Get a grip on your work week

FSB helps a small-business owner manage his time and business operations.

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I believe gas prices will:
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(Fortune Small Business) -- Joe Burke never has to look for business. "Old clients give us more work while new clients keep rolling in," says Burke, who runs a five-person engineering design firm, KPEngineering, in Lindenhurst, NY. For many small business owners, this is a dream. But for Burke, it's a problem. "The result is grueling 70-hour weeks," he says.

Sound all too familiar? No wonder. Market research firm ICR and Staples (SPLS, Fortune 500) released a joint survey last year showing that 62% of managers with fewer than 20 employees work more than 40 hours a week and that 21% pull 80 or more hours. Eighteen percent admitted to working while in the bathroom - and 49% said they work while driving.

KP Engineering designs HVAC, electrical, plumbing, sprinkler and alarm systems for buildings of many sizes, from houses to hospitals. "My issue is scheduling the work with my employees while dealing with the day-to-day urgent requests from clients that wreck havoc on my original schedules," says Burke. "I need three or four more Joe Burkes. But I can't afford three or four more Joe Burkes right now."

FSB spoke with three experts who weighed in on Burke's problem. They all agreed that cloning Joe Burke is not the solution, even if he could afford it. Burke would be better off changing his behavior so that he can better manage his clients, staff and time.

"Joe is respecting clients more than he is respecting himself," says time management expert Peter Turla, aka "The Time Man." "He is his most important customer, and he is neglecting himself. He is suffering from the immediate gratification of solving customer's problems rather than his own. Until he respects his own time and needs, he'll always be in reactionary mode, stomping on ants when there are elephants to deal with."

Weed out problematic clients

At any one time, Burke typically has 40 to 50 projects in various stages of design and an additional 40 to 50 projects in construction. In an effort to streamline his workflow he licensed several productivity software packages in 2006, including Intuit (INTU)'s QuickBooks Premier, Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) Project and Excel, along with a plasma TV for remote videoconferencing.

But Burke can't find the time to sit down and actually use the technology. "We schedule meetings every Friday to look at our commitments for the next two weeks," says Burke, "But I cannot find the time to do it right."

Another time management guru, Peggy Duncan, weighs in. She believes that Burke purchased the technology before he worked out his processes. "Technology isn't a cure-all," she says. "Joe needs a master plan to work out his operations. The technology can assist in doing that, but he needs to get to the root of the problem first.

So what is the root of the problem? Because client requirements are perpetually changing, Burke frequently ends up redoing projects, which throws him off schedule. Though Burke can't entirely change his client's behavior, he can learn to adapt to it and better respond to their ever-shifting needs.

As a first measure, Duncan recommends integrating a filtering system to weed out disorganized customers who will be most prone to changing their requests. "If Joe takes on clients who don't have their act together, he's just joining their chaos," she says. "He must stop getting involved with people who haven't thought this through. He's got to ask, 'Are they really ready for this?'"

But even if he does assess the clients, Burke admits that he has trouble turning down a job.

One solution, suggested by Jeff Mesquita, former engineer and current vice chair of operations at SCORE Atlanta is to adjust his pricing.

"In engineering, one can raise or lower the price of the product depending on the needs of both the market and the client," he points out. (See "Gentlemen (and Ladies), Raise Your Prices!")

Higher prices may deter clients who are less serious about their projects, and the additional income should give Burke the resources he needs to work with clients who are serious but require extra attention for unpredictable projects.

Promise less, deliver more

"One way to get time back on your side is by lowering the clients' expectations," Turla says. "People treat you according to the behavior you tolerate. Joe's clients will keep expecting more and more, and he may have spoiled them by being overly accommodating."

Turla also suggests that controlling the workflow up front can prevent crises later. For example, if the client keeps altering their plans, the work will merely creep along. At some point, it will be essential to nail down a final plan and stick with it.

Another tip is to expect the unexpected by adding time cushions to deadlines. "In project management, you need an optimistic deadline, a most-likely deadline and a pessimistic deadline," says Turla. "Joe should estimate closer to the pessimistic time to avoid over-committing himself. This way, when a part doesn't come in from a vendor, or a client changes plans, the extra time needed is already built in to the project's schedule."

Hire the right people

Burke also has difficulty delegating tasks. To get on top of the schedules, he assigned one of his best engineers to keep track of all the firm's jobs using Microsoft Project. But the firm still isn't running as smoothly as Burke had hoped it would.

"Joe probably doesn't feel like anyone can do the job the exact way he wants it done," says Mesquita. "That's part of hiring the right people. Give each employee tasks to see how they do without supervision. But keep in mind that everyone has their own talents."

In Burke's case, the experts suggest that an engineer should spend time engineering instead of tracking projects. "It seems to me that Joe should get a project manager," says Duncan. "He should hire someone who knows Microsoft Project and can handle and fine-tune the company's processes."

"Hiring and firing employees is expensive for small companies because finding the right person is often a process of trial and error," adds Mesquita. "But to help with that burden, you can get an HR employee or consider outsourcing those duties to an HR firm." (See "Why HR = higher revenues")

Keep your sanity

"I prefer to stay small, but I can't figure out how many employees are enough to keep it small and still allow me to enjoy managing my company," Burke says. "Because I get last-minute requests when my guys are out on a job, I often knock out projects myself, working very late at night or on weekends. Then, I'm too exhausted to give my employees the time they deserve."

When employees approach Burke to have him review their work, he often does not have time to scrutinize all the designs. This lack of quality control allows what Burke calls "stupid mistakes" to slip through, spawning yet more last-minute scrambling.

Duncan replies: "Joe can't have it both ways. He needs to either eliminate some business or hire more people. If he's working around the clock, he's making less each hour, not to mention that his lifestyle is unhealthy."

"Joe can work all day and still feel like he hasn't gotten much done," Turla adds. "Working longer or harder is not an option - he will just burn out. Joe should frame his work hours so that he is spending more time planning than reacting."

The bottom line? Joe must fix his own work habits if he wants to help his business.

"One useful management strategy is to envision the business in five to ten years instead of what it will look like at the end of the week," concludes Turla. "Until he changes, no one else will." To top of page

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