Another way to Be A Zero – in a good, productive way – is to operate on a zero-based schedule. An organization’s time is the aggregate of individuals’ time and is often spent carelessly. When a member of an organization spends time on any endeavor, the organization’s time is being spent. When groups are formed, the expenditure of time multiplies. Time is the one resource that cannot be increased by persuasive salespeople, creative marketing, strategic partnerships, or other strategy; it must be managed.
“Everyone” in business knows that “time is money;” it only makes sense that time should be budgeted as carefully as financial resources. Like ZBB (Zero-Based Budgeting – Part 1), Zero-Based Scheduling (ZBS) can be approached in two ways; one ends at zero, the other begins there.
One method of Zero-Based Scheduling (ZBS) parallels personal ZBB, ending with zero time. An entire day is scheduled, including breaks, meals, and sleep. Thirty-minute blocks of time are common, but can be varied as needed.
Creating an effective zero-based schedule in this manner requires that task durations be known to a reasonable degree of accuracy. Often, this is not the case; therefore, the first several iterations of ZBS may be less than satisfying. Scheduling of repeated, or similar, tasks will improve with experience.
Advocates of this scheduling method claim several benefits:
Protecting personal time requires boundaries that a schedule cannot create. In a culture where “off-hours” work is expected by managers that do not respect subordinates’ personal time, a zero-based schedule will be quickly defeated and dismantled. The same problem may exist within “working hours” if managers routinely redirect employees without regard for current work in progress.
Wasted in-between time may be reduced with a zero-based schedule. However, a more effective strategy is to group tasks such that fewer short in-between periods exist on the schedule. Short-duration tasks can still be inserted when an unplanned in-between time occurs, such as when a task requires less time to complete than was predicted.
Decision fatigue is more likely to be displaced than reduced. That is, its experience is concentrated in the planning period rather than disbursed throughout the scheduled period. Prioritization requires decision-making; comparable levels of fatigue are likely to be induced in either case, as it is largely dependent on the individual’s perception of the process.
The existence of a schedule does not create, or even foster, focus. Focus is an internal phenomenon, subject to the drives and distractions of the individual. A schedule can merely provide reminders of previously-stated goals. As such, it is a helpful tool, but it is not a fool-proof guide, as many advocates portray it.
The existence of a schedule also cannot sustain productivity. An individual’s productivity is effected by many factors, many of which are out of his/her control. Circadian rhythms, illness, and fatigue are physical factors that can effect an individual’s ability to perform. Personal issues and the task environment may also create distractions or suboptimal conditions that effect an individual’s productivity.
The schedule acts as a reminder of where one wants to be, or believes s/he could be, in his/her work progression, but it cannot drive that progression. It may ensure that one task ends and another begins, but it cannot ensure the quality or completeness of the work.
Routine tasks can be scheduled with a high level of accuracy, resulting in reliable schedule compliance. However, unique, original work, such as development projects of various types, may have highly unpredictable durations. Discoveries may lead to new development paths that could not be pursued in a predefined schedule. Compliance to a fully-loaded schedule is extremely difficult when engaged in this type of work. In no way does this suggest that no plan should be made, only that it should be accepted at the outset that it will likely change.
Requiring a fully-loaded schedule implies that unstructured time is wasted time. Periods of thought and exploration that have not been predefined foster creativity and discovery that may be far more valuable than anything that could have been scheduled. Spontaneity is squelched and opportunistic pursuits are precluded in a fully-loaded schedule; there is no chance to accommodate energy fluctuations or illness. For example, a particularly strenuous – physically or mentally – session may require a recovery period before the next task can be effectively executed. In this case, supporting well-being with a recovery period should be the highest priority, though it was not scheduled because it was not foreseen. Schedule flexibility is key to overall productivity.
The second ZBS method is a more effective alternative for many. It parallels ZBB for business, beginning at zero; all time expenditures must be justified in order to be scheduled. In an environment where an individual’s schedule is heavily influenced by external forces, this approach is integral to his/her productivity. When several managers, project leaders, department heads, and coworkers can each reserve time on a person’s calendar, that person’s prospects for accomplishing anything of value can quickly evaporate.
To maintain a zero-based schedule in this type of environment, an individual must have the autonomy to prioritize activities and to decline requests of his/her time. In the production-support example cited above, unplanned downtime and improvement projects must take precedence over mindless meetings.
