Think You Have A Time Management Problem? Think Again

The "time management problem" often means there is a more serious root problem at work. Here are four possibilities.
July 19, 2011

Time management classes, books, websites and tools are multiplying like rabbits in a meadow—GTD, Four-Hour Workweeks, the Pomodoro Technique and more. People devote countless hours to training and adoption of new techniques, and in the end, they still don’t get their work done. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that they don’t really have a time management problem.

The "time management problem" is most often a symptom of systemic issues in a company that fatally undermine the ability to get work done. If you think of an iceberg, the visible part of the iceberg is the perceived time management problem. But the invisible mass of the iceberg below the waterline is where the root causes lie.

In most companies, the root causes fall into four categories:

1. Strategy

When company strategy is unclear (or just plain bad), it overloads employees with no-value-added work. In one of my previous jobs, our company renewed its focus on the high-priced, high-value, high-visibility end of the market with its product. No problem there, except that top management didn’t want to let go of the bottom end. As a result, our product design and development teams were overloaded with projects, and none of the products were competitive.

2. Priorities

As the old saying goes, when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. The chief marketing officer at a company I consulted for once told me, with a straight face, that his team had 27 strategic priorities for that year. He had started the year with five, but his unwillingness to forego any opportunity at all led to the steady accumulation of new projects, until the total number was backbreaking. The result? His team had no idea which projects really were important and they lumbered from one to the next without making significant progress on any of them.

3. Systems and processes

How many no-value steps choke your processes? At a large health care system in Texas, nurses spent 51 percent of their shifts filling out paperwork instead of caring for patients. At GM, they needed a committee—with a full meeting schedule—to decide which meetings could be eliminated. Organizations are rife with these sorts of broken systems and processes that impair people’s ability to do real work.

4. Cultural expectations

Most companies expect collaboration and collegiality. That’s fine, as long as there are parameters placed around this expectation that allow people to claim uninterrupted time for their own work. Sadly, that’s often not the case. I know of one Fortune 50 firm that demands everyone respond to e-mail within 10 minutes. Other firms actively discourage people from closing the doors in their offices in the name of morale and the all-important “open-door policy.” But as numerous studies from Stanford, the University of Michigan and even the Microsoft Research Group have proved, interruptions foster a multitasking environment that makes it nearly impossible to get work done.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s certainly a place for individual time-management skills. Many of the systems for collecting, organizing and planning tasks and projects are valuable. However, because those skills don’t address the root causes of the problem, they miss the submerged mass of the iceberg. And that’s what will sink the ship.

Image Credit: MissDarlene

OPEN Cardmember Dan Markovitz is the president of TimeBack Management (@timeback) and applies lean manufacturing principles to individuals to dramatically improve performance.