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Sunday, August 25, 2013


Steve Cole comments on tactics for eating an elephant.

The standard reply to complaints about some huge project is that "You eat an elephant one bite at a time. You don't have to do all of that work for the whole project in one day." I'm going to suggest a few ways to speed up the process.

1. REMEMBER THE EIGHTY-TWENTY RULE: This rule says that in any project 80% of the goal takes 20% of the effort while the last 20% of the goal takes 80% of the effort. Maybe you need to ask your boss if eating 80% of this elephant is good enough. Remind him that in the same time you could completely eat one elephant you could eat 80% of five elephants.

2. DIVIDE AND CONQUER: Any huge pile of work usually consists of a lot of smaller elements. So sort the file into two or five or more categories. Say you have to file 10,000 invoices in a random order. Go through and divide the pile into six blocks of four letters (A-D, E-H, I-L), or five blocks of five letters. Then deal with just the first block for now. Heck, once you have done the first sort, divide the first pile into individual letters. At least that way you'll be working in one filing cabinet, not constantly walking back and forth.

3. CAN SOMEONE HELP YOU?: No doubt, most of the project is hard, technical, and detailed work that only a skilled person can do, but surely there are some easy parts. Take an hour to teach an intern or junior staffer how to handle the easiest ones. Then sort through the whole pile (without actually doing any of them) and give those easy ones to the intern. By the end of the first day, you'll have some points on the board. In a case of 10,000 soldiers (having been told to find the best 1,000 and promote them) have a junior person sift out and set aside anyone who is overweight, has been court-martialed, or doesn't have the school certificates required for their next promotion.

4. ELIMINATE THE THREES, AND THE FIVES ARE EASIER TO FIND: Pick one of the categories (an easy one!) and do that. Then it's easier to see what's left to be done. Say in those 10,000 invoices about 1,000 of them aren't going to be done by you (or your team) at all but sent to the Pacific Rim office. Great! Take time to pull them out first. At least you won't keep handling files you can't use over and over and the other office can get started on their part of this mess faster. Or, pull out the first 100 of them and ship those off right now, then set aside any Pacific folders as you find them and send them to that office each day or every other day. Don't make them wait until you're finished.

5. TAKE THE LOW-HANGING FRUIT: In any huge mountain of work, there will be some stuff that is laughably easy. If those are easy to find, do them first. (The fewer unhappy customers or un-filed invoices or unprocessed orders you have left, the better). If the easy ones aren't easy to find, at least watch for them as you work your way through the pile and put them all in a special place. One hour before quitting time, stop your main workflow and do whatever easy ones you have found. That should rack up more points on the board and end your day with a feeling you accomplished more.

6. MAKE A GAME OF IT: If you manually sift 10,000 pieces of paper looking for the one invoice that says "Prescott" on it, odds are that your brain will go to sleep and you'll mindlessly move "Prescott" to the "Not him" pile without even seeing it. So, change the methodology every now and then and approach the stack from another angle.

7. THE TEAM WORKS TOGETHER, BUT NOT ALL DO IT THE SAME WAY: Say you are part of a team that is filing 10,000 invoices or updating 100 contracts or responding to 1,000 customer service letters. Not everybody has to do the same thing the same way. One person could specialize on each area or type of file. Divide the stack of work into one (unsorted) pile for each person. Everybody goes through their pile and does only their specialty (maybe a letter of the alphabet, a region of the country, complaints about a specific product, requests for a specific file, etc.), putting everything else in their out-basket. An intern can circulate among the team, taking everybody's out-basket to the next person. Everybody should then do the "stuff from somebody else's out-basket" first since THAT stuff has already been cleaned of at least some of the things you aren't responsible for. Now, if there is a truly huge pile, then everybody take enough to work on for a few hours and leave the rest on the conference table for someone (an intern or a supervisor, depending on how hard it is to tell what file is what) to sort through. That person can then divide the piles into specific piles for specific people, meaning after the first few hours nobody will have to handle a file that isn't his problem. It will go much faster. And by all means, if you discover someone sent you the wrong file, just put it in your out box and don't waste time getting upset about it.
8. MOVING vs. STATIC: Say you have to pack 10,000 products, each consisting of a box containing some number of parts. There are two methods. One is to have each team member build a complete product. This only works if the number of parts is small enough that each team member can have a stack (or bin or cup) of every part in front of him. The other is an assembly line. Assembly lines can be done two ways: either the box moves from person to person (each person adding one or two or three parts from stacks in front of  him) or the boxes stay put and the people move. (Pull all of the parts in stacks. Each person picks up an armload of the next part and walks down the line, putting one (or whatever the required number is) in each box. Once you reach the end of the row, you put the leftover parts back into the stack and get whatever part is next. (One word of warning. If you run out of something and decide that this will be a good time to break for lunch, mark the empty spot where that part was so that you don't come back from lunch and start packing products that are missing that part.)

9. AN HOUR PER DAY: Maybe the project in question is huge and has to be done by a distant deadline, but isn't that high a priority. The way to handle that is to set aside one hour per day (maybe more, maybe every other day, do the math to figure out which is best) to work on eating that elephant. You can use all of the tricks above to make that hour more productive. Remember that once you have an item in your hand and figure out where it goes, all of the time spent reaching that place is basically wasted. That's why it's best to do everything going into one filing cabinet so you don't have to keep walking back and forth between 26 filing cabinets, filing them one invoice at a time. So maybe Monday you do nothing but sort through unsorted files pulling out people with names M through P and then Tuesday you file M, Wednesday you file N, Thursday you file O, and Friday you file P. Then next Monday you have an easier time to sort through the remaining Q through Z files looking for Q, R, S, and T.

10. REPEAT THIS OVER AND OVER: "IT'S A FINITE NUMBER": No matter how many files were dumped on your desk, there aren't an infinite number. Sooner or later, you'll do the last one. Now, if new files are being added faster than you can do them, you have to use a strategy that maximized output without being unfair (e.g., first do all of the easy ones that arrived today, then do the oldest files still on your desk). If that doesn't make headway, tell your boss that you can't keep up and get some extra manpower or divert some of those files to somebody else's desk.

11. DON'T FORGET YOUR DAY JOB: Maybe this massive pile of work dumped on your desk was intended to be done in addition to your day job? That gets tough, since you were probably busy enough before this. Take a look at all of the stuff in your day job, streamline and eliminate what you can, and set aside a block of time every day to work on the current real job, then get as much done as you can on the elephant.