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Running Productive Meetings: The Science and a Powerful Solution

How often do your meetings end in applause? Ever been in a bad meeting? Far too many people have. There are innumerable articles about time wasted in meetings. So why do people continue to have meetings? There must be something of value that occurs in meetings. Turns out that meetings are a service process just like any other service process, for example, treating patients in an emergency room or completing a visit to a customer for repair or maintenance of equipment. If a meeting is a service process, it's governed by the same operations science concepts that govern all processes. Those who do not understand the science governing their meetings will suffer the ill effects of poor meetings. Following is a short explanation of the science of meetings, a simple tool and some practices for making sure your business meetings are as effective as is possible.

A service is a set of actions or tasks (supply) that must be completed before demand for the service is met. The operations science of Factory Physics concepts show that three buffers are available when trying to synchronize supply and demand in the presence of variability: inventory, response time and capacity. If you are not familiar with Factory Physics concepts, see our other blog posts on this site or the books Factory Physics for Managers or Factory Physics for more information. Since a service does not produce a physical product (though it may use physical products as supplies, e.g. bandages in an emergency room), there can be no physical inventory of completed services as in, "Well I broke my arm but went to the emergency room and they had a new, healed arm in stock and they installed it--darndest thing you ever saw."  A meeting has outputs like any service process and how well those outputs are delivered is determined by very basic relationships.

The output of meetings includes:

  • resource allocation decisions
  • action items
  • dispute resolution
  • prioritization decision
  • plans

These outputs require people so it's no surprise that meetings will not go away. However, it is a wonder that so much of a business' most valuable resource, its people, is often wasted in unproductive meetings. The relationship between capacity utilization, variability and cycle time (the time to generate desired meeting outputs) governs meeting effectiveness.

Variability inducers eat up time in a meeting. The standard meeting duration is one hour and the result of unmanaged variability is that the meeting outputs are not completed in an hour, time is up and people move on--often to the next meeting.  Another variability inducer is emotion. When people get highly emotional about meeting topics, meetings can veer way off into time consuming discussion. There's no technology that makes meetings more efficient by eliminating emotion. That's not a good goal anyway because generally it's better to have people emotionally invested in meetings. So, meeting leaders can either manage emotional topics, "Let's put that on the parking lot list and resolve it afterwards," or managers can allocate sufficient time to cover emotional topics. Failing to manage emotional issues and responses will result in unproductive meetings. Variability will be buffered--it's the way nature works. For the service process of meetings, managers can either reduce variability, which means less buffering is required, or ensure that there is enough capacity and time to manage variability. 

A simple but powerful tool for managing meetings and their associated variability is called the PACER. PACER is an acronym for Purpose, Agenda, Code of Conduct, Expectations and Roles. Use of a PACER greatly reduces variability by keeping participants focused on productively generating meeting outputs.

  • Purpose - Everyone one in the meeting should understand why the meeting is being held.
  • Agenda - There should be a published structure to the topics being covered and their sequence and anticipated time allocated to each topic.
  • Code of Conduct - There should be an agreed upon standard of conduct in meetings. This does not have to be generated for every meeting. A company standard can be adopted and displayed on the wall in meeting rooms. Some standard code of conduct rules:
    • Be on time
    • Stick to the agenda
    • No personal attacks
    • Good humor is appreciated (this often trumps the "no personal attacks" rule if the "attacks" are done inoffensively with good humor)
    • One conversation at a time
    • Use the Parking Lot (the Parking Lot is a list of issues identified in the meeting that are to be resolved outside of the meeting in the interest of conserving meeting time)
  • Expectations - there should be specific outcomes stated for the meeting, these are the "outputs" of the meeting. At the end of the meeting, the expectations should be briefly reviewed to see if they were accomplished or needed to be modified.
  • Roles - Roles are very important for productive meetings. Assigning roles ensures there are clearly defined expectations for who is going to do what thereby elimination confusion and greatly reducing variability.
    • Leader - sets agenda, goals, milestones, and times.  Maintains focus.
    • Timekeeper - Ensures agenda times and schedules are met during the meeting. The best way to assign a timekeeper is to ask "Who wants to be out of this meeting as quickly as is possible?" This will usually identify a number of volunteers. The Timekeeper provides simple reminders during the meeting like, 20 minutes left, 10 minutes left, 5 minutes remaining, etc. This is surprisingly effective because people often get caught up in meeting topics and lose track of time.
    • Recorder - An absolutely vital role. The recorder captures notes and action items from a meeting. How many meetings have gone by where people walk out and then the next day ask the question, "What did we decide in the meeting yesterday?" If a meeting of any substance is going to be held, it should not be held without, at very least, the roles of leader and recorder. Also, action items are an output of nearly all meetings. Failing to capture action items is like creating scrap in production--resources are expended and then thrown away.
    • Scribe - Lists meeting items (agendas, ideas, action items, parking lot issues, etc.) on flip charts or white boards. This role can be combined with others if there are a limited number of people in a meeting.
    • Facilitator - Ensures participation and ensures the code of conduct is followed. This role can be combined with others if there are a limited number of people in a meeting. It should not be assigned to the leader. The facilitator helps the leader lead as productive a meeting as possible.

