Unmasking Time Theft by Making Work Visible

December 7, 2023 Theresa Rex

business team working overtime discussing strategies to start making work more visible

Your team may seem busy, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are being productive. They may be working hard but not necessarily smart, often spending time on ineffective tasks. These are known as "time thieves," silently hurting your business productivity. However, according to James Kennedy, "Making Work Visible" can help combat these time thieves. Today, he will be sharing some insights with us.

James is a well-versed entrepreneur, currently dedicated to assisting finance teams by providing a wealth of resources, including educational content, podcasts, videos, and specialized software. His entrepreneurial journey includes founding and managing companies like Piehole and Smartnote, building on his earlier experience as a Contract Engineer at Arantech.

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Megan - 00:00:18: Today, my guest is James Kennedy. James is a longtime entrepreneur who's now focused on helping finance teams through educational material, podcasts, videos and software. Every year, his team at ProcurementExpress helps hundreds of companies safely spend billions of dollars and avoid wasted spend. James, thank you very much for being my guest on today's episode of CFO Weekly.

James - 00:01:15: Not at all, Megan. I am delighted to be here. It's a thrill for me.

Megan - 00:01:18: Yeah, today we're going to be talking about finance software and the concept of making work visible. When we don't have a clear picture of everything that needs to get done, by when and by whom, we often end up with time thieves that lead to inefficiencies and unnecessary stressful emergencies. We've got a lot to learn from you, so let's jump right in.

James - 00:01:39: Right. I'm looking forward to it. I have learned from someone else, so I will try and convey their wisdom for the listeners. But I'll also add what I've found trying to use it in the field, so to speak.

Megan - 00:01:51: All right, that sounds great. So let's start with you and your career journey and the significant experiences that have shaped you and your approach to financial leadership.

James - 00:02:02: Sure, so when I was, let's start when I was five, when I had an aunt who lived- Back to the beginning, she was like, she saw a, what do you call them? A tea leaf reader or a fortune teller in New York. She had this great aunt who lived in New York. I'm from Dublin, Ireland. So she was very exotic and lived in a grown up place. And she told us that that lady told her that someone in her family would one day be an entrepreneur and be very successful. And I took it upon myself that that would be me. So I've been thoroughly unemployed for most of my career. I think I had a job for about 18 months when I left college. But after that, I've been trying mostly unsuccessfully to run businesses. But most recently now, in the last 10 years, I've been running PrecurementExpress, which is purchasing software for SMBs. We help you take the hassle out of managing your company's spending with magical features. But there's been a bit of a journey there. I've worked with my wife or my, she was my business partner. She's still my wife, but we don't work together anymore. I've sold text messages back. If you don't remember them, they were like these messages you got that didn't have emojis in them in the old school phones. I've done, I've run a voiceover agency. I've done, lived in Argentina, all over the world, South Africa, America and Dublin. But it's been a turns out my life's journey, my life's purpose was to help people sort out their purchasing and go home 10 minutes early with our software. I didn't know it when I was a little boy, but that's where I've ended up.

Megan - 00:03:35: That's a great story. Lots of twists and turns along the way, but got you to where you are today.

James - 00:03:40: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So we now we're about 20 people. Most of our half our customers are in North America, half all around the world. And I guess to the topic we're going to be talking about today is learning to work with a team as being a big sort of it's basically, you know, in the early days when it was just me and my business partner, when we got that first few customers, we did absolutely everything ourselves. And for me as a nerd or a software engineer that came fine with me, I love getting things done. I love getting my hands dirty and getting hands on. But then learning to scale with a team is a whole other journey. And I wouldn't say I've struggled with it. I mean, we have a great team, but I've definitely learned that that's where the biggest capacity for impact is as time goes on. And getting helping the team be most effective is now my main obsession. How can they do better? And it's a fascinating topic. There's a lot to it, you know.

Megan - 00:04:34: So is your team remote working all over the world or where is your team located?

