The Importance of Scheduling

Martin Bauer

Recently I read the chapter "The Important of Scheduling" from the David Maister book "Managing the Professional Services Firm". It was a real eye opener, especially where he states that the person in charge of scheduling is the person who is really managing the business. If you believe this, and I do, it stands to reason that if no-one is in charge of scheduling then no-one is managing the business. This thought came as quite a shock. The thought that no-one is really managing your business and I wasn't something I wanted to admit. The question however was what to do about it?

The first step was the realisation of the importance of scheduling. It actually took several months for the concept to really sink in and understand it properly. I had to re-read the chapter, look at how we managed things and experience some frustration with a new project on a tight deadline to see that I had to stop thinking about it and actually do something. It meant a change in the way I managed myself and what tasks I had on my plate. I had to put aside some of the work that I had to complete to spend more time to think about the work our staff had to complete and actually manage it.

As I said, the first step was the realisation, the second step was acting on it. I decided that I would start the day by sitting down with each person individually to review what tasks they had on their plate for the day. In one sense it was liberating to not focus on my work and my own task list but on the other hand, it was pretty daunting to consider in depth the tasks that everyone else had on their plate. What I found of most interest was how much I learned about the individual person, the business and the other managers. Not having had day to day contact with staff unless it was to discuss a particular task for a particular project that I was involved in or non work related chats, it was suprising how much went on without me being aware of it. Some things were minor, some were pretty important. In less than a week of making the effort to spend 10 to 15 minutes with each person each day, I'd learnt more about what was really going on than I'd ever known.

What I thought was going to be a quick chat with each person each day turned out to far more significant on a higher level. My intentions were simply to get a better idea of what each person was working so that I would know who was available so that should new work come in, I'd be able to say when it could be done with a fair degree of certainty. This worked really well. What I wasn't expecting was the more personal and individual knowledge of each person, how they saw each task, the priorities, their understanding of projects and the business as a whole. Not only that, there was the issue of trying to capture this information in a meaningful way so that it wasn't just in my head.

To start with I drafted a simple task list for each person to capture their tasks for the day. Then the following day, I'd sit down with each person to review how things went. This worked ok but I soon learned that a list of tasks wasn't enough, they needed to be prioritised and I also had to capture information on tasks that were important but were not billable and hadn't been scheduled as the emphasis was clearly on billable work and the most pressing deadline. This meant I had to be aware of projects that I wasn't involved and trying to balance priorities when I really didn't know what was most important. It also showed how easy it was for non billable but important tasks to be continually ignored and that it was all too easy to let urgent or small tasks to push back on longer term projects, putting deadlines a month down the track at risk.

Soon the individual task list turned into a prioritised list, then it grew to a weekly chart with a "things to be scheduled". But still it wasn't enough. I couldn't properly prioritise tasks with just a weekly view, I also needed to know what was happening next week. So, the weekly list turned into a two weekly chart. This still wasn't enough as I also needed to capture deadlines that were beyond the "this week and next week" chart. And even though the deadline might be 3 weeks away, it was important to know so that we avoided the all to easy situation of continually delaying that task not due for another three weeks for seemingly more urgent or pressing tasks.

Now I had a three week task list and keeping it up to date was getting to be a bit of a task itself. I also had to corelate this with the overall company project plan which gave a high level overview of each project currently running as well as those that we knew were happening. The more information I had the more important it became to be able to bring all this information together so that they were consistent and I didn't end up spending most of my time trying to capturing this information rather than acting on it, which I knew could easily happen. This is something that is possible to manage for a single project but trying to do it for 10 projects of varying sizes is a pretty big task and one that I'm still grappling with.

What I didn't realise was the true impact of rush jobs on the rest of the business. We had a project come in that had to be delievered in two weeks. Although we were able to accomodate it and deliver on time, it not only had an impact on the people on that project but indirectly affected the rest of the business and every other project. It basically meant that for the people on that project, their other work had to be reassigned, delayed or rushed through. This meant a greater stress not only that person but the person who had to help them out. It also meant we didn't have as much time to check everything, and of course, when you're under stress it's easy to make mistakes and greater attention needs to given to checking things which means even greater stress which in turn means a greater chance of mistakes creating a viscious cycle which is hard to break. So the rush job gets delivered and that client is happy, but then we are faced with the double pressure of a backlog of work and people who need time to recover from the stress of the rush job.

Another interesting outcome of the daily, weekly task list exercise was that I was able to capture fairly accurate information on what our staff were upto and help them to better prioritise their work as well as effectively schedule incoming work. The depth of information on staff was contrasted by the lack of information on management. For every staff member there were assigned tasks, deadlines and priorities, for management, there was almost nothing. Granted, this was because I didn't sit down with each manager to find out their tasks for the day because I assumed that as managers, we are able to manage ourselves. But it does raise a philosophical issue of whether managers need management? Can we assume that managers can effectively manager their own time? Although I don't think it's safe to make this assumption, for the moment, let's say this is the case. We know that the managers bring in the work for the staff to perform and their focus is to get a result for the client. How can they do this effectively without knowing what is happening with the staff and what effect their project is going to have on the other projects they have on for other clients let alone the projects of other managers as well as important internal projects. It's fine to be focused on deliverying a result for the client but at what cost? If staff are worked to the bone or stressed, the quality of their work suffers which means the next project will suffer or place greater stress on management to get more staff which in turn has a greater management overhead. I quickly realised the potential ripple out effect on the business as a whole of managers acting autonomously is enormous.

On one hand, the extra information I got from daily reviews had only heightened the need for effective scheduled, exposed the risks of not scheduling for staff and management as well as creating extra work for me in working out how to capture this information in a meaningful way. On the other hand it was really rewarding to spend time with each person, to listen to them explain their view on things, to get an insight into their concerns and interests, to learn more about what was happening when I was locked away in my office supposedly being a manager. Something that meant a great deal to me was to be able to talk about work without the pressure of a formal meeting and to be able to guide and suggest ways of dealing with things from my experiences, to mentor and guide as well as just manage. It also served to be a pretty effective way to stop procrastination. If you know someone it going to check up on you everyday, you're going to be far more careful about making promises on when you'll get something done!

So, over a period of a couple of weeks, spending 15 minutes a day wit h each person I was able to learn more about each project, each person and the business as a whole than I had learnt from 6 months of weekly work in progress meetings. Not only that, it reinforced the true value of scheduling, the impact it had on a personal level, the impact on projects and the business as a whole. It ofcourse, raises a whole lot of other questions and issues on how to capture the information and use it effectively but like most things, the better informed you are the better decisions you can make. With scheduling, ignorance is not strength, it's plain bad for business.