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When Employees Miss Deadlines

Don't assume every glitch is a result of poor performance. Instead, look for failures in the system.

Q: I have a small software business, and even though my employees are not overworked, we constantly run up against deadlines. We break our necks scurrying around at the last minute to complete tasks on time. We have even missed a few deadlines. Why can't my employees plan their time better? Or is there something I should be doing differently as a manager to improve the situation?

A: Your question reminds me of a saying I made up recently: "People are doing the best they can today, given the way they are being managed." While it's often satisfying to look to employees as the source of your problem, it will rarely lead you to a satisfying solution. The fact that you have a general problem of meeting deadlines suggests that it's not a performer problem, but rather a system problem.

You are the one who created the environment in which this work takes place. That environment is, by and large, responsible for what employees do on a day-to-day basis. The environment is composed not only of the physical aspects, such as office space and equipment, but also the management environment, which includes policies, procedures and the relationships of managers and supervisors with employees. The last part of the environment is the social aspect, which involves the relationships among peers and with customers. All these things put together cause the majority of workday behavior.

To get to your specific problem of deadlines, I would not look to employees as the source of your problem. Look instead at how you set deadlines, how you respond to people when they meet them and how you respond when they don't. If employees frequently miss deadlines or rush around at the last minute to make them, it suggests to me that the consequences for meeting deadlines are at fault. If the only consequence of meeting a deadline is to avoid your displeasure or that of a customer, then you can expect at best last-minute completion. What you need to do is to create rewards for early completion.

For major projects, you might do something like Eastman Chemical did several years ago. They set a target date for project completion, and if they met the target before the planned completion date, they were to celebrate that they called Gravy Day, in which executives serve biscuits and gravy at a breakfast meeting to all employees. They tracked their progress daily, and at the end of each week they projected when Gravy Day would occur. As it happened, the target date was December 31, and the celebration was sometime in mid-November.

Two things are important here: whether the project is large or small, individual or group. The first is to assume success and plan how you're going to act when the employees are successful. What are you going to do and what are you going to say? The second is to have a way to see progress along the way. Put a large graph in the work area where everyone involved can see it every day. If you can track progress such as percent completion on a daily basis, you'll get a better result than if you graph it only weekly. However, weekly is better than monthly. Monthly graphs are barely better than none at all.

One final piece of advice: Check with employees each day. Give them a chance to show you how they're progressing, how hard they're working and how clever they are. If you do these things, you'll be surprised by how energized your employees will become and by the increased pride they take in their work. Before long, meeting deadlines will become a routine part of the workday.

Aubrey C. Daniels, Ph.D., founder and CEO of management consulting firm Aubrey Daniels & Associates (ADA), is an internationally recognized author, speaker and expert on management and human performance issues. For more about ADA's seminars and consulting services or to order Aubrey's book Bringing Out the Best in People: How To Apply The Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement, visit www.aubreydaniels.com, or contact Laura Lee Glass at (800) 223-6191 or lglass@aubreydaniels.com.


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.

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