One Big Mistake Every Manager Must Avoid (It’s About Your Time)

August 15, 2018


As a manager, your day is likely filled from the moment you walk into the office until you (finally) leave at night. But what if I told you that you might be spending a lot of your time incorrectly? I’m not suggesting that you’re inefficient or that you need more hours in the day; it’s something far more important.

In my study of the work habits and performance of 5,000 managers and employees, I found that people tend to concentrate on achieving goals and internal metrics when they should focus on creating value. Value is different from internal “volume” metrics and goals. Getting stuff done and being busy are not sufficient to drive performance and value.

The value of our work is measured by how much others benefit from it. Consider this example: Terry is a production technician at a New Orleans food packing plant who oversees a machine that labels and boxes cans. Terry’s boss measured him on “throughput,” the number of boxes processed, but Terry didn’t just concern himself with that narrow measure. When boxes streamed out of his machine, they headed to the warehouse, where workers stacked them onto pallets for shipment.

“The other day,” Terry told us, “I went over to the warehouse and asked, ‘Is there something we can do better?’” There was. Terry learned that his boxes were coming out of the machine labeled and closed, but not perfectly squared. As a result, it took the warehouse team extra time to assemble the pallets, and that delayed the trucks that delivered them to customers.

Measuring Terry’s work on throughput alone is an inside-out view, and on the surface it appears he’s hitting his metrics. The outside-in view, however, focuses on whether the needs of Terry’s “customers”—the warehouse workers who receive his work and the end customers who are waiting for it—were being met. Here, Terry falls short.

How managers can connect their work to value

You and your employees may be getting stuff done, but what benefits do your various work activities produce, really? Internal volume metrics and goals may seem important, but they don’t always produce value. As a manager, it’s your job to shift everyone’s effort toward value.

Here is a three-step process that will help you tie your time to value instead of meaningless metrics:

Identify the right activities. Write down three value-driven activities you do in a week that are directly tied to a key metric such as revenue growth or customer satisfaction. A marketing manager might list “promote major product launches,” while a call center manager might say “fix customers’ problems in the first call 90% of the time” to tie to customer satisfaction.

Analyze your calendar. Now look at the last four weeks of your calendar. Make a checkmark next to each meeting that was clearly related to driving one of your three key value activities. The result might surprise you. When I perform this exercise with groups of managers, no one marks more than 50% of their meetings; usually they fall between 20 and 40%.

Reallocate your time. Now that you can see how much of your time is being used incorrectly, you can shift your time from goals to value activities. Here’s a quick checklist of things you can start reducing or taking away in your job and for your team:

  • Number of meetings and pre-meetings
  • Task forces
  • Metrics
  • Features and options
  • Objectives and priorities per job
  • Emails
  • Sign-offs required
  • Decision makers

Time is the most important resource you have, and misallocating it is a terrible waste. You don’t need more money or headcount to do better as a manager, nor do you need more hours in the day. You just need to reallocate your time. And the good news is that time is free.

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When you learn to schedule your time more effectively and stay on track, you can be more effective and productive.

About The Author

Morten T. Hansen is a professor at University of California, Berkeley and the author of Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More (Simon & Schuster, 2018).

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