James - 00:04:40: Yeah, so we're split between South Africa, where we started. I got my wife pregnant when she's South African, and we went to South Africa to, I won't say spawn, but do you call it, to have our kids, to start having our kids there. And that's when I realized that we, and it's easy in my business, and my eldest son are the same age, because we realized we needed a good business to try and build our family and build a life with. So that's why we started with ProcurementExpress back then. So we have a team still in South Africa, but I'm speaking to you from Europe, from Dublin. About a third of our team is here in all over Europe, and then in Southeast Asia as well. So we've been remote from the get-go. I know it's a very cool thing to be remote. It's not cool anymore. Now everyone's doing it. But when we started it, it was a little bit unusual to be distributed. So it comes, we've learned a lot with that as well. When you are physically in the office and everyone can see you working, definitely works for me. I'm reasonably weak-willed, so I prefer that someone has to sit there and watch me. And I have to impress them by showing up to the office on time and appearing to work hard. But when you're distributed, that innate peer pressure disappears, and you have to come up with different ways of still getting the same productivity, which is effectively the name of the game for any team. How effective you can be together as a team is that some of those outputs determines whether you compete in the market. So that's where I think the biggest gains are to be had. And it's definitely different doing that. I know, Megan, I think you are also working remote, and I don't know what your experience has been going from working in an office to remotely, but it's not the same. Whatever, whether it's better or worse, it's not the same.

Megan - 00:06:21: Yeah. I think a lot of companies have struggled with it, which is why a lot of companies are calling people back into the office.

James - 00:06:28: Well, the way I look at that is not everyone is made for it. Some people, their productivity will be down 40%. Some people will be the same, but they'll have a ton of great benefits, like not having everything from a better impact on the environment by not having to commute to your office all the way through to it. A lot of us experience more time with our families and kids and being able to be more present for them. And it's just the same. And then some people do a lot better. The question is really being honest about that. Who is naturally suited to it? Who is not? Like, I'm actually not that suited to working at home. Like I said before, I enjoy the peer pressure. I enjoy the camaraderie. So we have to come up with other ways of substituting that in our habits and our daily life. So I still like the human connection and I have to figure out a way to get that into my job in order for me to perform to my potential. And that's the truth for our team as well. No one, I think likes to admit with their struggling at home because you're afraid it's going to get taken away from you. But I think you have to be honest about how... What's working for you and what's not. Otherwise, companies just decide wholesale. Now, everyone back to the office. And then that's the worst of all worlds. It suits the maybe minority who can't work remotely. But then the people who actually excel or are able to work as effectively at home lose out on that benefit. So it's a bit of a blunt tool, I think, to call everybody home. But then what do you do? Do you allow some people and not other people depending on their performance. And that requires a lot more measurement in terms of possibly a true productivity so people can see for themselves, making their work visible, if you like. So you can see, actually, am I performing better in an office or do I perform better at home? And it's a tricky one. You know, of course, people can change jobs. There's always that choice if you really have a strong feeling on a one-way theater. But I don't think we've gotten to the bottom of the optimal solution. I don't think bringing everyone home or letting everyone stay remote is right. It's a far more individualized approach you need to take. Yeah.

Megan - 00:08:32: So talk to us about ProcurementExpress and what you were seeking to address with?

James - 00:08:37: Yeah. If I'm very honest, I was seeking to address putting food on the table. My wife was pregnant. Rich. Yeah. Yeah. Well, yeah. I had my longtime business partner, Rich. Like, we've been business partners on various escapades over the years. And he came to me one day. He ran an IT support business in Dublin. He had two customers, Clarins Cosmetics, which is a cosmetic brand here in Europe, and UNICEF, which you're probably familiar with. And they both came to him in the same week with the same problem, in that they needed to control their spend, thinking of using purchase orders in their case. Because in UNICEF's instance, you know, you had people in Africa or Middle East or wherever all around the world traveling. And those people would be needed to approve spend, but they weren't necessarily at their desk. And at that stage, when they came back to the office, there would be a stack of purchase requests or requisitions on their desk. And that really gunked up the system. Because if they weren't there, everyone was waiting for them. So that was what was not working for UNICEF. And for Clarins, they just had a managing director, which had embezzled $150,000 worth of stock from them, and they hadn't realized. And they needed better control over their spend from a risk perspective. And so Richard was tasked with finding some software. He Googled not very well, thank God. And decided there was nothing out there. So he decided, he came to me. I'm a programmer. We built the first version. We solved the problem for those two customers. The poor guy from Clarins got a couple of years in jail for his misadventure. But we got a business out of it. They were our first customers. And since then, I remember very clearly, my first proper real customer was Holloman Corporation based out in Austin, Texas. And Bryce, God bless you, Bryce is retired now. But he took a chance on us. He was our first real other customer. And he really gave us a great start. Again, offering just a simple purchase order approval system he needed. And now today we have hundreds of customers managing billions of dollars of spend all over the world. Normally, the people who come to us are... They're probably fairly new in their job. So it's a mid-sized, a small to mid-sized company, say 50 to 500 employees. Someone who's just being hired in there as CFO or COO, or with some sort of the fiscal responsibility, they see a stack of invoices on their desk they're expected to pay, but they're not really sure why those invoices are there, who caused them or was anything delivered for them. They might be using QuickBooks or Xero or Sage. They're not ready to go to an ERP. So probably the worst thing you can do with a new job is just having got the big job, recommend you spend twice your salary on getting some fancy software in that you're not ready for. So you're not ready for NetSuite or SAP or whatever. But you still want to control that spend. And you want to be compatible with your existing bookkeeping software. That's where we come in. So they Google, they Google purchase order software or spend control software. They'll see us on the software comparison websites that are out there. And they'll notice that we have more positive reviews than anyone else. And they invite us for a what we call a pony show over here. I don't know what you might call it, but a little promenade of a couple of vendors. And we do a demo and that's how they come to us. And that's how we help them in their business. So a couple of weeks later, hopefully we have them set up and running. So those invoices get approvals before they get raised. Everyone can have a clearer view of where their budgeting is and what they're responsible for. It's much easier to see what invoices should be paid, which have been approved, which goods have been received, but not invoiced, et cetera. And we bring that now through all the way through to your payments. And that's effectively who we help and what we do for them.

