The Problem: Individuals getting bogged down with performing routine maintenance tasks no longer have the capacity to focus on higher-value tasks
Why it Happens: Maintenance tasks are a product of growth that sustains innovations, over a moderate amount of time the availability of focus on creation is diminished
The Solution: Routinely evaluating your maintenance tasks to eliminate, automate, streamline, or outsource so that you can continue to innovate and develop
There has been a constant throughout my career of managing teams and coaching executives, “I don’t have the time to do the things that I know I should be doing.” Other common catchphrases to listen for are, “I don’t have any bandwidth,” “I’m just trying to keep my head above water,” and “If you’ve ever gone to the circus and watched the guy spinning plates on sticks where he has to keep spinning plates to keep the momentum going or all the plates will crash, that’s me.” While I’m always amazed that work has magically found a way to demand 110% out of everyone, I’m also saddened at times to see someone fight so hard to maintain a miserable status quo. It forces me to ask where are you spending all that precious time?
A typical engagement begins where I ask the client to lay out their schedule detailing where they spend their time throughout the week, what they produced by the end, and what impact that had on the overall organization. In most cases, they can tie their efforts back to the overall mission with a slight melancholy knowing that as hard as they’ve been killing themselves at work, that it made very little of an impact. More depressing is the rare occasion where they cannot point to any tangible benefit for the exhaustive efforts that they went through.
The exercise is then closed with how they define value for their role which gets very visionary and inspirational. They describe great topics of meeting with partners to open up new growth opportunities, researching trends to establish organizational strategies for long-term sustainability, and coaching their team through decisions so that they have the perspective and experience to become the next wave of executives. The definition of value is different for every person and role, but the constant is that they struggle to find time to dedicate to focusing on these high-value items.
Later analyzing work calendars and schedules a continued trend arises that shows most of their time is spent on maintenance tasks. Ranging from multiple staff meetings and metric reviews to approving timecards and extensive nitpicking over the next quarterly business review deck. Steven Covey became a millionaire many times over addressing this same topic in his capstone courses of “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and “First Things First” on people focusing the bulk of their time and efforts on low-value tasks. Taken from both of these works is his big rocks analogy that people tend to fill their lives up with the smaller value rocks or tasks and then do not have time for the larger rocks or significant items because their capacity has reached its maximum.
This focus will be related but shifted to looking at this through the view of maintenance tasks and growth tasks. While both are necessary and important, an imbalance of one dominates the other until it is close to extinction. This is routinely experienced where someone gets overwhelmed in maintenance tasks and has no available time left to dictate the future.
In 1899 Sebastian Kresge founded the S.S. Kresge retail store in Detroit which would later be known as the big-box behemoth, Kmart. By the 1980s, Kmart had expanded to over 2,000 stores and was the second-largest retailer in the United States. During the 1990s, Walmart struck against the Kmart shopping base offering always the lowest prices and later Target moved on to the higher-end customer base. Squeezing Kmart in the middle, the company chose to continue to compete for the entire market share, not focusing on a specific customer segment.
Fighting a war on two fronts eventually led to focusing on only the present of combating daily fires to survive and trying not to lose too much ground at each quarterly report. This war of attrition that resembled the trench warfare of World War I eventually put the company on life support and in 2002 it filed for bankruptcy. In 2004, Kmart attempted a comeback to sustain its dying model by merging with Sears which has maintained a steady trend of store closures and liquidations over the following fourteen years.
This model continues to perpetuate the cycle of crisis which continually digs the organization further into the hole. Kmart was known for its continued sense of urgency which disabled its ability to focus on growth and development. This is not an uncommon trend in organizations, focusing on the immediate comes with multiple behavioral rewards. Focusing always on the present, a person has immediate feedback with tangible results. There is a sense of accomplishment and reward for being the manager that can quell the crisis and keep the team fighting until the next day. Covey calls this the quadrant I of tasks that are important and urgent and exampled by, “if I don’t sign off on timecards, the workforce doesn’t get paid, and then riots will ensure.”
The Kmart example is a global organizational case study on ignoring strategy to maintain the status quo, the other half is the individual examples of remaining static. Recently research defined the term “The Urgency Effect” where the mind prioritizes urgent minor tasks over more important tasks. The mind tends to devalue long-term payoffs and values immediate satisfaction. Where maintenance is routine tasks, they are less cognitively demanding.
