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Three steps to reduce the pain of sequester

Limit multitasking, set priorities

Sep. 9, 2013 - 08:51AM   |  
By SANJEEV GUPTA   |   Comments

The sequester is no longer headline news, but the pain federal agencies feel as they work to provide the same level of service with a substantially smaller budget has only gotten worse, with no relief in sight, at least from Congress. However, managers do have the means to reduce the sequester’s effects and increase productivity by 20 percent to 50 percent, with the same or even fewer resources.

It’s no secret that federal projects are often in trouble; they’re frequently late and over budget. David Powner, director of IT management issues for the Government Accountability Office, told a House hearing in January that “federal IT projects too frequently incur cost overruns and schedule slippages while contributing little to mission-related outcomes.”

A GAO report last year found that nearly half of the growth in the Defense Department’s 2011 portfolio of 96 major defense acquisition programs can be attributed to production inefficiencies. This year, the GAO found that cost increases for the Veterans Affairs Department’s largest medical center construction projects in 2012 ranged from 59 percent to 144 percent, with an average increase per project of $366 million and an average delay of 35 months per project.

A quick search of the GAO website will find dozens of similar reports for nearly every agency.

Superficially, there are many different causes for cost and schedule overruns. But at their root, many come down to a hidden killer of productivity: multitasking.

Much of the public and private professional world touts its ability to multitask as proof of its superior work ethic, but more than three decades of academic research has overwhelmingly demonstrated that multitasking substantially decreases individual productivity.

People who multitask suffer a wide array of negative effects, from a 25 percent average drop in output to being more easily distracted.

The problem is compounded within organizations. After all, people do not typically work independently in large organizations like federal agencies; rather, they depend on others to complete preliminary tasks before they can start their own work. If multitasking delays individual work, it cascades through the workflow and magnifies overall project delays.

Just as individual multitasking occurs when a single person’s time is split among too many tasks, organizational multitasking occurs when groups try to tackle more work than they have the capacity to complete.

When organizational multitasking occurs, groups keep others waiting for their output, managers take days to make even small decisions and every task seems equally urgent. As a result, the organization wastes its resources solving the wrong problems.

While the negative effects are much more pronounced in organizational than with individual multitasking, it is actually much easier to stop organizational multitasking. All that’s required is a process for reducing work in process and the establishment of clear and simple priorities. This can be accomplished by taking the following steps:

■ Reduce the number of open projects or work streams by 25 to 50 percent. Working on fewer projects or work streams to get more done seems counterintuitive, but it works. Fewer projects/work streams mean fewer tasks, less confusion and more focus. Simply reducing the number of open projects/work streams by 25 to 50 percent can double task completion rates.

■ Establish a clear rule for task-level priorities. For some projects, a simple rule (e.g., task priority is set by project priority) is sufficient. Whenever there is a priority conflict, people work on the highest-priority project first. For complex projects — especially those that are executed in environments with high degrees of uncertainty — specialized software can help organizations properly prioritize tasks.

■ Don’t start a project without adequate preparation. Well begun is half done, as the saying goes. If teams have everything in place before starting a project (a.k.a., full-kitting), they encounter fewer questions and delays.

By implementing these three simple steps, agencies can reclaim productivity that was previously wasted because of organizational multitasking. The results can be dramatic: Typically, organizations improve productivity by 20 to 50 percent just by eliminating organizational multitasking.

Such gains could make the pain of the sequester quite a bit easier to manage.

Sanjeev Gupta is CEO of Realization Technologies, a software and professional services company based in San Jose, Calif.

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