Megan - 00:12:21: And talk to us about the book that inspired this topic and why it was that this spoke to you.

James - 00:12:28: Yeah, I love this. So this book is called Making Work Visible. And just to step back for a second, I mean, I think like there's... In the cut and thrust of running your business, and especially with a team... It's, we were certainly, if you call it like 18 months, two years ago, we were certainly very busy. Like we were a super busy office. We had meetings, lots of people had to-dos. We were, everyone was a little bit stressed out, if I'm honest. I definitely, I know everyone was stressed out because we all had this sense of all this work that was happening all the time and more work was coming in all the time. And we just didn't feel like we were actually getting on. We were getting on top of it. We were getting it done, but it was very stressful in the process. And I could sense it for myself and the team was that, yes, we were achieving, we were growing, we're doing well as a company, but it was honestly quite unpleasant a lot of the time. Like there were a lot of meetings going on. It felt like there was a lot of activity happening, busy work, if you might call it, but there was no, we weren't getting the reward for it. For as hard as everyone was working, we weren't really seeing the reward in terms of being able to get to those things we wanted to work on the business instead of in the business. Everyone was too busy for improvement because they were just trying to get the job done. And we have brought in different systems over the years. We use EOS, entrepreneurial operating system, which helped a lot. But what unpacked this for me was when I started realizing that it was just, I sat back and I looked at how our whole team was communicating with each other. And I realized that there was a lot of types of work that were happening which were actually fruitless. There was a couple of mistakes that we were making that really made it impossible for us to make progress. And Making Work Visible is a really great book. It's part of the lean process movement. If you like, you step back a little bit more. There's another book called The Phoenix Project, which describes this very well. All the way goes back to, you know, all the management books and all the MBA books talk about continual improvement and the Toyota process back in the factories in Japan. That's where this all originally came from. But it's all about looking at what they call in the book, the value stream, where you're actually, what work that you're working on actually delivers value and which work does not. Like if I could put it as simply as that. And the book has a very, it's actually the sort of, if you like, The Phoenix Project describes the problem quite well. It's all about this business that is a little bit overwhelmed like we were. But the Making Work Visible is the book that gives us the practical way to solve the problem. And what is that problem? Well, I saw it in our own business. There were five big pieces of work. When I say work, things that were taking time but not producing any output for it. So I don't know, Megan, if you've ever seen a Gantt chart and a project where you decided, okay, we're going to roll out our new website. It's going to take two weeks to do the copywriting. And then after that, we're going to do the design. And after that, we're going to do or maybe bring it to home. Even in an AP process, in theory, people, they raise a request. And after that, they may send it to get it approved. And they send it to the vendor. And then the vendor sends back in the goods. And then they send in the invoice. And then the payment gets made. And if all that happens in that order every time, everything works perfectly well. But of course, like Mike Tyson says, “everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face”. And that's not the way the world works. There's mistakes because people didn't realize that different parts of that process weren't happening in order. Or all these things have to be, in theory, that process for a typical company might be a two-week cycle or maybe a six-week cycle. But oftentimes, something that should take two or six weeks will be taking two or three months. And that was happening to us. I saw us making certain categories of mistakes. And the book talks about them very well. But the five that I think most of it is that we were working on things that were leaning against the wrong wall, as I described it. So for example, you have this idea that if your ladder is leaning against the wrong wall, it doesn't matter if you get to the top. If it's the wrong wall, you're going the wrong direction. And the first thing to get really clear on, and I saw on my own team and myself as well, is I would be working on something, but it felt good. But I wasn't exactly sure if it was really leading towards the rock that we had for the goal or the ultimate goal that we had for our company. So the first thing to do that the book recognizes is they call them time thieves within the book. And the biggest time thief of all I see it is, first of all, working on stuff which isn't leading to the goal, the unified goal of whatever the company is. So most of us in a company will hopefully will have like a three or a five-year goal. And then we may break that down into a monthly task and... Or sorry, a quarterly rock, as we call it, or quarterly objective or outcome. And lots of times we end up spending work on things, spending time on things which are nothing to do with those objectives. So you get to the end of your quarter and you realize, well, we didn't hire our objective. And you look back and say, well, that's because I wasn't even working on the right thing. So the big, most, a lot of companies have a planning process to set your goals. But the first thing I'll look for is to make sure that everyone knows exactly within your organization and within your