Small business has a problem. Most of the time it is too busy to solve basic problems. The rest of the time there is no money to pay for solutions.
If one of the issues you need to address is a low profit, it is easy to see how the cycle of too busy and no money could go on forever.
You Don’t Need More People
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 on 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 Theory of Hats
Or perhaps more appropriately – the Tenets of Hat Prioritization. It starts with the idea that every employee can have only ONE primary hat at any time. A primary hat is the responsibility that he/she cannot say no to. It is the thing that other people depend upon you for the most. Asking someone to have more than one top priority is a formula for disappointing results. You can have more than one primary hat as long as their schedules 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 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 that is a secondary hat that should never interfere with the execution of the first hat(s).
Unwinding the Culture of Too Busy
Changing the culture of companies that value being too busy is difficult. Busy has become a management shortcut to assessing whether an employee is performing well or not. 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 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 and 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 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.