Too busy to manage

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Freeing up more time to ensure staff receive due care and attention can help to raise morale and reduce staff turnover

Trapeze’s Pete Adney discusses how depot managers can more effectively manage their time to get more value out of their working hours

UK traffic offices are notoriously challenging workplaces. Operations managers, traffic managers, forward allocators and controllers strive to oversee coalface operation – frequently under extreme pressure. [wlm_nonmember][…]

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But as challenging as this is, it’s actually not new. I faced the same challenges when managing a depot almost 30 years ago.

My objective was to make the operation as efficient as possible and then to drive business development. The problem was that the first task was so time consuming that I rarely got round to the second.

I see the same issue today in traffic offices up and down the country.

Occasionally it can affect experienced allocators armed with the latest technology, but this issue is at its most debilitating in organisations with no payroll and duty allocation software.

In such situations, I frequently find reliance on manual processes critically undermining efficiency, leaving the business prone to expensive manual errors.

But perhaps most depressingly, this damages talented workers who are left unable to do the jobs they were employed for.

In this article I explore the issues surrounding manual processes in the traffic office, and point to a better way of working.

Manual operations
Most depot managers are good with numbers, but you don’t have to be a mathematician to know that traffic office workload just doesn’t add up: there’s too much work and not enough hours in the day.

When I worked in a traffic office, I developed a basic technology system to support me. This is not uncommon; many depot managers rely on an array of self-built tools and workarounds, typically involving spreadsheets, documents, online notebooks and so on.

The problem is that such systems easily get out of hand, proliferating and expanding until there are countless chains to manage. Systems don’t support each other, so before you know it these intended support tools have actually begun working against one other.

Combine this with often inexperienced workers and ‘cascaded’ training, and you have a perfect environment for inefficiency. And it is rife in our industry.

The implications here are most commonly found in organisations without specialised technology.

To illustrate, I recently visited a depot manager hamstrung by admin overload, spending hours a day processing payroll and making manual corrections.

Unable to perform the highly skilled job they were employed to do, this committed and highly competent manager is spending much of their day functioning as an overpaid depot administrator.

There are so many signs I could point to, but here are some that I see most regularly.

1. Untouchable task lists – Issues arise in any role, but depot managers without the right tools frequently find the working day gone before they have touched their task list. If you can’t tackle your workload then it is impossible to find room for strategic thinking.

2. Mis-employing staff – The main goal of the traffic office is to cover mileage, so re-allocating staff to plug gaps reduces overall efficiency. On occasion I’ve even seen drivers taken off the road to complete admin work relating to drivers not being on the road.

3. Lack of new business – Back office inefficiency prevents the generation of new business. If the allocation processes were streamlined, not only would you win more tenders, office managers would also have time for designing profitable new routes and ensuring customers are happy.

4. Complaints – There is nowhere to hide in the traffic office: mistakes will happen and are usually highly visible. But while some complaints are inevitable, issues in the traffic office can also mean spending more time on administration than essential tasks like training staff.

5. Busy but not productive – You know you are busy, but are you actually helping the business? If you can’t measure the impact of your work, can you be sure the time was well spent?
Commercial implications

For the business there are clear implications here. Firstly – and most obviously – traffic office managers are valuable resources. Spending hours a day on allocation and payroll administration is simply wasteful misallocation.

Additionally, manual data entry inevitably incurs risk of costly data entry errors.

But it is the unknown errors that impact most. With multiple isolated systems there is no means of assessing the quality of decisions being made, or identifying, tracking and eliminating the countless inefficiencies that can occur – all of which add up to a significant reduction in profitability.

But arguably the biggest issue is hardest to measure: what is the lost opportunity cost of managers not doing work that would fundamentally benefit the business? Perhaps we should flip the question: ask yourself what job you would like managers to be doing instead? Later we will explore how to free them up to do so.

Personal implications
But what of the personal implications? The pressing concern here relates to the impact on office managers and their staff.

Mistakes caused by admin overload often involve double bookings, duties left open, and unsupported staff.

This is depressing and career limiting for managers, and also impacts drivers who suffer the mistakes, or struggle with managers too busy to be as responsive as they would like.

In extreme examples, drivers whose holiday requests have been left unaddressed can react by not showing up for work.

The resulting disciplinary and likely attrition could so easily have been avoided.

But for the managers themselves, the impact is the daily drudgery of overwork: longer hours, with working days eating into evenings and commutes as pressures mount. None of this is healthy – not for the business, and certainly not for managers.

A better way 

In a traffic office, a backlog of incomplete tasks can quickly accumulate if efficient ways of working are not found

So how should a bus depot manager spend their days? I believe the job involves far more than the back office. An efficient back office is vital, but you can’t make a successful business there – for that you need to get people riding buses.

I know managers who have their traffic office working so effectively that they have been able to wrestle back control over their time.

They are able to get out of the office and undertake the activities that really have an impact – generating revenue, increasing staff morale, reducing driver sickness and ultimately attrition. I see three golden rules here:

1. Manage the people – Managers with sufficient time raise morale by ensuring staff receive due care and attention. This is especially true with corrective attention, which is undertaken with the utmost focus, affording staff the time required to get things right. This is not only the right thing to do; it also serves the business by reducing bad decisions. Nobody wins when an operator has to lose someone.

2. Manage existing service – Freed from admin overload, managers can focus on understanding how well people are served by the existing service. There are many modern means of sourcing data, but don’t overlook the value of asking passengers about current patterns and service levels.

3. Generate new business – Buses are rarely used for leisure; they take people to places. If managers are to expand their operation there’s nothing more valuable than getting out to understand the local community, identifying pockets of demand and mapping it against current and potential services.

Technology to support
Correctly implemented specialised technology reduces the legwork of managing a traffic office.

There will always be tasks that humans are best placed to do, but the best technology ensures traffic office managers’ time is reserved for only such activities.

One of the most significant benefits relates to payroll rules, which are hard coded to eliminate any interpretation.

Thus armed, managers know that all is well, regardless who allocates the work; and managers have a clear dividing line between administration and management.

Making the business case
As much as we may wish for allocators to enjoy a less stressful working life, few would implement new technology for that objective alone.

Fortunately there is a clear and measurable business case for this type of investment.

Savings here relate to better allocation of management time, reductions in fines for not running vehicles, reduction in driver payments (ensuring the right driver for each duty), and reallocated staff.

A good duty allocation system will pay for itself through cost savings in one to two years – as well as saving managers time to start focusing on driving business growth.