team and to every level exactly is the work that you're working on connected towards the goal you're trying to achieve for your team and then for the organization itself. So what you might call alignment. And that is something that doesn't happen for free. So oftentimes within the organization, someone comes up with an idea. I think this is a good idea, which it may well be a good idea. But if it's not aligned to what the organization is doing at that point in time, you could argue it's not moving the whole company working together. So how we address this is by taking quarterly planning seriously. We have a little hack I can share at the end about how we align that, particularly on a day-to-day basis. But the first thing is to make sure that your ladder is against the right wall in any task that you're working on. Is this, double check, make sure. Is this really aligned with the organization is trying to do? So the second piece of that is, which is really related actually to what we might call unplanned work or work that is not aligned to the organizational goal is unfinished work. And this is a killer. So this is something where we start a task because we think it's going to be... And it's a worthy task that no one can disagree with. There's a task that's... It's motherhood. It's an apple pie. Maybe we should be working on this, but because it's not aligned with the organization's goals, it gets unfinished. And I'm sure if you go back over your calendar in the last month or the last year, and you look at meetings that you've taken or tasks that you've started, but didn't get followed through on, you will see a lot of work that basically, because it didn't deliver any value, it might as well have not started in the first place. And this kills me. So what we do, we just did this today, actually, finally enough. We keep track of our quarterly goals. We have them written down. Everyone has a written goal that we know what it is. And then, say, six months later or a year later, we go back and we do a retrospective on all those tasks that came out of those goals. And we just check in again. Why was that? Was this task something we should never have started in the first place? Or is this something we shouldn't have started in the first place? Or is this something we want to pick up again and actually push through? Because it's quite easy to start things, but finishing them is where the value is delivered. So you can often say, for example, we had a goal with our organization to upgrade one customer each quarter to our enterprise plan. We decided to start that a year ago, and we went back. We realized that we'd done it one quarter, but we hadn't done a subsequent quarter. So we'd stopped doing it, even though it was something that was actually delivering benefits to the organization. So this is like looking out for unfinished work or work to start that doesn't get finished, is you have to consciously set time aside to review and see if any of that is happening. Because if that does happen, that's a huge... This is why sometimes we're surprised that the Gantt chart doesn't work the way we thought it was going to. We plan out the Gantt chart for how the time is going to... How the project is going to execute. What we don't account for is all these things like unfinished work and doing stuff that's not on the Gantt chart the first time. That's not in there. And then you're shocked when the project overruns. Getting blocked. The third one is status updates, which is probably the number one message to take away from making work visible, which is that every time that, again, I wait, I have to follow up with you to ask about the status of a task, we're ruining two things. One is we're taking time out of my own day to do that. And then the second thing is I'm taking time out of your day. Now, especially in a world of Slack and email and text messages and WhatsApp, Every time you do that, it's super easy to do. But the way I think of it is when you do that, you're effectively taking a shotgun to their calendar because you're there. Whatever work you might be involved in at the moment, if I take time out of your day on schedule to ask you to give me a status update, then I'm possibly breaking you out of flow. So something you were involved with, now you have to switch out of and then go and check on and then respond to me. Even if it's a one word answer, I've broken your concentration. And what I see quite often happens in our team, if we don't watch it, is that you ask for a status update from someone. They're not sure if they have the answer so that they get another shotgun and shoot it into someone else's calendar asking them what's going on with this. And you can have two or three people just trying to get a status update on something back to someone. So anytime you see these status meetings happening, you have to ask yourself, well, how could we make this work visible? Is there a way that you don't have to ask people on the status of projects, that they can just go and find that information out for itself? And the irony here is that oftentimes people will have a complaint that they can't get their work done because they're getting interrupted, which is very true. And they're not wrong. So if you would consider, let's say it takes 20 minutes, if you get broken out of your flow, what you're doing, someone interrupts you, it takes you 20 minutes to get back into what you were doing again. It only takes a couple of people a day to do that, say five people a day to do that. And suddenly most half your day is shot. It's gone with lost productivity. So the way to guard yourself against having to deal with these status updates is to make your work visible. And in the book, they use something, they use tools like Trello, for example, something called a Kanban board to make it easy to see, to advertise to people what you're working on and how a Kanban works is you have your doing column, you have