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Work load distribution question

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  • Work load distribution question

    I'm sure many service oriented companies -- particularly professional services -- have this problem:

    How much work are we really assigning to people?

    For example: Lawyer Joe bills 2100 per year -- 100 over the firm's minimum requirement, and in that regard he is satisfying management's expectations.

    However, occasionally, critical tasks are left undone! Not satisfying management's expectations there!

    Further, many other tasks are undone and, even though the "chickens haven't come home to roost" on these undone tasks, (a) revenue is being lost and (b) clients are not getting the level of service they want (i.e. B- service as opposed to A+).

    Clearly, management has assigned more than 2100 hours to Lawyer Joe!

    But how much more? How can management know this before overloading him?

    There must be resources on this issue. . . anyone here know them?

  • #2
    If you're expecting Joe to bill 2000 hours per year, you're asking for trouble. That's 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, which means you're allowing *no* time for his non-billable overhead time. It's no wonder he's not meeting service goals: you're forcing him to choose between non-billable tasks like client development and little luxuries like food and sleep.

    (Yes, I know this level of billable hours is routine for lawyers. That doesn't mean it's smart. Study after study has shown that productivity for knowledge workers drops sharply after 40-50 hours in a week.)

    So in answer to your question, the first thing to do is account for *all* of Joe's time, both billable and not.

    Katherine

    Comment


    • #3
      That's a reality that isn't going to change

      The idea of lawyers in private practice working 40 hour work weeks is a moot point -- it is never going to happen. 60 is the norm. So 2000 hours a year actually allows 1,000 hours per year for non-billable projects and tasks.

      Productivity during those hours certainly varies -- but not all billable hours are created equal!

      There is time spent: sitting in court waiting for the judge to call your case; driving to and from appearances; time doing relatively mindless document review; and at depositions where you are neither the main attorney asking questions, nor the attorney representing the witness (aka the "sit through" or "warm body" deposition).

      So, of those 40 hours, probably only 20-30 are real heavy duty knowledge work.

      Comment


      • #4
        The point of my post remains. You still have to figure out where Joe's time is going. Being a warm body at a deposition may not be hugely demanding, but it still keeps him from doing other work. To decide whether Joe is overloaded, you need to consider both his billable and non-billable work.

        Katherine

        Comment


        • #5
          I still think you are missing the point of my question

          My question doesn't pertain to measuring what he IS doing. . .

          but rather on what management has asked him to do.

          I'm assuming the guy is working hard 40-60 hours per week, and still isn't getting to stuff because he has too much.

          What I want to know is: what are the tools management can use to make sure they aren't burying staff?

          Comment


          • #6
            Originally posted by pdaly View Post
            My question doesn't pertain to measuring what he IS doing. . .

            but rather on what management has asked him to do.
            Doesn't he do what management told him to do?

            Originally posted by pdaly View Post
            What I want to know is: what are the tools management can use to make sure they aren't burying staff?
            A GTD-style projects list with estimations on how many hours are needed to get every project done. A time-tracking tool to find out how long it actually took to complete the work. Compare he numbers: the estimate and the reality. Rinse, repeat.

            And learn to be nice 'n polite, hockay?
            Last edited by Cpu_Modern; 11-27-2009, 07:00 PM.

            Comment


            • #7
              What CPU said.

              Measure how he is actually spending his time. Among other things, this will allow you to determine how long various tasks actually take--something that neither he nor management necessarily knows with any certainty. It will also allow him and/or management to spot time leaks that might be hurting his productivity. Is he having to do too much of his own paralegal work because his assistant is also overloaded and/or because he doesn't know how to delegate effectively? Is there a daily meeting that interferes with his ability to reach clients in another time zone? Is there a mismatch between his priorities and the firm's, so that he's spending too much time on the wrong things?

              List all of his assigned and implicitly expected tasks. Use the information above to calculate how much time these tasks would require if he actually did all of them. Offload work as necessary to bring the total down to a number that management considers reasonable. Discuss priorities with him in order to decide *which* things to offload or push to the back burner.

              Katherine

              Comment


              • #8
                well that is a start katherine

                That is the kind of approach I was thinking of.

                I just was really hoping to find some resource to kind of short circuit the process.

                I've spoken with a number of people about this, and they all focus on what you initially did -- how do you know what he is spending time on?

                The trickier part for me is determining how much time projects that are being assigned out will take.

                Yes, it varies on the skill level of the person involved. But there are many other variables that are difficult to pin down.

                For example, in litigation, sometimes you serve discovery demands on an adverse party and they immediately respond. Others, they drag their feet and fight every step of the way requiring motion after motion. You don't know which will happen until after the file is assigned out.

                Likewise, sometimes your own client is the problem. Some are very willing to comply with they adversary's discovery demands -- others will drag the feet and tell their counsel to fight every step of the way requiring motion after motion. Some will be hands off and let the attorney run the case, and others will constantly dream up new tasks.

                I just don't know of a way to make sure we aren't piling too much on before it is too late.
                Last edited by pdaly; 11-27-2009, 08:46 PM.

