Leader Standard Work for Time and Contingency Planning

By Jon Miller Updated on January 31st, 2022

Many of us make plans or set intentions to improve some aspect of our lives early in the year, or after a break or period of reflection. We may want to prepare healthier meals, exercise more, increase our earnings, get better at guitar, go on vacation with the family. These goals all involve making wiser use of time. In a [email protected] interview, management professor Michael Parke discusses how to improve time management skills. His research surveyed 200 people and their use of two types of skills. The first time management planning and the second is contingency planning.

Time management planning about creating a to-do list, prioritizing and scheduling them. It can be as simple as writing things down on a calendar. Contingency planning involves thinking through an event, activity or work day and what could go wrong. What are possible delays or disruptions? What outside variables, such as weather, must we consider? What will interrupt our best-laid plans? Most importantly, how will we respond to each of these scenarios? Another way of saying this is that time management is coming up with Plan A, contingency planning is thinking about plan B.

Happiness and Engagement through Contingency Planning

Normally, organizations promote time management skills via training because there’s evidence to show that people with a plan generally outperform people without one. The reason for this research on time and contingency management planning was unusual in that it asked, “Could these skill sets make people happier, more engaged, more focused and enjoy their work?” Broadly, their findings suggest that people are happier and feel more engaged if they can plan for contingencies in their work.

On average, both types of planning increased  engagement and productivity. Making a list makes it more likely that we’ll do the things on the list, and we feels like we’re making progress. Planning for what-ifs makes us feel more prepared, less rattled, and perhaps better able to handle a disruption in the moment. An interesting finding was that in about 20% of the situations when people were highly interrupted, there were no benefits from time management planning. In other words, people don’t feel empowered or engaged when you totally throw out their plan. The benefits of contingency planning, on the other hand, persisted regardless of high levels of interruption.

Time-based versus Condition-based Management

I don’t fully agree that time management planning loses its value even for those of us whose work involves high levels of interruptions. No doubt that doing only time management planning can be frustrating, if plans constantly get changed. The two need to work hand in hand. After all, contingency plans are by definition changes to the original plan. It’s a question of how much we do of either, and what we expect from our day.

Depending on the type of work, it’s perfectly fine to have two parallel sets of strategies rather than one that integrates the two via leader standard work. A possible example of this is how the Planned Maintenance pillar of TPM distinguishes between time-based maintenance and condition-based maintenance. The former recognizes that some components or systems break down, need replacement or maintenance attention after a certain number of hours of operation. The latter is having maintenance guidelines based on the condition or state of the component or system, regardless of how much time it’s been in use. In an industrial setting, it’s not either-or, it’s both. The same is true in most management settings.

Leader Standard Work

This discussion of how time planning and contingency planning reminded me of the important practice of creating and following leader standard work. This can be as simple as a document with four columns to plan our work. In the first column is time or day, week or month. In the second column is the task or activity. In the third, a space for noting interruptions, deviations to the plan or other comments. In the fourth, a space for improvement ideas or ways to reduce unwanted interruptions.

A foundational activity for creating leader standard work is the DILO analysis. This stands for “day in the life of” and its purpose is to observe our own workday for a few weeks. We see where our time actually goes. We tally the incidents when our plans changed. We collect data and begin to understand when interruptions happen and for what reason. Month-end deadline approaching? Expect interruptions from team members. Mondays after people return from vacation? Expect e-mail catch-up barrages. Certain meetings tend to go over time? Ask for comments on a shared doc in advance. The DILO analysis is a form of observation-based contingency planning in advance of time management planning.

Leader standard work is designed for people whose work by design includes a significant amount of interruptions. As soon as we start supporting or managing the work of others, a.k.a. leading, variation creeps in.  If your work is on a repetitive cycle, highly predictable and interruptions are minimal, you don’t need leader standard work. Just vanilla standard work.However, even for individual contributors who don’t manage others, there can be interruptions, variation and opportunities for contingency planning.

The Planning Fallacy, or Optimism Bias

One of the problems with time management planning is that we think we will get more done than is realistic, free from distractions and interruptions. Building a perfect plan is fun. It’s motivating to think about all that we’ll finish today, this week, this month. We may feel important when are booked solid all day.

It’s not fun to think of everything that might go wrong. But without strong contingency planning, sooner or later we’ll start being late to meetings, having tasks unfinished, failing to reply to customers or colleagues, and working late. When we allow anything to grab our attention at any point in the workday, it generally does.

A certain amount of optimism bias is healthy. But we need to temper it with a reality check. This is also where structured leader standard work can help. The guidelines for leader standard work specifically state not to structure 100% of the time in your day. The advice is to not schedule every minute or hour, but to leave some cushion to handle unplanned work, interruptions and predictable variability. Leader standard work encourages us to set time for interruption-free work, time to check e-mails, prepare for meetings, and so forth.

How Much and What Type of Planning?

It turns out there’s no perfect solution — the best type depends on your work environment and the kind of day that you’re having. These words summarize a chief insight of the article. There are no perfect solutions, and it depends. These are also a consultant’s favorite bookends. But they shouldn’t be excuses for claiming that one or other method doesn’t work for us. Rather, it’s a question of understanding a specific tool or technique well enough so that we can adapt it to our needs.

  1. Prakash A S

    March 28, 2022 - 11:28 pm

    Could you share the standard work format , please

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