Ever been in a situation where, for some reason, things are simply not getting done, either by you or someone on your team? Maybe there is an employee or a team who consistently misses deadlines. Maybe there is a manager that, for one reason or another, just cannot get the important things done during the day.

If you are like most people, you have probably found yourself in this situation more than once. I know that I have. So, how can it be prevented? More importantly, how can you engineer systems into your business so that everyone is engaged and performing at the highest level possible?

A checklist for getting things done

I (just like most other business owners), have asked myself this question multiple times. Over the years, I have learned that when I have performance issues either from a team member or an entire team it usually is a breakdown in one of these key areas: focus, priority, communication or execution.

After seeing this happen a couple of times, I ended up developing a checklist for my company that I use to get things back on track (so that I can also train my managers on how to do the same). The checklist is simple, but don’t let it fool you. As Michael George, author of “Lean Six Sigma for Service” states “reducing complexity increases both speed and quality”.

1. Focus starts with disconnecting

Recently, I was attending an annual manager’s planning meeting for another business. At this meeting each manager had to present department performance for the previous year along with the goals for the coming year. After the third manager got up to speak, I noticed a trend. Typically, all of the managers would be attentive for about three minutes and then most would go “heads down” on their smartphone or tablet. In fact, during one presentation a manager got up to ask another manager how to fix his calendar. The problem was that all of these managers were missing key information from other departments and from the company. It made me wonder why they were meeting at all.

Why is that?

To be completely honest, I am guilty of doing the same thing. Technology and the ability to constantly communicate can be addicting. It feels great when you can solve a quick problem, put out a fire or save the day with a quick email.

In most cases, we fear that if we don’t check email, texts, Twitter, Facebook (I can go on) and stay constantly connected, we are going to miss something. The problem is that we miss everything because we are never fully present at anything.

Think about it. When you get up in the morning, what is the first thing you do? Before you go to bed at night, do you check your email one last time? What about when phone buzzes, do you check it immediately?

When we split our attention between two tasks, you can never be fully present for both. That means by default we miss important details for both tasks. It takes longer for us to process or identify key points. We become heavily engaged in activity, but disengaged from the details. Often, it is the details that makes all the difference (just ask an attorney).

I am not a Luddite and I love technology just as much as everyone else. The point that I am making here is that while technology can empower you to do great things, it can also prevent you and your team from getting the important things done at your company. It takes an awareness of the problem and a commitment to control it so that you can “connect” and get things accomplished.

Disconnecting from the day to day and really “plugging in” to what is important at your company takes effort (even if it is only for a few hours). Each month when I conduct a company wide meeting, I literally have everyone turn off their phones or leave them at the door so that we all can focus and concentrate on what is happening with the company. Electronic devices are banned from that meeting. I hear a few moans and groans, but honestly those monthly meetings produce phenomenal ideas month after month. I wholeheartedly believe that it is due to the fact that we are all “plugged in” and “engaged” in the conversation (not replying to emails and texts).

2. Priorities come from thinking, not activity

My sister still reminds me (to this day) of when we were children and we worked in my mother’s garden. At the time, I was four and my sister was nine. Our task was to pick green beans and fill an old metal bucket. I wanted to impress my mother so I would pick one green bean at a time and then carry it to the bucket so that she could see how “fast” I was while my sister was “slow” (because she was taking more than one bean at a time to the bucket). While I made many trips to the bucket, to show how hard I was working I would not say that it produced the results my mother was looking for (E.g. actually filling the bucket).

How many times have you met with an employee or a manager who has confused the concept of activity with results? Oddly enough Vilfredo Pareto observed this same phenomenon when he noticed that 20% of the pea pods in his garden produced 80% of the peas. He used this phenomenon to develop the “Pareto Principle” or law of the few. Essentially the principle states that roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

The reality is that the Pareto Principle works in our business lives as well. I am sure if you really think through what produces real results in your position and with your teams, 80% of those results come from 20% of your activities.

If you (or one of your teams) are not getting things done, it may be a great time to sit down and identify what the key 20% is.

3. Communicate with clarity

When I was in college, I would roll my eyes when I would hear another business person say “it is all about communication”. My thinking was that this statement was so cliche and that people just say that because they cannot think of anything else to say.

