6 ways to help you reduce rework and unproductive labor

Karl Palachuk

Following on from my last blog post “How to maximize billability of technicians”, I’m going to look at how to reduce the biggest drains on your billable hours – rework and unproductive labor. 

While you might be tempted to lump them both together under “Unproductive Labor”, “Rework” really needs to be separate. Unproductive labor may not be related to competence. Rework means you/your tech did something wrong and then they (or someone else) had to go do the work again. This is very often related to training, competence and experience. You absolutely have to minimize this.

Here are six things you can do to minimize these categories and increase billable hours. 

1. Always work from highest priority to lowest priority jobs

This starts with assigning a priority to every single ticket or task. Everything in your company needs to be prioritized. Low priority tasks might be easy or even fun. But you have to be disciplined to work based on priority level. 

A lot of the low priority items fall into the category of Urgent but Not Important. Clearing up high priority tasks often clears up some smaller tasks that were related to the issue. It also guarantees that techs are working on the most important things. It is rare that high priority tasks are not covered under a Managed Service Agreement or truly billable. 

2. Schedule work, but schedule it loosely

The most productive work is planned. Time and time again I have to coach people that it's okay to tell a client that you schedule work two or three days out. Projects might be two or three weeks out. If you can plan to tackle specific jobs on specific days, you can organize the work and prepare for it. 

Reactive work is always less effective. You jump off one task and onto another. That action automatically reduces the effectiveness of your work on the task you are abandoning. And because your work on the new problem is completely unplanned, you are less productive on that as well.

I say to schedule loosely because it gives you flexibility. Tell clients you'll be there on a specific day. If you need to, say morning or evening. As a general rule, that's much better than agreeing on a specific time. Specific time slots mean that you might have to stop doing one job to go do the scheduled job. 

3. Develop and encourage specialization

For any given hardware or software, you will have a specific level of knowledge. Ideally, your team will include a variety of people with a variety of skills. If there are any products you consider critical to your success, you should have someone who specializes in the product. If this person is not on your team, then you should make sure you have access to them when you need them. 

It is pretty obvious that someone with specialized knowledge will fix things faster. This reduces time spent floundering around trying to figure things out. Of course, once you solve a problem, you should take time to put notes in the ticket so you can replicate your success.

4. Call for help

You should have a policy in your company that no one is allowed to work on a problem for very long without making progress. You might decide the limit is 15 minutes, 30 minutes, or even an hour. But at some point, they MUST call for help. They might call their manager, another technician, a friend at another company (if appropriate), the vendor's tech support line or anyone else who can help. 

In addition to a "fresh pair of eyes," calling for help immediately limits the amount of unproductive time that can accumulate in your company. You might even have lower limits for newer techs. 

5. Make minimizing rework a high priority

There are many causes to rework. Making it a company-wide priority to minimize rework will have a dramatic effect. First, it makes everyone aware of the need. So team members can enforce the goal of minimizing rework and help each other out. Second, it will make it easier for technicians to ask for help. 

Third, making this a priority will lead to other actions that are good for your company overall. 

Without knowing anything about the specific rework, you can guarantee that it is related to either poor planning or lack of training/experience. So you need to make sure you have adequate training programs. These can be internal. In fact, sometimes internal training is the best because you can go at the student's pace, and you know the training is on YOUR way of doing something. 

Planning is obviously good for any project. It is particularly good for avoiding rework. If you slow down and plan your work, you are much more likely to proceed from start to finish without retracing your steps. 

6. Documentation is your friend

You knew I had to throw this in the mix. Documentation includes procedures and planning. It includes putting all of your notes and hours in the PSA. It includes using checklists – and only checking each box after the task is complete. 

When you know exactly what you have done and not done, troubleshooting becomes a lot easier. Ideally, you should be able to read through the notes on a ticket and come up to speed very quickly on the problem and what has been tried so far. 

If the client has a similar problem in the future, you'll have the answer at your fingertips. If other clients have a similar problem, you'll still have the answer at your fingertips.

As I mentioned at the start, reworking and unproductive labor are the two biggest single threats to your billable time. Following these six simple steps will help you reduce their impact on your billable time and ultimately make your business more profitable.

(Used with permission of Karl W. Palachuk, SmallBizThoughts.com)