your, sorry, your, to do column, your doing column and your done column. And it's a great way to make your work visible. So if someone asks me to do something, I'll say, “cool, I'm putting this in my to do column here”. And I make that column, that Kanban visible to everyone so they can see what I'm working on and what I'm going to be working on next. I don't start it right there. I just put it in the list and anyone can look, go to that board and see instantly what I'm working on at the moment. So typically I try and get three to five tasks done in a day. And if they can just go to that board and see what James is working on. They don't have to ask me what's happening with X, Y, and Z. They can see whether I'm working on it or whether it's in my backlog. And then they don't have to interrupt me. And consequently, I can get the work done faster. And consequently, they don't have to wait so long for the task to be completed. And it's a very, the Kanban technique is central to what they recommend in the book. And it's very good for almost any workflow. You can take it from accounts receivable to software development. To like a marketing pipeline or even production of a podcast. Let's say you can use this technique to make your own work visible, which is really easy to do, but it's transformational. People rail against it a little bit and not very feel like, well, everyone's going to see what I'm working on. It's not a bad thing. Well, they, A, maybe not. And B, it'll make sure that they don't have to interrupt you in order to be able to, so you can have more time focused on what you're great at. So you get the work done quicker and them having to ask for a status update. Anytime that happens, you have to ask yourself the question, well, how could we stop these status updates requests happen? Because they seem innocent enough. It's just a quick phone call, just a quick Slack message or whatever. But they're actually, they're dry, they're a drain on your whole organization. It makes it really hard to get meaningful work done. The fourth one is getting blocked, which is, this is, speaks a little bit to speaking of books. There's another book called Extreme Ownership. It's all. It's all what we internally call getting blocked, which means it's about really owning the problems that you're carrying. So it is quite tempting, especially in a team environment. If you're feeling like a particular task needs input from someone else, or rather, it's quite easy to think to justify why someone else should have an input into a particular task because as a reasonable step. So a quite common one for me as CEO is for my team to run something by me before they roll it out, whether it be an email or marketing or development or whatever. But allowing yourself to get blocked like that is a big time gunk. So as soon as you're waiting on someone else, it's work that we don't plan for, but can take a long time. It means a long time for a response to get action. So for example, in our case, we have a support queue. If someone has a question about our software comes in, if that initial support person isn't able to answer that question themselves, if they have to go to someone else, that could turn a question which could be answered in five minutes into it could be two weeks. So let's say someone else is on holiday, someone's away for a couple of weeks, someone is just too busy to answer all of these things. So the key thing there is anytime you have a task to complete, ask yourself the question, do I need someone else's help for this? Or am I just blocking myself? Because let's face it, it's oftentimes quite easier to try and get someone else involved or tackle the problem yourself. You should, of course, be competent in your role to be able to complete the tasks that have been given to you, hopefully without this external dependency. And this is where things like Kanban can really help because if other people are making their work visible, it means you don't have to go to them to ask them X, Y, Z questions or you can see what they're working on. Everyone knows what you're working on. And then you don't, as we call it, get blocked. So at the end here, I'll give you our own strategy for how we combine all these to make sure we work more effectively as a team. The last one is unanswered messages. It's more like a culture thing than it is anything else. And we all, it's quite easy to get a message in our inbox and then leave it unanswered. And then people feel like, oh, I have to follow up on my question, see if I can get an answer. And this is something that really kills productivity, obviously. Because it's bad enough having to ask someone for a status date, for example. But it's what's even worse is having to circle back and do it two or three times. So setting an expectation for when you'll be able to, how often you'll be able to respond to questions or answers is a good one. But I'll wrap it all up here with our technique for putting all these things together in a central place. So even if you're not using the technique that we all described later, what you can do is you can say, “hey, how to work with James”. You know, I let people know. I only check my email once a day or once every two days or twice a day or whatever it is. And then people know not to expect an answer any sooner than that. And then, of course, the other piece of that is you've got to actually own it and at the end of the day, respond when you say you're going to respond. So people aren't left hanging, wondering if X, Y, or Z is going to respond. And when you see that behavior, it's good to call it out because it's really something that can slow up the whole team. This intercommunication between team members is something that we don't really focus on, but it's key to any team working efficiently together. So I can give you the ritual, Megan, that we use as a team, as a remote team specifically, we try and wrap all these things up together for us.

