Little’s Law says that the amount of work completed is a function of the number of projects and the average time it takes to complete a project. In other words, the line at McDonald’s has 11 people in it and each person takes, on average, 30 seconds to be served, therefore, if you are gal number 11 it will take about five minutes to get to the front of the line. My friend Dan Markovitz, a process expert, has written about this as it applies to business beyond retail or manufacturing.
As a CEO how does this apply to you? How can you get more done and get it done faster? What are the levers you can pull? There are two: prioritization and resources.
Operating at 100% capacity, pushing people to do more, and a no idle hands policy may all sound good in theory, but they are counterproductive. Too many priorities really mean that you don’t have any! Unless your work is completely predictable and there are no interruptions, customer requests, sick days or phone calls, 100% capacity is in the same category as bigfoot.
Assume that you have five key priorities that you want to get done as soon as possible. Each takes 100 hours for your team to complete. If you chose the one that was most important (e.g. had the most strategic and financial value), you could have it done in 100 hours. If you prioritize them all equally (i.e. refuse to prioritize!) at that same 100 hour mark you will have achieved no benefit from any of the projects as they are all only 20% complete. In fact, it will take more than 500 hours to achieve the benefit from all five priorities as there is all of that stop/start/coordination behavior that has to take place.
I frequently see senior management teams pushed to the brink to get many things completed at once with a frustrated CEO wondering why nothing seems to get done. Little’s law plus a bit of confusion and coordination is the answer. If you were building a house, you’d never say to your contractor, “I want you to spend an hour a day on concrete, another on framing, another on electric, finish cabinetry and plumbing and until you get done.” But that is effectively what you may be saying to your team!
Better to make the tough choice to prioritize and then focus on one major priority before moving onto number two. Yes, yes, yes of course everyone has multiple things that they are responsible for at work! But if you focus on moving one big thing a mile rather than 12 things an inch you’ll achieve more! (In a sign from “the universe” my phone rang twice while I was writing this, and I let them both go to voicemail so that I could finish this first!)
The other problem I see with organizations that “bog down” is that there is not a process for adequately identifying resources required (people and money) at the start of the project. You might think that this is a dull, project management type skill, but if you are a CEO and don’t have a good understanding of where, when and how to apply resources, you are undoubtedly wasting lots of time and money.
As I write this, it is the beginning of the calendar year and many of you have a long list of priorities you want to accomplish. I have a few questions for you:
- Do you have a history of incomplete projects or delayed priorities?
- Which of your priorities brings the most strategic and financial value? (Stack rank them.)
- How many resources will they require? (A rough estimate of dollars and hours is a good start.)
- Which projects could be put in a “parking lot” or even discarded without damaging your business?
Focus on a few things, do them better and do them faster. Then move to the next. Effective multitasking is a myth for individuals and for teams; it is really just scattered, slow, frustrating work. Getting things done faster (and better!) starts at the top!