Any action items created in a meeting should include the following:

  • Description - what the action requires and expected result
  • Person responsible - this should be one person. Assigning an action item to "the team" is completely unproductive in most cases as it only creates uncertainty about who is supposed to do what. If a team is involved in completing the action item, the person responsible for the action item should be the one who coordinates the actions of the team or, at least, reports on those actions.
  • Expected completion date - this should be given by the person responsible. If that person sets a date that is too long, there can be discussion led by the meeting leader to determine how to get a shorter time to completion.

​​​While a manager might not get applause after a meeting concludes, understanding the effects of variability and managing those effects with a PACER will ensure that people are productively employed in meetings. This contributes to a general sense of well-being due to demonstrated control and keeps company meetings from being morale killers.

Below is a sample PACER with names and content changed to protect the innocent. There is about an hour's work in getting the first version of the PACER put together for your company. After that, anyone can use the template for a quick 10 minutes to compose and distribute a meeting PACER. If minutes are recorded electronically during a meeting, that too is a very quick process for distribution.

Sample PACER and Minutes

Note action items and responsibilities at bottom of the document

Participants

  • Yoda
  • Delmonte Pineapple
  • Kal EL
  • Ed Pound
  • Stan Marsh
  • Wendy Testaburger

PACER – Human Resources Coordination Call

Purpose To review the hiring process and improve coordination between this office and corporate

Agenda

  • Introductions
  • Overview of hiring process map and RACI matrix
  • Determine what information is needed by corporate and when
  • Determine new RACI and/or process map as needed
  • Wrap up and action items

Code of Conduct

  • Focus on one company, good coordination between this office and corporate
  • Be on time
  • Stick to the agenda
  • One person talking at a time
  • Good humor is appreciated

Expectations

We will greatly reduce or eliminate confusion and surprises for corporate and for this office. We will determine how to ensure quick response between corporate and this office to facilitate successful hiring.

Roles

Leader – Yoda
Time Keeper – Ed
Recorder – Kal
Scribe - Ed
Facilitator – Wendy

Meeting Minutes

  1. Reviewed HR Hiring process map and Swim Lanes RACI

Delmonte explained that any hiring had to correspond to the approved budget headcount. This is put together annually and takes into account both geographical and functional considerations. Duplicating functional headcount is not cost effective because, for instance, someone in IT can provide support for both this office and corporate no matter where they are located.

If there are headcount needs that are not included in the budget, these can be accommodated but they must be approved through a formal requisition process.

The budgeted headcount or requisitions for new head count are to be handled by the VP. The approval process does not involve the corporate HR staff

The office HR staff will keep Corporate HR apprised of progress with a simple weekly status report emailed to Corporate HR. The report will list current open positions and the status of each.

  1. Implementation of HR software

Corproate is implementing HR software throughput the company

There is training scheduled on November 20th on cascading objectives to direct reports. Delmonte and Yoda will follow up with scheduled attendees to make sure they are attending. There was training scheduled for the performance management module at the beginning of the year but attendance by office personnel is uncertain. Office participation in the performance management module training needs to be confirmed. If appropriate office managers did not attend, another training session needs to be scheduled. This is a vital requirement for establishing the performance management practices needed to grow the business successfully.

  1. Miscellaneous
  • The budgeting process for 2017 is getting started. The VP needs to work with Corporate HR to set head count budget for 2017.
 

Action Item

Responsibility

Due Date

Confirm attendance at 11/20 software training

Delmonte

September 12th

Determine office personnel who attended Q1 2016 HR software performance management training

Delmonte

September 14th

Put together weekly HR update format for Corporate HR. Begin weekly distribution

Delmonte

September 16th

Provide samples of documents required for HR software recruiting module

Kal

September 16th

Send sample office HR hiring documents to Corporate

Wendy

September 14th

Determine date for review with VP on 2017 headcount budget

Yoda

September 17th

 

-ESP

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