Megan - 00:29:16: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I know you mentioned Kanban, but I'm just curious, like if there's any other tools or technologies that help and really what your advice is for making work visible.

James - 00:29:28: Yeah. So I'll tell you what's worked for us. And we have a 15-minute stand-up meeting with our team. It's a 20-person team. About five minutes of it is work, which I'll describe in a second, and about 10 minutes of it is team bonding, and sometimes in a rather embarrassing way, but I'll get to that. So we meet at the beginning of each workday. We're a multinational team, so people are in different areas. And we have a simple tool. It's just a spreadsheet, so thankfully there's no software to buy or anything. And we have a spreadsheet with three tabs on it. The first tab is basically just good news. So everyone turns up on time. We have some KPIs there for what we're working on as a team, and we can all see a dashboard there of what we're working on. So in our case, that might be a new customer that's come on board, the response time we have for response support tickets. It might be the number of sales we've made this quarter, et cetera. And we basically start the meeting by we just look at that, and we're invited a bit. So everyone has some bit of good news to share. It might be South Africa winning the World Cup at the weekend in my case, or it might be a customer that's given us a nice testimonial. And this basically takes about 30 seconds just to set the mood. Then we move on to a sheet where we just have everyone's name, a day of the week, and whether we're blocked or unblocked. So we're on track or we're off track, rather. So in there, everyone's name is there, and we all have a quarterly goal. And then you can just see very quickly looking at the sheet. If everyone is on track for their quarterly goal. And I mentioned earlier about putting the ladder against the wrong wall. This is where we have our name of the person, their goal for the quarter, and then their leading activity. So leading activity is the thing that they're betting, if they do every day for a whole quarter, their objective will be achieved. And that's normally a number. So for me, it might be number of podcasts I've done in a week, for example. I'm hoping to build relationships with people. My goal for this quarter, for example, is to build a partnership with another SaaS companies or a fractional CFO that we can build upon. My strategy is to do podcast interviews. So I would aim to do either publish one or attend on one once a week. And then every day, I just put in there if I'm on track or off track. So see a green wall when you come in in the morning, everyone can see if we're all on track with our goals. If you're off track, it's fine. We just look and say, if you're off track, someone's off track for more than a couple of days, we'll just add them in. How can we help? So rather than getting to the end of the quarter and realizing, “hey, I wish I'd started on my quarterly rock a little bit earlier”. Everyone can instantly see, okay, if you're off track for a couple of number of days, you couldn't help you there and then. So we don't want to try and help you when at the end of the quarter, we want to help you at the beginning. So it takes normally a number, minute, two minutes. And then we get into a blocker section.

Megan - 00:32:17: How do you get someone to be honest there? I mean, because it seems like you're putting yourself in a vulnerable position. If you're saying you're blocked for a few days.

James - 00:32:26: Yeah. So this is the key. This is a culture thing about what being blocked really is or being off track. So we don't actually, the numbers there, you can just put in on track all the time, all the way to the end if you want. And that's actually fine. No one checks the number, no one audits it, nothing like that. But it's actually the trick to do with the culture of this is it's a way of people knowing that we're all okay. So it's like a check-in, like, are we all okay? And sometimes if someone's off track, you might say, “okay, you're off track and it's a chance for you to put your hand up and get some help”. So if I see someone's off track, it's not really I'm failing, it's like I'm looking for help. And you can, and that's norm typically in our team, which I'm very lucky with. When someone goes off track for a couple of days, normally the attitude is how can we help? How can we help get you back on track? So it's not a, because it's nothing to do with your remuneration or your personal, whatever, your performance as a team member. It's about whether you're on track to hit your objective. And we know that actually a healthy team won't be hitting all their goals, right? So if we got to the end of the quarter and everyone had hit all their rocks, then that's probably a sign that we're not being adventurous enough. Probably we want to be hitting about 80% of our goals. And in fact, last quarter, I didn't hit my rock. Everyone saw it was happening. They all tried to help me. We still couldn't get there. Nevermind, we just do it again. This is a culture thing. And this is, when you start to realize that this daily update is an opportunity to get help as opposed to an oversight, that's the subtle difference there in the team. I don't know if that answers the question.

Megan - 00:34:09: Yeah, thank you.

