Saturday, November 6, 2010

Everything I Needed To Know About Time Management I Learned In My Operations Course

I enjoy being able to extend the lessons from my coursework to the mundane details of my everyday life. Perhaps this is just the inner nerd in me thinking creatively while getting bored doing something else, but I think there is a personal benefit to such thinking. If I can break my course material out of the theoretical business context within which it resides in the classroom, I'm able to master the material better. Just how my mind works.

Professor Raul Chao
Recently in Term 2 I finished a required first-year course in Operations, a study of the underlying processes by which firms create and deliver value. Like nearly all classes at Darden, we were taught by a great member of the faculty, Raul Chao. Raul excelled because he insisted that his students get their heads out of their spreadsheets and understand the processes at a high level.

A day or two into the class, I realized that I could model my life as a process. Rather cold, perhaps, but let me explain. A process is defined as the method by which inputs are transformed into outputs. At a manufacturer, a process might take raw materials and convert these into widgets. By making this process more efficient, the manufacturer could produce more widgets in less time.

Let's extend this to my life by analyzing my daily "bed-to-school process". My alarm rings, I take a shower, brush my teeth, shave, get dressed, eat breakfast, and walk to Darden. I've been able to make this process more efficient in several ways. For instance, I pack my bag before going to bed at night so I'm not stumbling around looking for all my notes in the haze of the morning. I also eat a quick breakfast of yogurt, fruit and cereal. One of my roommates eats eggs every morning, but I don't know how he finds the time to cook them. I'm not one to hit the snooze button...need to get every minute of sleep I can! I don't check emails before leaving as I can read them on my smartphone while walking to class.

So I'm fairly efficient at getting from home to school, especially after I've consumed my first morning cup of coffee. But what about the rest of my life? You realize quickly at business school that the experience is what you make of it -- you can't possibly make enough time to do everything. You can study your butt off, you can socialize your butt off, or you can try to balance. The key is to not waste time on the little things so you have enough time to dedicate to the priorities which are most important to you.

In Operations, you persistently attempt to identify the "bottleneck" in your process, the element which limits the capacity. In my life, the bottleneck is pretty I can only read and understand cases at a certain rate. If I spend more time studying then I have less time to go to the pub and make new friends. Both studying and socializing get in the way of finding a summer job.

Operations managers also spend a substantial amount of time on inventory management. If I become less efficient at processing the tasks in my life, stuff piles up. "Inventory" in my case might mean emails to send, companies to research for summer jobs, cases and tech notes to read, or friends and family to call. If I take on too many projects at school, my utilization increases and more things wait to get accomplished. As the unpredictability of arrival of tasks increases, the inventory level increases. Basic queuing theory!

Yesterday's schedule
You spend a couple days in Operations learning some Japanese. "Muda" is waste, non-value-adding activity in the process. "Kaizen" is the idea of continual improvement in the process. A "kanban" is a scheduling system which manages information and material flow in the process. In my case, the muda could be the time spent walking home between school and learning team. If I bring the next day's cases with me to Darden, I save 20 minutes to study and catch up. My Outlook task list serves as my kanban, making sure that I prioritize key to-dos. My learning team embraced kaizen when we decided to split the labor of preparing cases...there just isn't enough time in a day to individually prepare all the cases AND do all the networking, socializing, and exercising you need.

Proper time management is essential in business school. Make sure you've mastered your own system before you apply.

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