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A Manager’s Biggest Burden, and 5 Ways to Deal with It

One of the biggest surprises to new managers is the intense pressure to keep people working productively. This is especially true in a project environment like IT where employees aren’t doing the same thing day after day. Managing an organization is like being in a taxi with the meter running and only a few dollars in your pocket, except that the meter is burning up hundreds of dollars per hour.

Let’s do a quick, back-of-the envelope calculation. If you have ten people working for you, and if they have an average salary of $70,000 (not an unreasonable number for today’s IT organizations), then you’ve got a payroll of $700,000 per year. Add another 30% for benefits and expenses, and you’ve got a people budget of $910,000. The average worker in the U.S. has at least 4 weeks of holiday, vacation and sick days, so you’ve got no more than 48 weeks worth of actual work time. Divide $910,000 by 48, and your organization has a “burn rate” of about $19,000 per week, about $3800 per day, about $475 per hour, or about $8 per minute.

So think of it this way: Every minute that you hesitate in telling your organization what to do is costing your business $8. Every day of giving your people the wrong work is costing your company $3800. And every week of rework is costing your business $19,000.

Want even more pressure? Consider the next level up. If a second-level manager has five organizations your size reporting to him/her, then the meter is running five times faster. The second level manager’s organization is burning $95,000 per week, or about $40 per minute. Go up more management levels, and the burn rate multiplies again and again, until you easily get rates of millions of dollars per week and thousands of dollars per minute.  Doing the wrong thing can be very expensive, and the pressure to properly use your burn rate is intense.

5 Ways to Deal with the Problem
So how do you minimize the wasted time and money? Here are some tips:

1. Don’t give people just one thing to do — give them a view of what comes next. If you give people one thing to do, then they are likely to do it and then “take a break” before asking you what to do next. If they see a stream of work instead of an individual task, then they’re more likely to finish one task and then start right up with the next one.

Even better, if people know the sequence of things they have to do, then they’ll take advantage of natural “waits” in their current task (waiting on someone else, waiting on resources, waiting on a scheduled event) to get some preliminary work done on their next task. This will increase their overall productivity.

2. Make sure that you properly prioritize the work that is to be done. When given multiple task assignments, it’s human nature to spend time on the tasks that are easier or more fun, putting off the other tasks until later. But if employees know the priorities associated with the tasks, and if you insist on them working on higher priority tasks before lower priority tasks, then they’ll stay focused on the work you want them to do.

3. Keep the number of tasks in front of each person to a reasonable number. While you might know all of the things that a person will do for months in advance, it will only confuse and distract a person if you assign all of those tasks at the same time. There’s no best number for how many tasks to give a person, but you generally want to stick to single digits (i.e., 2 to 9 tasks), and lower numbers (2 to 5) are better. The actual number should depend on how much wait time will be associated with doing each task.

4. Have a “standby list” of tasks that can be assigned when there’s nothing else to do. Some of these tasks may be non-critical maintenance tasks that can be done whenever resource is available. This standby list is important because you never know when an entire project might be put on hold, and then you can assign the standby list while you’re figuring out what your organization is going to do next.

5. Use “pull management” instead of “push management.” In pull management you assign a task objective, tell your worker how success will be measured, and then turn your worker loose on achieving the objective, essentially “pulling” the worker toward the objective. In push management you micromanage, keep the employee in the dark as to the true objective, and just give the employee enough task instruction to tell them specifically what to do, “pushing” toward the objective.

With push management the employee will keep coming back to you for detail after detail, and productivity will be wasted while the employee is waiting for your feedback. With pull management you’ll need to do a little more communication up front when you’re defining the objective and the measurement, but the employee will be largely self-sufficient during the performance of the task. Employee productivity is much higher using pull management, and business results are usually better.

There’s nothing worse for an organization, for a business, or for a manager than to have employees who are idle because they don’t have anything to do. The meter is running constantly for business organizations, and every hour lost is an hour that you’ll never get back. Dealing with high organizational burn rates is a manager’s biggest burden, but proper management can minimize wasted burn rate and maximize employee productivity.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Holger October 26, 2010, 7:48 am

    I would recommend reading Tom DeMarco’s excellent book “Slack” which offers quite a different view on the idea of planning not to have “idle” workers.

    • Harwell October 26, 2010, 10:09 am

      I like that book too. I’m actually a DeMarco fan, and I have that book in my library. DeMarco doesn’t use the word “slack” in the traditional project manager sense. Instead, he’s arguing that some of the best innovation occurs when people “are not 100 percent busy doing the operational business of your firm” [quote from the book]. I agree with his premise: that people who are too focused on day-to-day don’t take the time to think about how to make things better. However I disagree with his use of the word “slack” to refer to this time — he’s reusing a word that is too specifically defined in the project management world (what are all those CPM’s going to think?).

      In any case, this isn’t the issue that the article is about. The article is about the intense pressure that a manager is under to keep people focused on the most important things. And if the most important thing is innovation and making things better, then clearly, time has to be allocated for that innovation. Google does this by setting aside a certain percentage of worker time to do innovative things. Other companies do it in other ways. But I don’t know of any company that encourages innovation by deliberately scheduling so loosely that people just do whatever they want.

      DeMarco recommends that you “reintroduce enough slack to allow the organization to breathe, to reinvent itself, and to make necessary change.” This sounds like a good idea to me, too, but I would do it (and have done it) by creating specific task assignments to do that reengineering, and by encouraging people to spend time during a task figuring out how they would do it better next time (or even eliminate the need for the task altogether). I realize that’s hard to do for some organizations, but at a minimum a “making things better” task ought to be on your standby list.

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