James - 00:34:10: And that brings me to the third piece, which is we have a blocker section. And to your point there, this is the controversial piece, but it's very freeing. And this is that we have a blocker section, which means that if you're blocked, so you're waiting for someone. We have a section where you can just say, hey, Mariska, I might say, James, I'm blocked by Mariska and I'm waiting for X. And this is a type of public accountability, and it really takes a lot of team trust. But in our team, when we realize that I'm blocked and someone else is waiting, I would never want someone to be waiting for me. And it helps us to brainstorm and fix and unblock those blockages really quickly. It is a culture thing. You do like having the vulnerability to be able to say, or especially just two ways. Like, for example, I might get called out on something. Someone's waiting for me. So, for example, they're waiting for me to finish a job spec or to publish a job on the site. Like putting my name on a sheet in front of everyone else, I'm the boss, like how does that work? That seems like it would be a career limiting move as they say in the 80s, right? But in our team, it's really what it means is it communicates to everyone, okay, I really have to try and fix this. And oftentimes what happens is, let's say someone is blocked by someone else. Normally, there's a very good reason, like X is off sick today, which means someone else jumps in to try and fix the issue. Now, the big advantage of this is we concentrate all those status messages I talked about earlier, where people are saying, “hey, is this ready? Are you ready? Or all these stuff”. They all get condensed into this two-minute section every day in the one place. And it means that you don't have to waste their time all through the rest of the day. So typically, I'm in the middle of doing something. Let's say I'm writing a blog post. Someone asked me for a status update. Now I'm knocked off. It takes me half an hour to get me back into my blog post. Whereas I have this one designated time during the day when anyone can let me know if they need something from me. It's a time I've set out. I'm not doing anything else. It's clear for that purpose. And it means that I can just get them what they need and move on. It's definitely controversial. Like when people join the team, they're thinking, well, hold on. They say exactly what you were saying. Isn't this a way of calling, making people wrong? But it's not. It's a way of condensing all our problem solving into one five-minute section every day. And then so we can move on. And then I mentioned that it takes us about five minutes to get this far into the meeting. The next 10 minutes is all about team building. So every morning, there's a wheel. And every morning, a different person will run this meeting. So it could be anyone in the team from anyone from in support, me, my co-founder, someone in sales. No one knows who this is going to be. And then the second thing they do is we have an activity. So this is like when you go to these networking mixers to give you an embarrassing icebreaker. It's an icebreaker that we do. And it means that on the wheel, there's all sorts of things like what I did at the weekend? What's my favorite recipe? What I did as a kid or two truths and one lie or whatever it is. And it means that the whole team. The next 10 minutes we spend basically goofing around, getting to know each other a little better. So you might not know that I mean, my kid is really into rugby at the moment. Gives me a chance to show to some. Tell them about that or someone might not know that their favorite recipe or whatever. And most of the time is spent on the team building aspect of it. And this ameliorates the what we're missing in a modern remote working is you get actually get to see everyone's face and important pieces. All the cameras are on for all of this. So we all get to see each other's face, get to see each other, laugh and smile a little bit. And it brings the humanity back into it. That's the way that we condense all of these problems. So these time thieves into one meeting where we try and sort them all out. And most of it is not the technique. It's actually the team building and the minority is the technique if you like, but it works very well. And since we started doing this, we've really unlocked a lot better. We've worked, we've learned how to work together truly as a team. For us, it used to be 20 people at work. Now it feels like one team working in the same direction, the same thing at the same time.

Megan - 00:38:26: Yeah, I was going to ask you, I know you mentioned like people get to leave 10 minutes earlier, but what are the benefits for a company that does this really well, makes their work visible and deals with less time thieves?

James - 00:38:40: If I could, I would, well, We just, Megan, has work ever been stressful for you?

Megan - 00:38:46: Oh yes. Definitely.

James - 00:38:48: Yeah. I have a thesis. I think that the reason work is stressful is not because it's hard. I think we're normally reasonably good at our job. It's when there's a gap between expectation and reality. Normally other people's expectation and what's actually happening. And that's where the stress happens. Like I feel like when someone's waiting for me on something or where someone thinks something is going to be done to a certain level and they think it's different or like a client is in a hurry, like it's all that feeling of I'm behind. That's what makes, if you didn't have that feeling, then work would be so much better. If it was always like, if you were in flow, if you were doing where you were good at, you were finishing on time or maybe 10 minutes early, if you use ProcurementExpress , excuse the plug, then everyone would love their job. There'll be no stress involved because everyone was on the same page. So my theory is the reason that work is stressful is there's a gap between expectation and reality. And these tools... And ironically, the things we do to try and make that better, like status updates and side projects and getting blocked and all these things are like the strategies we try to use to mitigate that feeling of stress. But if we condense everything into like a sync every day, then that unlocks a lot of everyone knows exactly what everyone else is working on. So for example, everyone on my team, I know they know exactly what I'm doing right now. They can all see my calendar, but more importantly, they can... In the morning, they know what I'm working on at the moment and what I'm expected to do for the week. And because they know what I'm working on, they don't ask me to do other stuff because they realize I'm doing that. And then it means I can just know what I have to do. And all that communication sucks all the distress and anxiety out of the workplace. And I can honestly say it's worked very well for us just because we're all a lot clearer on what one another are doing. And we have a mechanism for unblocking one another in an agreed upon way that we all trust and understand. That means that we are working far better as a team. And it's just a much happier work environment doing it this way.