Years later I was in Sanford, Florida and I got into a cab and I asked the driver to “take me to the airport”. Forty five minutes later we arrived at the Orlando International airport (approximately 33 miles away from my departure airport (Orlando-Sanford International Airport). That day, I bought into the cliche.

These days communicating with clarity can be a challenge. Our communication is noisy and fast. We communicate via cell, text, email, social media and many other outlets. The problem is that we process so much communication that it is difficult to keep track of what we should do and when we should do it. In essence we just focus on what is being communicated in the moment (E.g. we become reactive, not proactive).

A main key to getting things done (after you determine the 20%) involves communicating clearly what needs to be done, who needs to do it and when it is due.

There are a variety of tools that you can use to do this. Simple project management software like Basecamp or a shared company task list can do the trick.

4. Execution starts with tracking (the right metrics)

So, you have identified the 20% of tasks that produce 80% of the results, you have communicated clearly what projects you want to accomplish and you have assigned responsibilities. You even took the liberty of setting timelines on when those results should be completed. Theoretically you are all done as a manager, correct?

Let me try to answer that question with another question. Do you know how to lose weight? Do you know how to save money?

When I was in Officer Training School (OTS) years ago, one of my classmates was the picture perfect Officer Candidate (lets call him Joe). Joe had excellent grades, a clean pressed uniform everyday and a yelling voice that would make Mr. T squirm.

Joe also had a weak spot, running. When we would physically train, Joe would literally whimper and finish last in every running event. Our classmates (myself included) would encourage him during the runs and offer assistance in any way that we could.

Joe quickly identified his weakness and resolved to learn more about the art of running and how he could improve. He read books and magazines. He got new shoes. He even sought out the advice from professional runners. There was no doubt that when it came to knowledge of running, Joe was an expert.

Seeing that Joe was struggling I decided to try to help him out. After week two of training, I invited him to come out on Saturday mornings and we would run together to try and increase his time and his endurance.

Joe enthusiastically accepted the invitation and attended the Saturday session. The session was difficult for him but he did make some improvement. The problem was that Joe never showed up for another training session after that Saturday. For Joe, learning about the activity was much more interesting and important than executing the activity itself.

That’s the problem. Most of us know what we need to do (the results) but we fail execute the tasks that bring results.

The question that you must ask is why? Is it a lack of information? NO! It is a lack of execution.

Unfortunately for Joe, the Air Force ended up not offering him a commission. The reason? He could not successfully complete the physical standards required of an Officer. His inability to execute prevented him from achieving the results that he needed (even though he had all of the information he needed to be successful).

This is a major problem in most businesses. We all are pretty good at tracking results, but few of us track execution. Think about it. My guess is that right now I could ask any company in our industry for revenue performance for the past year and I bet that 99% of those companies would be able to produce that stat.

If I asked those same companies how many upsells did your technicians offer to current customers, my guess is that less than 10% would be able to produce those stats.

Lead Indicators vs. Lag Indicators

In all businesses there are two types of indicators that you must track for high performance:

  1. Lag Indicators – Lag indicators show you the results of what your business is doing. For example, revenue, profit, leads, etc, etc…
  2. Lead Indicators – Lead indicators show you the actions that your business takes in producing the results. For example, number of calls made to customers, number of emails sent, etc, etc….

Often in business, we want to focus on the result stats while ignoring what actions produced those results. The outcome is that usually that we are at the mercy of the market, weather conditions or employee talent.

If you are serious about getting things done in your company, the key lead indicators must be identified and they must be tracked. E.g. you need to actively search for the 20% that causes the 80%. The lag indicators (results) will take care of themselves.

A couple of years ago our company made this discovery in technician sales. For years we struggled to get technicians to offer our current customers upgrades to their existing services. We would go to conferences and hear how other companies were able to increase their revenue through route sales. Meanwhile at home, we had no such success.

Eventually, we took the problem of technician sales through this checklist. We discovered that we had not identified what our lead indicators were and that we were not tracking them.

So we determined what the critical actions were that eventually led to technician sale (E.g. the 20% lead indicators). We also had a meeting in which we explained what was happening and what we were going to do about it (clear communication). We stopped giving goals to technicians like “you need to sell 5k this month” to “you need to send 5 upgrade emails a well”. The results? In the past two years we have increased technician sales by 500% and our Outside Sales team no longer sells to our current customers.

If you are having a problem with getting things done personally or at your company, try the checklist and see how it works for you. I can tell you that it has worked wonders at my company.