Why Your Team Is Always ‘Too Busy’
Tom Stimson
April 9, 2021

You don’t need more people; you do need them to do less

You can make more money, but you cannot make more time. 

This is what your team is telling you when they say they are too busy. However, the solution is not to add more people. That just burns through money and allows more people to be too busy. 

“Too busy” is a symptom. 

A chef that can prepare dinner for twenty people by herself in two hours can double her output by adding another chef who can also prepare at the same pace. Dinner for one hundred? Five chefs. 

That would be wasteful, inefficient, and expensive. Instead, the chef would hire less expensive assistants who would focus on specific tasks. The bigger the team, the more specific the tasks they perform. 

Your business should operate the same way. Hiring more people without narrowing job descriptions means you have to continually hire fully trained Project Managers (for instance) instead of hiring one person who just does lower-skilled tasks used by all PMs. 

90% of my clients report that they feel “too busy” even when the overall productivity of their team is low. It is not that the team isn’t working hard enough. The problem is that all the work needs to be done the same week. When that push is over, the team is now under-utilized. 

Hiring more people will just make that problem worse. 

The feeling of being too busy is generally not a headcount problem. The majority of the time “busy” stems from employees wearing too many of the wrong hats. One or two people are responsible for vital tasks that ‘no one else can do’, therefore the rest of the team is always waiting on them.

The list of too busy warning signs can get pretty sad: untidy offices, disorganized warehouses, and grumpy employees are easy to spot. But all I need to identify a culture where looking busy is more important than getting things done is the profit and loss statement:

  • Revenue growth that lags behind the industry, or
  • Profits that decline as revenue grows

We can find more signs buried in the financial statements such as inventory that sits idle, inconsistent capitalization, and a line of credit that never sees a zero balance to name a few.

The first step towards solving this problem is to examine the distribution of processes amongst the team.

The Theory of Hat Prioritization

The solution to being too busy starts with the idea that every employee can have only ONE primary hat at any time. The primary hat is the responsibility that he/she cannot say no to. It is the thing that other people depend upon. Asking someone to have more than one top priority in the same process set often results in timing conflicts. 

You can have more than one primary hat as long as their demand schedules generally do not coincide. In other words, the hats must occur at distinct and predictably different times.

Secondary hats by definition have flexible execution schedules. These are responsibilities that can be set aside when the primary hat needs attention. 

For instance, a receptionist typically has two primary hats – answering the phone and greeting visitors. Granted, the phone always rings right as someone walks in the door, but the transition from hat to hat can be efficient and friendly. 

If the Receptionist is also responsible for posting accounts payable, then accounting tasks are a secondary hat that should never interfere with the execution of reception duties.

Unwinding the Culture of Too Busy

One of the biggest obstacles to increasing throughput is a culture that conflates “busy” with productivity. Busy has become a management shortcut to assessing whether an employee is performing well or not. As any lazy stagehand will tell you, the key to not working hard is to appear busy at something easy that looks useful. 

A better measure of a person’s value is their output or contribution to the common goals. In my consulting practice, I have outed more than one super-busy slacker whose penchant for hoarding too many primary responsibilities was clearly holding the firm back. Most of these folks are not intentionally inefficient, but because they are so busy and because they are frequently praised for being so – the problem persists. 

I once encountered a trucking dispatcher that routinely assigned himself to make deliveries. He couldn’t see the problem; in his mind, the delivery needed to be made. What he overlooked was the chaos created by being away from his post. Co-workers were held up in their work because a mission-critical supervisor chose to wear a conflicting hat. The result? Dysfunction without all the fun.

The problem starts at the top. Managers frequently take on roles themselves that have major conflicts in time, geography, and importance. In effect, they start the chain of broken promises, so we need to examine what it is that Management should be doing instead of what most actually spend time on. 

My job description for managers is pretty simple: “Remove obstacles.” Top executives should be devoting as much as 50% of their time to seeing what is down the road that might become an obstacle for their direct reports. This is a primary hat. If you neglect it, other people can’t get their jobs done in a timely and efficient manner.

The Theory of Hats in Post-Pandemic Economy

It will be years before we understand all the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic on how businesses operate. Many jobs had to be performed from home with only virtual contact, but productivity remained high. Does that mean offices will be a thing of the past?

Essential industries in the supply chain couldn’t avoid in-person contact, but instead had to adopt social distancing and other precautionary measures to stay in business. We shouldn’t expect all of those practices to end when the pandemic is over. 

What about our Live Events industry? When audiences come back, will everything revert to pre-pandemic models? Doubtful, but when it comes to my study of businesses, I would caution that old hats have a lot of magnetic power. 

There is comfort in, “This is how we’ve always done it.”

Before you reset your personnel and process to BC (before Covid), study what kept you afloat this past year. 

  • Low overhead
  • High-margin services
  • New skills and tools

Instead of adding employees, review your outsourcing strategy. When busy, staff should do core competency work while direct (specifically for the project) tasks should be hired out. It doesn’t matter if the outsource worker is a freelancer, part-time, or on-demand – the net result to process is the same. 

Staff fulfill primary hat functions so that others can focus on project work. 

Busy isn’t always a capacity problem. Sometimes it is a matter of process responsibilities and having too many people doing too many things at the same.

Start with Leadership

The answer to the question of “Why is your team too busy” is simple: Because you are. And, if you are not clever or organized enough to design a job that you can be successful at, how can you do that for your employees? 

This is another area where independent, outside consultants can be valuable to your company. We can see things that you are too close to recognize and offer solutions that take the larger view into consideration. Ironically, the most powerful resource we have to solve your dilemma is time.

Do you have time to at least chat about this? I can help

About Tom Stimson
Tom Stimson MBA, CTS is an authority on business and strategy for small- to medium-sized companies. He is an expert on project-based selling and a thought leader for innovative business processes.
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