Megan - 00:40:55: And last question, but I guess this will also be an opportunity to plug, but ProcurementExpress, does it help with these time thieves as well?

James - 00:41:03: Well, I'll be honest. I did not set out making ProcurementExpress to try and fix these problems. But now I see a lot. Now I realize that's a lot of what we do. So you're a guy standing in a field. Your job is to paint a fence. You need to paint. You just want to paint the fence because it's your job. But trying to get that paint in on time and to the right budget, et cetera, causes stress for you if you have to call people or travel halfway across the country to get an approval or whatever. And what our software does is in that process of requisitions, procurement to pay, it takes out that stress because everyone can just login to the one system and see exactly where each purchase is at every stage. So whether you're standing in a field waiting for a bucket of paint or you're in the finance team, you're all on the same page. Why the paint was ordered, which budget it was going against, whether it's been delivered, whether it's been paid for. And you don't have to bother people by saying, “hey, what's going on with this? What's going on with that?” Everyone can just log in and get a golden record of truth. And that's the way I think we reduce a lot of stress and anxiety for people who are just trying to do their job and get home 10 minutes early.

Megan - 00:42:12: James, thank you so much for being my guest today.

James - 00:42:14: It was a pleasure, Megan. I am really unreasonably excited about this topic and it was a great chance to let me get it all off my chest. So thank you very much.

Megan - 00:42:22: Yeah, I really enjoyed speaking with you. And thanks for finding the time to be here with us today to share that knowledge with us. I wish you and ProcurementExpress all the best.

James - 00:42:32: Thanks, Megan.

Megan - 00:42:32: To all of our listeners, please tune in next week. And until then, take care.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • The importance of "Making Work Visible" for enhancing team productivity

  • How to identify and mitigate "time thieves"

  • The 15-minute daily stand-up meeting productivity hack

  • Strategies for harmonizing expectations with reality

Key Takeaways:

Making Work Visible for Enhanced Productivity

"Making Work Visible" by Dominica DeGrandis has inspired James to take a transformative approach to enhancing productivity and satisfaction by aligning every task with the company's core objectives. This concept identifies "time thieves" or activities that consume time but don't contribute to the main goals. Despite being busy, your team might not be productive. People might work hard but not smart, often engaging in ineffective tasks.

By focusing on aligning these tasks with your business goals, eliminating incomplete or misaligned work, and using tools like Kanban boards for transparency and accountability, your team could work more efficiently and effectively. It's about making work visible, meaningful, and aligned with the company's vision.

Making work visible for enhanced productivity Quote

“The biggest time thief of all is, first of all, working on stuff that isn't leading to the goal, the unified goal of whatever the company is.” Kennedy said. - 12:21 - 29:16

Mastering the 15-Minute Stand-Up Meeting

If you want to make your work more visible and effectively manage a multinational team, adopt a structured yet simple approach like a 15-minute daily stand-up meeting divided between work review and team bonding. For that, use a spreadsheet with three tabs: one for sharing good news and team KPIs; another for tracking individual progress with names, goals, and a simple on-track/off-track indicator; and a third for discussing any blockers. The method will help keep your team focused on their goals while building a supportive environment where problems are managed rapidly.

James Kennedy, entrepreneur Quote

“Leading activity is the thing that they're betting on. If they do it every day for a whole quarter, their objective will be achieved. And that's normally a number.” Kennedy said. - 29:18 - 32:17

Balancing Expectations with Reality

The key to reducing workplace stress and enhancing productivity lies in aligning expectations with reality. When businesses excel in making work visible and efficiently managing time, they bridge the gap between what is expected and what is actually happening, which helps foster a more pleasant work environment. Moreover, regular synchronization and transparent communication play vital roles in this procedure, ensuring everyone is on the same page and can support each other effectively.

balancing expectations with reality Quote

“I think that the reason work is stressful is not because it's hard. I think we're normally reasonably good at our job. It's when there's a gap between expectation and reality.” Kennedy said. - 38:26 - 40:55

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