With this low stress, the mind can attempt to multitask and can complete a multitude of low-value tasks which is rewarding and provides a higher level of self-accomplishment with a micro release of accomplishment endorphins. The military uses this same trick with making your bed first thing in the morning, it establishes the first task done for the day which triggers a mini spark of energy because the mind is seeing the direct results of accomplishment which can be the momentum for the day. I’ve personally fallen into this trap of building a multitude of mini-tasks from picking up the house and vacuuming to getting an oil change on the car and mowing the lawn where I will look back at the end of the day in astonishment of all that I had completed and yet accomplished nothing of true value.
Some companies thrive in innovation environments and some companies find comfort in maintenance cultures. For every Apple, 3M, and Johnson & Johnson there are ten companies dedicated to flawlessly repeating a few key tasks. These maintenance-based companies, while not sexy, provide most of the economic value in keeping the marketplace running. Look at Ingram Micromanaging a large piece of logistic fulfillment in the United States, Les Schwab who has been able to turn a tire store into a repair factory with consistent production, and In-N-Out Burger perfecting and repeating only six menu items and always having a full line of hungry customers. These among numerous other businesses found a way to provide value and have been highly successful in perfecting the model to maintain a constant revenue flow.
This can create a looming risk though, where the company places too much effort and focus on maintaining the status quo. This can breed a culture of stagnation and short-sighted thought, leaving the company vulnerable to new threats. The US Post Office did not grasp the desire for next day shipping. They buried themselves in managing their day to day operations and were not able to compete with UPS and FedEx. Their culture had been pushed too deep into current realities, operational efficiencies, and attempting to perfect the repetition of their processes leading to an inability to conceptualize future work models.
A client I worked with years ago had an environment that modeled a maintenance framework. It captured a culture that could no longer break out of the stability mold. Starting with the executive team, during numerous strategic planning sessions and building vision statements, their future could only be envisioned beyond a two-year period and focused mostly on increasing production to achieve more revenue. Day to day management centered on firefighting and resolving routine problems instead of strategic development. The bonus and rewards system was built around risk mitigation where payouts were focused on quality and that is exactly what the organization received, very high quality and notable products. Unfortunately, they were also unable to predict a sea change in the market and were out of business in a three-year span of time.
A unique cause and effect of creativity are that it increases maintenance. As a new product or strategy is introduced, typically a new process is established alongside to manage this new initiative. An innovators’ fallacy is the creation of a new service and does not understand the continued product support needed to implement and maintain it.
Looking at yourself or an organization, recognize that there is a percentage timeframe for what you dedicate to growth and the other half to maintenance. Depending on the position, the organization, or even the personality types, the percentage of time dedication will vary. Technicians may dedicate 80% of their time to maintenance-based tasks and 20% to development. Engineers may spend 40% on maintenance and 60% on growth. While the group’s manager may spend their time in a 50/50 split. The key is to determine the role and culture that you are in. Then determining what the right time balance is for you to be successful.
Now that you know where you spend your time and where you need to spend your time in the last part of the coaching exercise is figuring out how to close the gap. Covey’s advice of scheduling the big goals first is a great starting point. However, this will also need to be a repeat exercise for once you clear out your maintenance tasks. This enables greater innovation which will lead to more maintenance. The way to combat this iterative cycle is to routinely look at your schedule, your tasks, and the value provided. Understand the percentage of how you balance your time. Then attack your maintenance tasks routinely.
What tasks can I eliminate and recognize what efforts go unused or unnoticed? What tasks can I automate and never have to manually touch again? Are there tasks that can be streamlined or made more efficient so that it doesn’t take away so much time? Lastly, what tasks can I outsource? Do you enjoy mowing your lawn or is it worth the money to have a neighbor kid do it so that you can spend that time on what you’re passionate about?
Covey, S. (1997). Another 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Provo, UT: Covey Leadership Center.
Covey, S. M. (1994). Also, First Things First: To Live, To Learn, To Leave a Legacy. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Herrera, T. (2018, July 9). Why Your Brain Tricks You Into Doing Less Important Tasks. New York Times.
Zhu, M. Y. (2018). The Mere Urgency Effect. Journal of Consumer Research.
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