                Comment


                • #9
                  Originally posted by pdaly View Post
                  I just don't know of a way to make sure we aren't piling too much on before it is too late.
                  For workload planning purposes, don't track time by project, track it by task. As you observed, the time to complete a project is not within the attorney's control. The time needed for an individual task is. So suppose you assign a file that will require five depositions. Two weeks later, three of the adverse parties are cooperating, but two are not. Refine your estimate of how much more time is needed--how long to compel testimony from the two non-cooperative parties?-- and therefore your estimate of the attorney's total workload.

                  If you can't figure out a way to prevent overload, figure out how to catch it and fix it before it starts to cause problems. Early warning signs might include:

                  * Number of hours worked creeping upward while number of billable hours stays constant. This might indicate that the person is falling behind on non-billable tasks, and working longer hours to try to catch up. Or it might show that the person is being less efficient because they're tired.

                  * Total time between assignment and completion increasing. A sign that backlog is building up. Could also be a sign that individual tasks are taking longer because the person is tired.

                  * More billable hours needed for each task. Again, could be a sign that the person is working less efficiently.

                  Hope this helps,

                  Katherine

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Thanks,

                    I think that does help.

                    I can do more to catch overload when it happens, and the strategies you suggest are very helpful.

                    I need to think of ways to track those things.

                    Perhaps as I do that I will develop a way to forecast these things better.

                    One complicating factor is that when people are overloaded, they tend to develop some "irrational" habits. (Quotes because the habits are perhaps rational to the context the person is in, but appear irrational if you don't understand the context.)

                    For example, I know of professionals who are overloaded -- but don't bother working weekends. You would think that having more work to do than can be done Mon-Fri would prompt someone to come in on a Saturday. But what I see happening more frequently is that the person just says "there's no way I'll ever get caught up, so I won't even bother trying -- I'll just go in on Monday and deal with whatever crisis arises".

                    It is demoralizing and horrible for an organization on many fronts. Lost revenues, unhappy clients, good professionals leaving the organization with severely damaged self-esteem, etc.

                    Thanks again for the insights.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by pdaly View Post
                      For example, I know of professionals who are overloaded -- but don't bother working weekends. You would think that having more work to do than can be done Mon-Fri would prompt someone to come in on a Saturday. But what I see happening more frequently is that the person just says "there's no way I'll ever get caught up, so I won't even bother trying -- I'll just go in on Monday and deal with whatever crisis arises".
                      Refusing to work weekends is completely rational. As already noted, productivity goes down as hours worked increases. Someone who takes a real weekend off may very well get more done during the same number of hours compared with someone who doesn't. Moreover, the person who takes the weekend off is able to do laundry, go grocery shopping, pay bills, and take care of all the other personal maintenance stuff that would otherwise have to be done during the work week.

                      Katherine

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by pdaly View Post
                        How much work are we really assigning to people? How can management know this before overloading him?
                        This is a tricky issue with lots of implementation-specific details.

                        In the most general sense: The only person who knows how much work Joe has is Joe.

                        I suspect part of the issue may be in the mindset around "management is assigning work to people" like it was the same as plugging appliances into wall outlets.

                        The assignment of work is an agreement between management and Joe. It may behoove Joe not to agree to more work than he can handle. Or it might not -- this is another situational detail.

                        One of the ways GTD can be really useful to Joe in this situation is that he can know with a high degree of confidence and accuracy whether he can fulfill all his current commitments or accept any new ones.



                        Cheers,
                        Roger

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          You've 2 choices on making sure everything gets done.
                          You need to either allocate as much work as you think 40 hours is on the understanding that you'll over and underestimate. On those days you overestimate -you max out the available time, on those days you underestimate - you lose opportunity. In both cases, everything gets done.

                          Otherwise, whoever is allocating the work needs to get smarter at forecasting how much time a task/project will take and this involves getting feedback updates on what people are up to.

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Cameron, yes but

                            I agree, but the reality is we are in a business, so I understand management would rather a. joe overtaxes himself to get more work done AND/OR b. joe skips some relatively inconsequential tasks THAN joe only bill out 35 hours.

                            For what it is worth, I am not the one handing out the assignments, but rather a "middle manager" tasked with making sure that all the Joes complete their tasks in a timely manner at high quality.

                            The "showdown" that I see looming is me, as middle manager, going to upper management and saying "you can't put 10 pounds of potatoes in a 5 pound bag -- if you want all this work done, you gotta hire more staff, or you gotta -- gasp -- start turning work away."

                            I'll need to have plenty of back up and support before I can have that discussion.

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Originally posted by pdaly View Post
                              The "showdown" that I see looming is me, as middle manager, going to upper management and saying "you can't put 10 pounds of potatoes in a 5 pound bag -- if you want all this work done, you gotta hire more staff, or you gotta -- gasp -- start turning work away."

                              I'll need to have plenty of back up and support before I can have that discussion.
                              Yup. And that's where the logs of what Joe is actually doing with his time come in.

                              That's also the lever you use to get Joe to keep an accurate log of even his non-billable time. "I'd love to get you some help, Joe, but first I need to show the bean counters how hard you're really working."

                              Katherine

                              Comment

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