Dreaded In-Trays And Effective Task Completion

When you are trying to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of a business process you are often presented with in-trays. They may look quite innocuous as they sit there on the edge of the desk, but the way that they are used can greatly affect the ability to close out project tasks, or affect the lead time of the process that they are part of.

As an example, one of my clients was having problems with the length of time it took to produce their manufacturing orders. As I was engaged to lead some lean transformation work in this area I scoped the sales order processing part of the business into the project. There was initially some scepticism as to why I would need to look there when it was a manufacturing problem I had been hired to resolve. However, after explaining the lead time was from order receipt right through to despatch of the products my client agreed that the administrative function may have some effect on the overall time taken.

The analysis from the offices in that business surprised me; out of the nearly two weeks it took to progress it through the office, only 38 minutes were spent doing something useful to the order. There were five different in-trays that the paperwork moved through and the way that the person at each desk used their in-tray affected how long it took to get through to the other end of the office. As this particular project turned out, the manufacturing side of the business wasn't as bad as originally thought. Starting production late led to late deliveries and by getting the admin team to review how they were working together they got their particular lead time down into less than one day.

So, if in-trays can be a black hole of mystery (or a pile on your desk for that matter), what can we learn and how can we avoid similar problems? Well, the answer to this is to understand what is going into your in tray and only allow it in if you understand it. This isn't meant to be cryptic - let me explain.

Before you put something into your in-tray (or pile!!), decide what you are going to do with the material. In some cases the documents you are receiving can be dealt with straight away (i.e. it's not for you, or it can be delegated or filed) and so it never needs to enter your in-tray. In other cases the documents are for you and they require some effort on your part to do something with them. In this situation it can be really effective to estimate how long it will take you complete the necessary tasks to process the document and to understand when you need to have it completed for. Once you have done this you can then decide to schedule this piece of work into your diary, et voila the mystery of the in-tray disappears!

An additional benefit of scheduling your in-tray through your diary is that you can work out if your diary is getting a little too full and you need to renegotiate completion dates for your work or delegate the tasks. However you manage your workload, this increased visibility can certainly help.

A different approach for handling incoming work of this nature is to give certain tasks 'shelf lives'. This means that you don't use your diary to schedule the tasks, but every day (or week) you flush your in-tray and prioritise the contents based on their 'complete by' date. Anything that is getting near to the 'complete by' date gets done as a matter of priority. Criticism against this approach is that everything would get done regardless of the true value of the work being carried out. To counter this I refer you back to an earlier paragraph where I stressed the importance of deciding what to do with the incoming workload before we accept it into our in-tray.

In-trays may nowadays be electronic, a T card board, or something else and so coordinating all of your incoming workload can be an art form. The key elements are to understand what is coming in, what is the appropriate course of action, when it needs to be done and then to track progress. The above listed methods are simple and effective, especially if you find yourself pulling out your hair on a regular basis, or if you are in the middle of a lean transformation project and reducing the process lead time is on the agenda. Enjoy!

Smartspeed Consulting Limited
Taking the frustration out of on time delivery.