12th March 2014

Written by Morris McNamee

The DIYers of this world will be familiar with the old adage “cut once, measure twice” – it not only makes sense, but it saves both time and expense.  Personally, I call it “working smart”.

There seems to be a recurring theme within the NHS that goes something like, “there’s never enough time to do it right, but there’s always enough time to do it over”.

These two adages bring me back to a day while contracting with the NHS where I was asked to help another colleague to move a server rack cabinet (think of a large metal book shelf) to a GP office.

We embarked to put this heavy metal structure in the back of our Transit van, drive a few miles, unload it, go up a flight of stairs with some difficulty, and when we get to the newly refurbished comms room, the cabinet is just a bit too large to fit through the doorway!

After long collective thinking about how to make a “rectangular peg” go into a smaller “rectangular hole”, it was decided to abort the mission and return the rack back to base, achieving half a day totally wasted by two persons.

This sort of situation isn’t uncommon and in fact had experienced a similar thing at another NHS site where the newly purchased (metal) mobile computer carts, used for the rollout I was contracted for, having a laptop inside the cart itself, and to be used wirelessly, in fact turned out that they weren’t fit for the purpose because the WiFi signal interfered with the metal structure.  What made it worse was that this was discovered after the official deployment date.

While these situations may imply incompetency by the people making these decisions, I believe it’s more complex than that. 

You see, when those in charge are under pressure to achieve targets on time while staying within a budget, it’s inevitable that a lot of assumptions are made based on guesstimates in terms of judging sizes, with regards to the cabinet in the example above, and the relying on manufacturer’s specifications, with regards to the mobile carts. 

All fair assumptions, right?  They are… until things go wrong.  In some cases it doesn’t matter right then and there, but it does compound the overall problem of time, budgets, service level and targets.

With the NHS continually cutting costs and increasing demands on its managers to provide an almost impossible service, while respecting a certain budget, it becomes easy to see why the stress of it all makes for what apparently look like silly mistakes – but the truth is that it’s not like that, even if the end result is the same.

As a contractor I see a real opportunity and challenge to provide value by giving a more efficient level of service and thereby alleviating some of this pressure to those making the decisions.  By this I mean that whatever task we’re given, we have some freedom of decision in how to manage ourselves and that task.  Yes, it would be ideal to teach everyone to do the same and achieve a higher level of efficiency, therefore making life easier for everyone, but… human nature being what it is, it’s just not going to happen, mostly because it’s very difficult to break habits – especially bad ones. 

However, all is not lost or hopeless. Each of us has control over how we choose to do things and can still make a difference by simply asking ourselves “how can I do this better and enjoy my contract even more”.  Well, OK, maybe it’s wishful thinking to ask to enjoy a contract in some cases, but as they say, “if you don’t ask… you don’t get”, right?  So why not give it a try I say.

I’m sure most contractors find certain tasks too repetitive and time-consuming and anything but enjoyable, when all it takes is using a simple mantra that starts with “how can I….”

Efficiency is not a dirty word, but it seems to be forgotten, if it exists at all or perhaps taken for granted.  I see most people believing that there are two ways of doing something: one way or its opposite.  The good news is that there are more ways to do something, just that we never explore them, usually because of that word called “habit”.

Yes it takes time to think, and sometimes out of the box even, but it could simply become a (good) habit practicing every day doing task(s), differently.  It’s all about working smarter, not harder, right?  So why doesn’t everyone do it?  Unfortunately they think they are, or else, why do these mistakes keep on recurring?

Here’s another example of what I mean.

I was recently involved in the deployment of laptops (yet another rollout).  When I first joined the team, it was midway through the phase as I replaced another contractor that had left.  I did what I was asked to do and in the way I was shown.  

As days went by, I noticed that the way we (me and my contracting colleague) were handling the project was unnecessarily time-consuming, created overtime and we reached our daily target by skipping lunch – in fact, we were so busy that we never even noticed lunch came and went!

I started to think of how I/we can achieve our targets more efficiently, without having to hurry and also have time for lunch (a big motivator for me!!). 

Streamlining is all part of working smarter and therefore efficiently and this lead me to rethink how I was spending my time. I started by giving a lot of feedback to my supervisor as to what I found and how it could be improved, using specific examples. 

He was new to that particular project and was scheduling the appointments not knowing the problems incurred. Asking him to get some relevant information before scheduling an appointment - like software needed and actual post code of the office we were going to, for example, are some obvious pieces of information that were lacking, but didn’t know to implement only because he wasn’t aware of our experience in doing our job.

Without having to go into much detail, I came up with a few simple but important tweaks that not only helped us achieve our targets, but did so without having to interrupt how everyone worked in their particular and accustomed way…. otherwise known as “habit”.  The end result was a definite win/win situation.

Contractors have a lot of challenges in achieving targets but the opportunities to improve how these targets are achieved are also there and it is up to each one of us to implement them and thereby making the job less stressful, enjoyable and ultimately, feeling proud of the level of service provided.

There is one misconception among contractors that if you do your work too efficiently, you’ll be out of a job more quickly as there won’t be a need for extensions.  I find that not to be the case – at least, not all the time.  I will admit, however, that most of the time I don’t get called back, no matter how well I do my job – but in the end, I need to know that I did my best and that no matter what, I will continue to work in a smart and efficient way – even if that means not getting an extension or be offered another project.

This story doesn’t end here though.

My rollout contract ended, but before it ended I was asked to work on another project (which looks to be a lengthier one) and on the basis of being recognized for the way I showed to be organized, meticulous and persevering in reaching our targets… and a few (written) compliments from the users I helped, didn’t hurt either.  Oh, and I didn’t make any assumption or surmised the reason why I was asked for the project; I was actually told what you read above, as the reasons. 

So it goes to prove that if you do your best and work in an efficient manner, while you may not change how the NHS works overall or may not be asked to work on another project, you can always make a difference that will have its own rewards – if nothing else, that of knowing that you’ve done a good job.

This is what works for me anyway.

Perhaps the adage for us contractors should be “think twice, do the job right… the first time”.

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