In fact, ZBS is an effective way to eliminate pointless meetings. Finding no value in attendance, attendees will deprioritize an unproductive meeting and remove it from their schedules. As attendance dwindles, the meeting organizer is forced to accept the group’s perception, cancelling or reconstituting the meeting to provide value to participants. Recurring meetings that have outlived their usefulness, or have diverged from their original intent, can be eliminated or realigned through this process.
It should be clear that a zero-based schedule may have long periods of unallocated time. This does not suggest, however, that the person is aimless or squandering time. It simply means that the person has the flexibility to pursue the activity that is the highest priority at that time.
Autonomy over one’s schedule also provides the flexibility to suggest alternative times for meetings that are deemed necessary. This allows the person to protect his/her most productive times for activities that require high levels of energy and concentration, while attending meetings during the lulls. Changeovers and other activities that may require special attention can also be sheltered in the schedule this way.
To ensure continued productivity, a prioritized task list should accompany an individual’s zero-based schedule. Upon completion of each task, the next on the list is undertaken. During the in-between times that occur, a lower-priority task may be undertaken, simply because it can be completed in the time available. This does not create decision fatigue; it is merely a process of comparing the estimated time required to the time available.
The prioritized list also contributes more to one’s focus on goals than a fully-loaded schedule. A list of required activities that stretches into the foreseeable future is more motivating than defining a time to end one activity and begin another. It can provide a sense of purpose and direction that a shorter-term view cannot, a stronger deterrent to manifestations of Parkinson’s Law than a fully-loaded schedule. A person can also get back on track immediately following an emergency situation without the need to review and reschedule activities.
Managers can support their teams’ ZBS efforts by establishing guidelines for meetings and other requests for team members’ time. Limits may be set on the number of attendees, ensuring that all those in attendance have an opportunity to contribute. Without opportunity to contribute, there is likely little justification for the time expenditure.
Limits may also be set on the duration of any single meeting or the total in any day or week to ensure adequate time for projects, experimentation, and contemplation. A variation on this approach is to declare “meeting-free days,” reducing the strain of meeting preparation, attendance, and follow-up on team members’ attention. To make the most of the meetings that remain, review “Meetings: Now available in Productive Format!” for more tips.
Managers may need to review requests that team members have declined. A decision may be overridden, but it must be done judiciously to maintain a culture of autonomy. It may be more prudent to assign the task to another individual possessing the requisite knowledge and skills. A manager could also accept the assignment oneself, until such time that a qualified team member is available to assume responsibility.
An individual’s attempts to utilize Zero-Based Scheduling can be thwarted by unsupportive organizational norms and policies. For best results, upper management must perceive the value of each team member’s critical assessment of the demands on his/her time. If only value-added activities are allowed to reside on team members’ schedules, the entire organization becomes more productive.
For additional guidance or assistance with Operations challenges, feel free to leave a comment, contact JayWink Solutions, or schedule an appointment.
[Link] “How a Zero-Based Schedule Supercharges Your Productivity & Performance.” The BestSelf Hub, January, 23, 2020.
[Link] “How a ‘Zero-Based’ Calendar Can Supercharge Your Productivity.” Melanie Deziel; Inc.com.
[Link] “Let’s Audit Your Calendar. It Will Only Hurt A Little.” Darrah Brustein; Inc.com.
[Link] “Three Reasons You Should Create a Zero-Based Schedule.” Andrea Silvershein; Ellevate, 2018.
[Link] “Help Your Team Spend Time on the Right Things.” Ron Ashkenas and Amy McDougall; Harvard Business Review, October 23, 2014.
[Link] “Your Scarcest Resource.” Michael Mankins, Chris Brahm, and Greg Caimi; Harvard Business Review, May, 2014.
[Link] “Management Tools 2017: An executive’s guide.” Darrell K. Rigby; Bain & Company, Inc., 2017.
[Link] “The Surprising Impact of Meeting-Free Days.” Ben Laker, Vijay Pereira, Pawan Budhwar, and Ashish Malik; MIT Sloan Management Review, January 18, 2022.
Jody W. Phelps, MSc, PMP®, MBA
JayWink Solutions, LLC
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