Prioritization in a Crisis

Prioritization in a Crisis

If there’s one thing that the coronavirus pandemic has made glaringly apparent, it’s that we need to do a better job with prioritization and, ultimately, delegation, execution and communication. We frequently don’t take the time to thoughtfully prioritize our work until we’re in the midst of a crisis. And I’m not talking a full-on-lockdown-work-from-home-while-you-teach-your-kids crisis, I’m referring to the day-to-day crises that we’ve allowed to sneak in the back door of the “way we do business.” System outages. Surprise deadlines. Contract expirations. Significant shifts in demand. These things are inevitable (and aren’t always bad). But they will throw us for a loop if we wait until these work “epidemics” are in full-swing before we take the necessary steps to effectively manage the work.

Figure 1: Setting Priorities

Figure 1: Setting Priorities

Let’s start with prioritization – effective, thoughtful prioritization enables delegation and execution. Think of all the things that you were hoping to accomplish today. Or this week. Or this month. Now imagine that you’re stuck working remotely, with the introduction of new challenges like virtual collaboration or teaching a fourth grader (and yourself) common core math. What are your “bubble wrap” projects or tasks? Those work items that you can’t drop, even in the throes of a crisis? Look, I get it. Everything we do is important. Except, sometimes it isn’t as important. I’m sure many of you have seen the Eisenhower matrix below, or one very similar.

Figure 2: Eisenhower Matrix

Figure 2: Eisenhower Matrix

Let’s start at the logical spot – the highest priority. This is the top half of the matrix. This is your wheelhouse. Start with the “do” items; for these tasks, there is no time to delay. Our customer-facing ordering interface is down, and orders can’t be placed until we troubleshoot and get it back up and running.

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Next, focus on those tasks for which you’ve designated time. Fiscal year end is here, and those books have to be closed, hell or high water. You knew it was coming, so you planned ahead and allocated the appropriate time to do it. Good for you. Here’s where this matrix can become counterintuitive to some – this top-right quadrant is where you should spend most of your time. But didn’t you say that section was our second priority? That’s true – there is a flaw in the matrix.

I take issue with labeling the x-axis in terms of urgency. When I think of urgency, it is almost entirely contingent upon the remaining time until the deadline. But the word urgency conveys panic (at least in my mind). As if we didn’t know the deadline was coming. “Month end is tomorrow?! But I thought every month got an extra day in a leap year!” Drats. When I teach a prioritization module as it relates to implementing leader standard work, I prefer to use the terms “planned” and “unplanned.” If we’re properly managing our work, deadlines shouldn’t surprise us. We want to avoid unnecessary urgency whenever possible, so the more we can deliberately plan our days, the more we can stick to a schedule and the more we can stay in the top-right box.

Next, let’s figure out which items we can delegate. This is challenging for some, if not most, individuals. “Sure, Randy can create our new marketing content, but it will be quicker if I just do it.” Or so you think. You forgot that your boss asked you to draft a proposal for a prospective new client, so the marketing content goes on the back-burner. Meanwhile, Randy is over there running 12 reports that nobody is going to look at. It’s a concept I call “operating at the top of your license.” It has its roots in the medical field, but applies to all types of work. Focus on the work that only you can do, and, when possible, find someone else to do the rest. I get it, Mrs. Warehouse Manager, you know how to pick, pack and ship an order, but we need you to negotiate new carrier rates with our transportation partners.

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This moves us to the stuff that nobody should be doing. Remember Randy’s reports? If nobody is garnering any information or insights from them, now’s as good of a time as any to 86 those things. The Excel macros were a little squirrelly anyway. Any time is a good time to evaluate your work for non-value-added activity, but you’ll thank yourself if you do it before you’re mid-crisis.

Now, here’s the cool part. The stuff that gets me out of bed in the morning. (Well, that and spelling practice with my first grader.) This crisis is forcing us to work differently. I’ve seen multiple teams beginning to incorporate the uncommon common sense of Lean practices into their daily management in order to effectively execute the work – WIP caps, cross-training, daily huddles, visual management and more. And it’s working.

Here’s an example of the effective use of communication. By now many of you have probably seen the posts on LinkedIn or other social media sites stating, “Now we’ll really see what meetings could have been emails!” But what about the emails that could have been quick meetings over the phone? My wife is a nurse practitioner, and on the front lines for this pandemic. After months, nay years, of encouragement (from yours truly) to start using huddles, I saw her team implement a daily, tiered huddle structure, where information is flowing freely, escalations are making their way up and decisions are making their way down. Swiftly and with conviction. When the work needs to get done, and get done quickly, it’s important to be mindful of the method.

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Now let’s shift our focus to some best practices in execution. We’re in the veterinarian health field, so we’ve received a spike in orders from folks stocking up on supplies, and a wave of call-offs due to associates needing to be quarantined or stay home with kids. Not a good combo. I’ve seen our team at our local distribution center implement WIP caps and visual management to control the process bottleneck. When the WIP backs up to a pre-determined (and visually marked) location on the belt, a designated associate from another area knows that they need to flex to help out and keep the work flowing and the orders going out. Rock stars.

In the end, I hope we all stay safe and healthy and return to a sense of normalcy soon. But I also hope that some of these new tools continue, and that we all become a little more resourceful and efficient.

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