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A Spring Cleaning Checklist to Increase Workplace Productivity

A Spring Cleaning Checklist to Increase Workplace Productivity

The following is an excerpt from Fully Charged: How Great Leaders Boost Their Organization’s Energy and Ignite High Performance by Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel (Harvard Business Review Press)

By: Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel

Every year in the springtime, some companies institute what we call a spring cleaning. But companies caught in the acceleration trap will want to do this immediately, regardless of the season.

Instituting a Spring Cleaning
Typically, company leaders, particular departments, or sometimes the entire company will meet or conduct a workshop to analyze all existing activities to differentiate between what is of central strategic importance and what isn’t. As a leader, you should divide all company activities into three categories:

  • Those considered very important and that need the most focus and energy
  • Those that are central but not urgent and that can easily be put on hold
  • Those that are truly unimportant and that the company can and should stop doing immediately.

At the end of this process, leaders report feeling refocused, reenergized, and refreshed, knowing that the company can now pursue its most important tasks with much more attention and energy.

For example, when the Otto Group went through a restructuring, managers found themselves burdened with 20 to 30 percent more work. So the company initiated a spring cleaning.

Each executive was asked to select a single project that he or she wanted to complete by all means. But that still left too many in play, according to Thomas Grünes, then head of central services. The list was then halved, according to each project’s required investment, its value-to-cost ratio, and, in certain cases, its symbolic value for employees.

For example, the final list included a redesign of reception areas and staff restaurants, which increased pride and performance “and thus was a very important initiative, although the economic value was not obvious,” Grünes told us.

At the end of the process, the managers had reduced their activities and projects by 50 percent. The other half of the projects were filed away, to be reconsidered during future spring cleanings.

To guard against bloat, the company has made this winnowing process an annual activity. Grünes stressed that in the end, the decision about which projects are initiated isn’t a question of whether there’s a particularly powerful executive behind them -- rather, the group selects only those that it can argue are reasonable to do and that are key for meeting company goals.

Be Sure to Cultivate Positive Change
Of course, a spring cleaning isn’t always a positive experience. You might have trouble letting go of pet projects. And sometimes, your company culture can get in the way of the workshop. For example, in a culture where commitment and reliability are guiding values, you might find it particularly hard not to complete activities you’ve already started.

Keep in mind, too, that apart from escaping acceleration or using spring cleaning as an annual process, you can also use the method quite effectively when the company is engaged in a change involving rationalization, cost-cutting, or streamlining.

Often, the beginning of such change processes spawns new executive responsibilities on top of your old ones, as well as added acceleration of company activities, leading to job stress and exhaustion. By introducing a spring cleaning in the midst of such change, you reduce ineffective activities that only hinder forward movement.

Finally, you can also use spring cleaning when evaluating the results of an employee survey or when measuring organizational energy. Typically after such a survey, companies conduct workshops to generate ways to improve the problems that employees identified.

Our research has shown that, far from being helpful, these workshops often just add more stress to the workforce since they usually generate new tasks and responsibilities.

In companies already operating under the pressure of increasing business growth, employees see such new responsibilities as just more dead weight, additional work, and needless bureaucracy. In extreme cases, especially in companies already caught in an acceleration trap, employees purposefully list only positive responses in company surveys, simply to keep their workload from increasing -- making the whole process a farce.

A Spring Cleaning Checklist:

  • Challenge your company by asking, “What should we stop doing?”
  • Use the spring-cleaning method regularly, ideally every year and especially during change processes or after employee opinion surveys.
  • When you do decide on a spring cleaning, follow a specific, standardized protocol that is well understood by all participants.
  • Continually check the strategic importance of goals, tasks, and projects, and eliminate less-important activities.
  • Use three categories to differentiate activities: top priority, on hold, and stop doing.
  • Ask yourself, “What activities today would we not start again if we had not already begun them?”
  • Use spring cleaning at both the company level and the division or work-group level.
  • Involve all managers in the process.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Fully Charged: How Great Leaders Boost Their Organization’s Energy and Ignite High Performance. Copyright 2011 Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel. All rights reserved.

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