Knowledge of Work is Key to Better Knowledge Work

One of the questions and concerns most often raised by people in position to lead continuous improvement efforts in their organizations is, “Where will I find the time?” It is rarely the case that this person has a full time responsibility as “improvement manager” or equivalent title. Many “full-time” improvement managers often wear additional hats, with line responsibilities for quality, engineering or other areas seen as being adjacent to improvement. Even when this person is fully-dedicated to effecting continuous improvement within their organization, temporary projects, initiatives or responsibilities requiring similar skill sets are added. The corporate improvement manager tasked with tracking cost reduction efforts, leading lean training and overseeing enterprise software implementation wonders, “Where will I find time for improvement?”

The good news is that improvement managers are knowledge workers, whose work is not bound by the times of industrial equipment and processes. With knowledge of our work and where our time goes, knowledge workers can effect changes in how we spend our time. Nearly a half-century ago, Peter Drucker wrote about how managers and professionals can make more effective use of their time, with clarity and insight, in his classic The Effective Executive. in the chapter titled “Know Thy Time” he lays out a three-step process for knowledge workers, which I rephrase as

  1. Track where your time goes
  2. Redirect where your time goes
  3. Consolidate the time saved

This process is “the foundation of the effective executive” according to Drucker. One wonders what he would say of the state of knowledge work, the technological wonders and digital distractions, the relatively unchanged human behaviors, if he were alive and alert at his typewriter today. Indeed, the same technology tools that create distractions also give us apps for tracking and recording time more easily, effectively and accurately than ever before. Drucker points out how people can be very confident and very wrong about where they think their time goes. Only observing and recording reality gives us facts that result in improvement action. Improvement managers should know this, and use this to their benefit in answering, “Where will I find the time?” Tracking where our time goes, by paper and pen, voice recorder or smart phone app, is the first step.

The second step is to analyze the results with the goal of finding things that can be immediately be stopped with no negative consequences. In knowledge work this requires discussions with people immediately upstream and downstream from the process or task in question, asking people about the purpose and importance of that output of that process for them. What would happen if the process was stopped? What if it was done less frequently? What if it is was done with less effort or detail? Many e-mail chains have been shortened, meeting attendances cancelled, and reports reduced to weekly face-to-face updates using this method. With the tasks and responsibilities that remain, the effective improvement manager looks for items that can be delegated, done more effectively as a team, or given to others as a challenge and teaching opportunity. The latter still requires time to set up the task with the learner, and coaching time, but serves both the goal of reducing total time spent when compared to doing it yourself and the goal of developing others who can lead improvement in the future. The improvement manager going through the process of trimming down their workload in this way should be very careful to ask how they might be creating extra work and wasted time for others, either in the current or proposed way of working.

The third step of consolidating time savings can be the most challenging for knowledge workers because we rarely work in a repetitive process. In a repetitive process with other team members, time saved can be realized as finishing tasks earlier or with fewer people. With non-repetitive or creative work, the time needed to complete a task is variable and sometimes difficult to predict. If we are not careful, the time saved may simply disappear into this unknown. This is not a bad thing as long as we can direct the saved time into proactive, creative and forward-looking things. Yet this is difficult because our days can be unpredictable, and an hour of consolidated time savings set aside for improvement may be swallowed up in an unplanned task. It is more difficult to consolidate time savings in knowledge work than in other types of more repetitive and predictable work.

Here we must follow Drucker’s advice to “know thy time”. When do we have our most productive hours? When are we the most creative? When do we have shorter attention spans? When do phone calls, urgent emails, escalations and walk-ins tend to happen? When do we tend to have quiet or uninterrupted time? Getting to know where our time goes, and how time behaves in our work day demands reflection in order to build awareness. Once we become aware of where and how usable pockets of time tend to appear and disappear, we can prepare to take advantage of them to invest in more improvement, creating a positive spiral. “Where will I find the time for improvement?” The answer is, “Within your day” because there is simply no other place to look.