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Business Management

Better Manage Your Time and Business

Daily schedules, primary-project lists and more

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Scheduling and job planning are usually routine tasks for most signmakers and screenprinters. But, because most shop professionals must attend to other daily details, even the best-laid plans can go astray. Consequently, promises to customers are broken; phone calls aren’t returned; appointments are missed, and new sales opportunities are lost. If you can’t get your work done and never find planning time, this month’s article is for you. I hope my suggestions will help you better manage your time and business. Because I worked as a construction manager for a builder in the late ’70s, I thought I knew a little something about scheduling and planning. However, as my career progressed, my workload increased. At one fleet-graphics company, I was responsible for estimating, production planning, purchasing and scheduling installations. Because the job overwhelmed me, I overlooked certain things that needed to be done. Realizing my dilemma and frustration, my employer at the time instructed me about a time-management system, which changed the way I organized my life and helped me improve my performance. Over the years, I’ve discovered that many signage and graphics professionals implement some variation of this system. What’s your plan? The key to good time management is to implement a system that organizes all your jobs and tasks. Of course, to make the best use of your time, you should delegate authority and avoid distractions. Many people use a system that organizes their tasks into a primary-project list and daily schedule. I use Microsoft Outlook to plan my activities. Then I print out the lists and organize them in a large binder. In the binder, I also keep a calendar and a phone list of business associates and customers. As the day progresses, I can pencil in changes to my schedule. If I travel, I take the binder with me. My primary project list contains most of the big programs I’ll be working on for an entire year. Although I won’t work on most of these projects for several months, I keep them in one place to prevent losing a project. I prefer to organize projects in this manner, as opposed to keeping track of several hundred loose notes. The primary project list can be organized into different categories, such as estimates, design, production and installation. On my primary project list, I also include personal-achievement goals pertaining to finance and education. My primary project list contains more than things I need to do. In addition, the list includes information about a job’s deadline and priority. For each job, I also keep an e-file, which includes a plan of action — who’s doing what, and when. Don’t rely on your memory A person who relies on his/her memory usually isn’t reliable. Although l have a good memory, I’ve learned to write down everything I need to do. My daily schedule includes all the jobs I’ll be working on that day, as well as any phone calls or appointments I need to make. In the morning, when I plan my day, I review my primary-project list, my "to do" list for that date and my calendar. Some people prefer separate lists for all their personal and business activities. I think this is silly — keeping multiple lists can complicate your life. It’s much simpler to keep all your daily activities on one sheet of paper. Some people work very hard, but accomplish very little, because they primarily focus on the least rewarding efforts and activities for their business. This is the major reason to establish priorities. Whether you use a computer or manual planning system, assign a deadline for each project, even if you haven’t started working on it. Projects without deadlines usually remain on the back burner and never get done. In addition to setting deadlines, I prioritize my projects as either "high," "low" or "normal." The five or 10 most important projects are classified as a "high" priority — the jobs that get my most immediate attention. If you try to work on too many projects, you can’t focus. When you complete projects, cross them off your list and move onto the next most important jobs. Keep it simple Countless, high- and low-tech systems for scheduling and job planning are available. Your job is to find one that’s suitable for your business. According to personal-growth trainers, if you do something for 28 days in a row, the practice becomes habitual. Using Microsoft Outlook to plan my day allows me to schedule planning sessions at the beginning of each day. Usually, I only spend 15 to 30 minutes reviewing and updating my plans. Because I update my plans daily, and keep up with what I need to do, this is usually all the time I need. Besides, I don’t want to spend more time planning than working. Over the years, I’ve worked with some bright and talented people, who have spent most of their workdays sitting in their offices contemplating their navels. They plan for every possible contingency. But, in the end, they don’t put any of their plans into action. These people are classic examples of paralysis by analysis. Most vinyl-graphics projects are usually easily managed and don’t require complex scheduling. For other types of work, especially complex projects, I’ve used such planning and scheduling systems as Gantt and Pert charts. However, there’s no reason to complicate the planning process. Besides, if you get too tricky, you’ll probably confuse your employees. When to plan your day It’s up to you whether you plan in the morning or evening. Butch Anton of Superfrog Signs & Graphics (Moorhead, MN) schedules his jobs and plans his day in the morning. He spends 15 minutes with his assistant prioritizing his work, reviewing what’s been done and what needs to be done for each job, and then creates a list of daily tasks. He feels he can satisfy customer commitments, because he completes important tasks first. One of the most successful graphics salesmen, with whom I’d worked, planned every evening. The next morning, he hit the ground running. He retired from the industry a multi-millionaire. Who can argue with success? He believed that planning in the evenings allowed him to get a better night’s sleep. Otherwise, he would wake up in the middle of the night, in a panic, wondering what needed to be done the next day. Most sign companies use work orders or job folders to track jobs. When I worked for fleet-graphics companies, job folders contained the sales order, estimate, production order, the design’s installation layout, color swatches, records of the actual materials used and labor tickets. Some signmakers keep all this information on a work order. If a job requires a vinyl application, you should keep records of any installation expenses, such as travel costs. If you maintain job folders, anyone who removes files from the filing cabinet should record them on a sign-out sheet, along with their name and the date. By using this system, one fleet-graphics company minimized the number of times files were misplaced or lost. Don’t get distracted It’s easy to get distracted. Snail mail, voice mail and e-mail can be big distractions. Before I leave the post office, I sort through my mail. After I quickly scan it, I decide what is, and isn’t, important. At least 50% goes right in the trash. I try to reply quickly to voice-mail messages from customers and business associates. However, I delete most messages from sales people, unless I need a particular product or service. As for e-mail, I only open messages from addresses I recognize. If a message pertains to a project I’m working on, I copy and paste it in my file for a particular task. I place e-mails from, or about, customers into my customer file. I refer matters that don’t pertain to my job to the appropriate people. According to one of my managers, "If I’m doing your job, I won’t have time to do my job." Business associates can also be distracting. When my plate is full, I don’t have time for company gossip or bitch sessions. Rather, I need quiet time. I suggest closing your office door and telling your employees and/or co-workers that you need time to get your work done. Most of the time, if they think for themselves, your associates can answer questions and handle issues. It’s also important to know your limitations. It’s very easy for signmakers to say "yes" to every customer request. However, when you over-schedule yourself, it’s impossible to meet deadlines. You need to learn when to say "no." Whether you work for someone else or you’re the head honcho, you need to ask your employer or employee to outline his or her primary responsibilities. Without this understanding, no one can be effective. As an employer, you may need to delegate more authority — pass jobs off to subordinates. Don’t depend on others Although I believe that delegating is important, don’t be surprised if your assigned tasks don’t get done. As he was leaving office, Harry Truman said that Eisenhower was in for a real surprise. He predicted that Ike would sit at his big desk in the Oval Office and make many pronouncements, only to discover that nothing got done. I’m not suggesting that you micromanage your employees. However, you need to monitor their performance. I worked with one woman in purchasing, who kept the top of her desk perfectly clean. I have nothing against cleanliness. It certainly beats sloppiness. But I assumed she was doing her work. Instead, she was stuffing the paperwork that she didn’t do during the day — invoices from vendors — into the biggest desk drawer at the end of the day. When these bills didn’t get paid, our vinyl film supplier cut us off. For a graphics company, this is a tough situation. This was also an embarrassing situation for her boss…but I survived. To make sure assignments were completed, a former boss kept files on each employee. Regularly, he reviewed each person’s file with that person. If a project wasn’t complete, he would ask when the job would be done.

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