothly when an individual is out sick or gets promoted.
You can bet that massive companies, such as the big polluted river guys, have best practices for most, if not all, their operational activities. Their rapid growth and high turn-over require that processes are done consistently by all their teams.
We heard a story recently that one of the big polluted river’s best practices is to simply load returned goods into shipping containers. A container may randomly hold a mix of products such as an X-Box game console, a blender, a winter coat, etc. No time is taken to sort or organize the contents. When a container is full, they sell it to the highest bidder. Few of us would have imagined it is more productive to simply discard returns than to process them to recover some of the value.
We would bet that, after some analysis, this best practice was created and deployed across all their warehouses. (We are not recommending this specific practice; however, we are recommending the thoughtful creation of best practices for many processes across your company.)
Create best practices for time management. We wouldn’t presume to know the priorities for your business but we think management should be explaining how it wants situations to be handled as a part of a best practice.
Handle the filing/managing of email. Create and promote a method for handling the barrage of emails you receive. Consider whether you can create rules and filters in Outlook (or whatever your email client is) to sort your emails for you, forward emails (delegate) to the appropriate groups based on specific keywords and eliminate the endless spam.
This also should include oversight for emails by supervisors to provide coverage for absences and to ensure that customers and other stakeholders are getting handled as desired.
Manage email alerts. What is a reasonable time frame to go between checking emails? Do you need the automatic interruptions created by the pop-up alert for every incoming email or can you check your email once every 15 minutes? Every hour?
Managing task lists. When the inevitable interruptions occur, people have a proven process for minimizing the productivity hit that happens.
Setting customer expectations for responsiveness. Sometimes customers’ issues don’t need to be handled immediately but they do want to know that you got their email/text/message and when you will be attending to it or when you will be communicating with them about it.
Consider an immediate response to set customer expectations for action: “I got your email/text/message. I am out of the office right now but I will take a look at it tomorrow and get back to you. If you need a faster response, call Bob in inside sales for help.”
Not everything is an emergency. A message from home that Joey fell off the roof should be treated differently than a message that Joey can’t find the applesauce, yet most people we know are not filtering these situations at all. They allow their personal relationships to interrupt any business situation.
Not every text requires instant attention. Consider silencing your group messages containing the latest videos from JibJab or memes about tacos while you’re in the office. Even if you’re not actively checking the messages, the mere buzz of your silenced phone is a distraction.
Avoid the temptation to micro-manage. Instant communication sometimes leads to the illusion that people can and should check with management regarding every decision. We think it is a mistake on many fronts. While you may not need to provide guidance like Thomas Jefferson, who anticipated that Lewis would be out of touch for one or more years, providing guidelines and best practices in support of normal situations can improve the individual’s and the manager’s productivity.
Tell us about your success. In most of our columns, we work very hard to discuss possible solutions to any problem we present. That has been our intent since our family started writing this column decades ago. In most cases, we have been able to present solutions created by combining our experience with the successes and failures of our wholesaler clients and acquaintances.
We will admit that we have no shining example we can provide for this particular conundrum. We know of no wholesaler who has created processes and best practices to address this problem with practical guidelines. If any of our readers have gained some traction in this area, we would love to hear from you. We will share your wisdom with the other readers, hoping to make the world a little better for us all.