At some point or another, you’ve probably had to commute to work by car. Maybe you even do it now. If so, you know how the math works. Let’s say your office is only a twenty-minute drive away when it’s just you and your car and an empty road at 2am. But this is “rush hour” we’re talking about. So an empty road like that may as well be a fantasy. In reality, it takes you more like an hour to get to work. What’s more, at least half of that time is spent slogging through a two-mile choke point that’s bumper to bumper every single weekday morning. Maybe even more if there’s some kind of accident or breakdown or construction zone along the way. On those days, you’re lucky to clock into the office by 10am.
The scenario above may or may not be your reality. Maybe you commute to work by train and spend the time reading a book. Or if you’re very lucky, you work from home, and the worst choke point you deal with is when the dog decides to take a nap in the middle of the hallway. Regardless, even if you’re not experiencing choke points in your commute, you’re no doubt dealing with them in your workflows. Odds are, there is some aspect of your job that eats up more time than the rest. And not just because you do a lot of it.
Once upon a time, I handled all of the email deployments for a media company and was responsible for ensuring that as many as 25-30 email blasts made it out the door each week. So by its nature, email was a time-consuming aspect of my job. Yet most of those emails followed an efficient flow. A few, however, did not. The ones promoting sponsored webinars, for instance, always seemed to be a headache. The reps would often sell the webinars well inside the established marketing window, and sponsors were particularly bad about supplying deliverables on time. As a result, these emails would demand an inordinate amount of my week, thereby disrupting not only the flow of every other email on the schedule but also of my other work. Dealing with webinar emails was a major choke point for me, and one I was never able to fully resolve at the time.
Identifying and dealing with choke points in our workflows is an important aspect not only of staying productive but staying happy with our jobs. Choke points eat up both our time and our patience. After all, nobody likes idling in standstill traffic, staring at the bumper of the car in front of them, envisioning the destination in their mind and frustrated at how far away it seems.
We all want to keep moving forward, to get where we’re going, setting and meeting our professional and personal goals. But if we’re spending 80% of our time doing 20% of our job, then that’s simply not going to happen.
So what are some ways to deal with the choke points in your workflows?
1) Audit your workflows.
The first step to fixing any problem is understanding that you have one and why. Assess how much time you spend on each aspect of your job. Weigh that time against its usefulness and value to your department and to the company. Does a specific task produce revenue, or does it just keep things moving?
Establish which parties and which processes are responsible for a task that is taking longer than it should to accomplish. Break all of this down, on paper or in a spreadsheet, so that you can better understand your workflow and your choke points from a bird’s eye perspective.
There’s a good reason why news outlets use helicopters to assess and report on the traffic, and why we rely on them and GPS technology to guide our driving decisions.
2) Eliminate unnecessary steps.
Is everything you’re doing to perform a process that you’ve identified as a choke point necessary? Sometimes, we go through the motions of certain activities simply because that’s the way it’s always been done. Maybe you inherited a legacy process from somebody else, or maybe you and the other people involved in the process have been doing it this way for so long that certain steps have become habit.
We grow accustomed to driving on the roads we know best, even when outside factors change them for the worse over time. Are you eating up valuable minutes collecting or reporting data that never gets used? Are you creating content in Word first, then copying it into another platform, rather than simply creating it on that platform?
Don’t be afraid to take a fresh, objective look at your workflows and processes, and decide what’s truly necessary to get you where you need to go with less stops along the way.
3) Establish parallel workflows.
Can the process that’s creating a choke point be split into parts that are performed at the same time, rather than consecutively?
Traffic jams occur because physically, one car can’t move through another car. Likewise, if you’re dealing with a process in which one task can’t happen until an earlier one is completed, then if somebody in the chain gets busy, everybody down the line is delayed. Identify tasks that can be performed independently or in parallel.
Does the design for an email need to wait for the marketing copy to be written, or can the design be created and the copy written at the same time, then be married together later in the process? After all, assuming the same number of cars, a road with several lanes will always move faster than a road with only one lane.
4) Utilize automation technology.
These days, there isn’t much that technology can’t make easier. (It can also greatly complicate things. But that’s another article for another day.) Yet amazingly, even in this day and age, people still don’t take full advantage of possible technological solutions for their workflows. Or, as with the roads we know best, people will continue to use outdated technologies when newer ones can offer more benefits. Consider what GPS technology has done to relieve headaches for drivers in the past decade.
Which aspects of your processes that are experiencing choke points can potentially be automated? If you’re not sure, then it might be a good idea to talk through your workflows with your IT department or somebody in the office who knows more about tech than you do. See what kind of solutions they might have to offer that you’re not aware of.
5) Improve planning and scheduling.
Sometimes choke points don’t occur because of the roads you drive on or even because of the other cars on the road, but because your timing is simply off. Again, that route you’ve chosen only takes twenty minutes at 2am. So maybe if you leave the house an hour earlier, before the roads fill up, you’ll find that your drive is a lot smoother.
Likewise, effective planning and scheduling can ease the pain of a workflow choke point. Are there better or worse days to perform a certain process? Can you block out your week in such a way that the process has less impact on your other responsibilities?
As with unnecessary steps, ask yourself if you’re doing things on certain days or at certain times simply because that’s when they’ve always been done or because it’s the best time to do them. If it’s the former, then experiment with other options. Workflow timing that is deliberate and tested will help you avoid choke points.
6) Improve communication.
Never suffer in silence. This isn’t to say you should be the kind of coworker who incessantly complains about workflow choke points. Nobody wants to be that person. But odds are, you’re not alone.
The makers of the “Waze” GPS app for cellphones embraced this idea, allowing drivers on the road to share traffic delay information with other drivers on the road. Likewise, communicating regularly with your manager and coworkers, whether they are part of a choke point you’re dealing with or not, could yield new insights. Particularly if you’ve taken the time to audit your workflows and have a clear sense of your choke points.
Maybe your manager isn’t aware of the issue and can help resolve it from the top down by talking to other departments or assigning additional resources. Or maybe somebody else in your company is already using an automated solution that could help you as well. You won’t know until you open the lines of communication.
Again, identifying and dealing with the choke points in our workflows is an important aspect of being both productive and happy with our jobs. As you grow increasingly busy, particularly during crunch times, it’s easy to start thinking that your workflows control you instead of the other way around. Don’t let that happen. During the calmer periods, take the time to identify your choke points, explore ways to get them under control, and consider the steps above to ensure that you arrive at your destination on time, less stressed, and without any casualties along the way.