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Most Indian companies are yet to embrace time management: James Root

Interview with partner, Bain & Company, Hong Kong

Abhilasha Ojha 

James Root

The quicker firms learn to systematically treat time as a scare resource, the more they will increase the efficiency of their operations and better their financial performance, Root tells Abhilasha Ojha

Bain & Company's time survey released last year reveals that top exe-cutives lose thousands of hours each year responding to emails and sitting in unproductive meetings, and the losses snowball through their organisations. What can companies do to craft effective strategies for better time

Time is a scarce resource in all companies but most don't treat it that way. The first step in 'creating time' for employees to focus more on customers is to embrace the idea that time has to be managed as carefully as any other capital resource.

Two things eat up most time in an executive's life: dealing with the constant avalanche of emails and attending numerous meetings. It is not unusual for an executive to receive around 200 emails a day - that's around 30,000 a year. So we were hardly surprised when we saw one study of knowledge workers saying that 30 per cent of them had no time at all for thought and reflection in a normal day and just 58 per cent had between 15 and 30 minutes a day. Imagine if we took our most talented cricketers and told them they could play cricket for just half-an-hour a day while the rest of the time they had to respond to questions and fill in templates. It would have an adverse effect on their productivity. It is similar with employees in an organisation.

How should companies manage and evolve a better time strategy to ensure profitability?

Look at some of the statistics we saw while covering one company where its weekly senior leadership meetings directly consumed 7,000 hours per year for the attendees - but 300,000 hours were spent across the company among subordinates in preparation of these C-suite meetings and other related meetings. But how were these meetings even helping the company in getting profits, or how was this company - like many others - even quantifying how its executives and other employees were spending their time, was not getting tracked and measured. The thing is, companies need to track and monitor whether these meetings are even helping them get the desired results. You need metrics to measure time and see how it brings returns for you.

Bain teamed up with VoloMetrix, an enterprise analytics company, to examine the time budgets of 17 large corporations. We are working closely with CEOs of companies and their teams on radically re-prioritising time. It starts with understanding where the time goes. A single weekly top team meeting will consume thousands of hours of preparation and pre-meeting time in ways that are practically hidden to the organisation.

Forward thinking CEOs require their teams to simplify communication: a single page summary can often replace the thick PowerPoint decks, so long as the business case under discussion is clearly expressed. 'Initiative creep' is very common: It is important to make sure the business case for all initiatives is communicated in a consistent and clear format that accelerates decision making.

A good time management strategy hinges on the CEO's talent and expertise on simplifying the entire organisation - not just widening spans and reducing layers but focusing on interactions is important. One client has imposed an internal meeting ban between 8:00 am and 10:00 am from Monday to Friday. Another limits the number of people attending a meeting. Then, another company is reducing meeting durations: from the traditional one hour to 50 minutes, and from 30 minutes to 25, so that executives can 'take back' time during their working days. These are some of the ways to proceed. You have to take small steps knowing that positive results will be achieved.

But isn't the concept of professional meetings, of sending out formal emails, geared towards giving out crucial information related to the company? Why should it not be considered vital?

Information is good but information overload weighs down many executives. Apple store employees, for example, talk about customer feedback at the end of each day, for example. That's a rich set of data, too.

But when people are overloaded, we know that they start to reject data from sources they trust less, and even reject data in formats they are not familiar with. Yes, it is true that a lot of information and big data can give executives previously unimagined insights - about customers, employees and other relevant stakeholders. But we encourage clients to marry up these insights with the 'small data'. I'll give you an example: an energy company we worked with had a 400-line 'executive dashboard'. This was simply too much - there was a lot of unnecessary information that was not even relevant to the company. Once the company was able to reduce this to 30 items, we realised the company still covered 85 per cent of the economic value of the business. Time demands were reduced and the information needed for decision-making was far more easily available.

Bain's work with large organisations has found the problem (of not valuing time) to be cultural as much as systemic. Organisations evolve into complex mechanisms that require increasing maintenance to function smoothly, and a corporate culture springs up to support this effort, siphoning resources away from externally-focused, customer-serving tasks.

Given the amount of time that is 'wasted' in meetings, emails, among other exercises at work, how do you propose employees manage the work-life balance? Given technology's grasp on us 24x7, employees don't ever switch off, do they?

It can be a challenge to balance a demanding role at work with family and social commitments. Certainly, setting a target time allocation across both is helpful for some. What we find is more impactful than just time on its own is the idea of energy. Some activities at work and at home create energy, some consume energy. The most 'balanced' individuals are ones who know what creates energy for them and find ways to do more of those things and less of the things that consume it.

What are your observations about companies in India with regard to time management?

While companies in India are definitely waiting to ride the expected economic upturn, they would do well to note this: a one-hour meeting which starts five minutes late has wasted 8 per cent of meeting time. No company would tolerate 8 per cent cost waste in manufacturing so why should you 'waste' time? Indian companies need to think hard about how loss of time can impact them adversely.

Indian companies have mostly been focused on financial concepts around driving growth, improving margins and increasing valuations. From my perspective, the relatively lower labour costs have provided for a tendency to over-staff resources at all levels, which has compensated for lower human capital productivity. Overall, most Indian companies have yet to embrace the concept of time management. The quicker they learn to systematically treat time as a scare resource, the more they will increase the efficiency of their operations.

Managing time effectively is key to creating more time for employees to focus on customers rather than answering endless - and often unnecessary - internal emails or participating in meetings with no clear outcomes or specific roles for participants.

  • James Root heads Bain's organisation practice for Asia-Pacific and is a leader in the consumer products practice.

  • He has more than 25 years consulting experience in Asia, North America and Europe. He specialises in working on corporate transformations involving strategy and operational improvement
  • He is also an adjunct professor on the faculty of the Kellogg-HKUST business school
  • He holds an MBA from London Business School

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First Published: Mon, February 16 2015. 00:13 IST