A colleague once turned up late for a meeting and after the usual cursory apology noticed I was not happy: ‘What are you so concerned about?’ he asked with a supercilious grin. ‘It took 14 billion years for both of us to get here, what’s a few minutes between friends?’ Against the scale of time from big bang to the present, those few minutes are indeed trivial, but what’s really sitting underneath the attitude that makes it a cultural norm to let time slip?
Whatever business you’re in, reliability is a virtue and often a prime source of competitive advantage. In the world of projects, delivery on or before the due date has the potential to save costs, realise benefits and release your resources to work on the next project sooner. If you are an airline, rail service or bus operator, on-time performance is probably the single most important measure your customers will mark you on. If you provide groceries to a supermarket or iron ore to a steel mill, the more reliable your performance, the less money you have tied up in ‘just-in-case’ inventory.
[Listen to audio version, read by David Hodes]
And yet, I think you’d have to agree that when it comes to the simple idea of the personal habit of being punctual, there is significant room for improvement. Stop for a moment and bring to mind your calendar this last week. How often were you late? Were you fully prepared when the meeting started? Was the person or people you were meeting with late? If you or they were late, how was that communicated to the other attendees? What effect did that have on the meeting?
The ancient Greeks had two words for time: Chronos and Kairos. The former is what’s measured by a clock and represents time’s arrow—the basis of the calendar upon which we make our appointments. Kairos is more elusive and embodies our memory of the past and, importantly, our intention for the future. You could think of its axis extending at right angles to our standard timeline, representing how we feel at this moment. The question then arises: when you make an appointment for some future date in clock time, what is your present intention? Aren’t you making a promise to the person or people you are meeting to be in a particular place at a defined time to exchange information and perhaps materials?
Keeping our promises
We put great store in the expression that someone is a man or woman of their word and admire those of whom it can be said that their word is their bond—regardless of the personal consequence for maintaining that bond. So, if you’re late for an appointment, have you not broken a promise, not lived up to your word and in that moment dwell out of integrity with yourself and your relationship with those to whom you have made the promise? What are you signaling to your colleagues, suppliers or customers when you turn up late? Are you so important? Is their time really worth less than yours? I’ve often seen exactly that intent, with someone deliberately demonstrating their power over others by abusing their time. Or maybe it could be read as nothing more than carelessness. Which begs the question: why should they care for you, your time and your agenda if you care so little for theirs?
When you make an appointment for some
future date in clock time, what is your intention?
Taking a casual approach to timeliness will have a direct consequence to your team’s ability to coordinate their activities, and by extension will have a negative consequence on their—and therefore your—ability to deliver to promise. If five people are required for a meeting and each of them have a 90% record of turning up on time, the likelihood of starting on time is .95 or around 60%. So whilst a 90% record for turning up on time may seem good enough for the individual, the collective effect is materially worse. The meeting either cannot start or has to start again when the laggards arrive so they can get up to speed with the proceedings.
What of the opposite, then? What if you take special care to ensure you are punctual, regardless of your rank and overall importance to your organisation? Being consistently on time signals that you care, that you see the connections between everyone you seek to serve. By effectively managing your time so you can be on time, you’ll build trust and reduce anxiety. Anxiety? Well, yes, because everyone around you will know that particular routine and non-routine meetings will provide the fora to productively address issues, raise challenges and collectively generate solutions. A promise made is a promise kept and everyone can rest assured. All the while, the culture will increasingly manifest behaviours which honour that most precious of currencies—time.
What are some practical tips to improving your personal punctuality and becoming more productive as a consequence?
It all adds up
I was once running late for an appointment with the CEO of an airline. The cause of my delay? His airline. With the flight postponed two hours, I rather enjoyed being able to sheet the blame via text to the CEO himself—the ultimate cause being his inability to deliver the airline’s on-time performance. Looking at the 230-plus passengers stranded in the terminal for two hours I did some quick arithmetic—the airline had just stolen 460 hours of their customers’ lives. When I eventually made it to head office I had a conversation about the measure they use for on-time performance—OTP, in the industry jargon. These numbers are measured independently by a government agency and usually show up as a percentage of on-time takeoffs and landings, where ‘on time’ means within fifteen minutes of the scheduled times.
This particular airline was struggling to reach 80% OTP. I asked one of their analysts to compute how many hours the airline had kept passengers waiting over the last 12 months, as this seemed a more honest measure of the consequence of not operating to schedule than an OTP percentage. A total of 3 million minutes per week were being stolen from passengers’ lives as a consequence of late departures and arrivals. This equated to 6,250 normal working days per week—a quite staggering number and a far better indicator of why it was so important to make OTP the single critical performance metric. This was the equivalent of giving every one of their staff a little over a day off per week, every week. Unsurprisingly, the culture of punctuality within the airline was near non-existent. How, I asked, could you expect improved OTP for scheduled departures if the problem was treated as being external to their own way of being? No operational fixes could work until each took it upon themselves to make OTP a personal habit.
Ask yourself, then, how much time you may be squandering due to a casual approach to punctuality? How are your personal practices with regard to keeping your promise to be on time reinforcing or detracting from your team and your company’s ability to do likewise?
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The change of mindset from standard thinking to Theory of Constraints (TOC) is both profound and exhilarating. To make it both fun and memorable, we use a business simulation. Just as astronauts need a few zero-gravity rides in a special aircraft before they experience the real thing in space, the game simulates the effects of TOC. We call it The Right Stuff workshop and we’d love to run it with you.
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