How to Win the Race Against Time

Gary Luster, Senior Editor
Posted on June 1, 1999

If you have a lot of extra time on your hands at the end of the business day, you’re probably not a school transportation supervisor. But, if you’re pushed to the brink of — and beyond — your comfort level with a workload that includes overseeing a fleet of yellow-and-black vehicles, you need to make the most of every spare moment. The litany of tasks for the typical transportation supervisor can include the following: daily meetings with the boss and your staff, attending driver grievance hearings, interviewing prospective employees, returning calls from parents and principals and, finally, putting out fires, large and small. Don’t despair, however, if you’re constantly harried and hurried and otherwise burning the candle at both ends, there are methods of gaining control over your rapidly growing workload. It just takes a little discipline and strategic planning to win the race against time.

First things first
To borrow a phrase from time-management guru Stephen R. Covey (author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People), it’s important to “put first things first” — which is the ability to prioritize routine tasks as well as extraordinary activities. Alexandra Robinson, transportation director at San Diego Unified School District, handles from 15 to 20 tasks per day. She also responds to approximately 40 phone calls each day. Keeping a handle on her time commitments is a daunting challenge considering that her fleet includes 530 school buses and 375 other vehicles. To keep firmly anchored in the present, Robinson implements Covey’s strategy by only tracking tasks from the day before, the current day and the day after. Eileen Roth, owner of Everything in its Place in Wheeling, Ill., says Robinson is on the right track by following a system for tracking appointments. In fact, Roth recommends that managers carry a small spiral notebook to jot down activities and tasks that have to be completed. The phones can tie up a large amount of a supervisor’s time, but Robinson has learned to shave minutes off her schedule by responding to many of the calls via e-mail. This system not only allows her to respond to queries quickly, but also provides a written record.

Don’t chase the paper
Roth says that one of the biggest time savers — especially for transportation managers, who deal with accident reports, written parent complaints and maintenance inspection reports — is efficient management of the paper trail. “Studies have shown that people waste as much as 4.3 hours a week just searching for papers,” Roth says. “That’s 5 1/2 weeks of vacation that you could have had.” Roth says one of the reasons for this disorganization is that many people don’t have an organized file system for important documents. Roth, who specializes in document organization, says that 80 percent of papers that sit in a file never get used again and 20 percent of the papers will get used 80 percent of the time. Because of this, Roth developed WASTE, a five-step program for managers who refuse to cleanse their offices of useless paperwork. Before discarding or filing documents, transportation managers should ask themselves the following questions:

  • Is it Worthwhile?
  • Will I use it Again?
  • Can I easily find it Somewhere else?
  • Will anything happen if I Toss it?
  • Do I need the Entire document? Often, a manager’s file cabinet gets stuffed with paperwork that will never see the light of day. Or a manager will slide a 200-page report into an already crowded bookshelf, even though he will only need the one-page executive summary. Learning to let go of the 199 purposeless pages is a step toward reducing clutter and getting control of your paperwork.

    Another meeting?
    Transportation managers often are burdened with several meetings each day, some lasting longer than others. Those meetings that cannot simply be eliminated should be productive and mercifully short. Jim Vaglia, transportation director of Fairfax County Public Schools in Lorton, Va., brings 33 years of U.S. Army training and discipline to bear in staff meetings. Vaglia tries to limit these meetings to no more than two hours. He also limits the amount of time he spends talking about any one subject. “Say we’re going to discuss maintenance issues,” he says. “I’ll try to limit that to maybe 15 minutes of my two hours.” Vaglia’s military discipline also reveals itself at the end of the work day, when he’ll sit down and make a list of objectives for the next day. He usually tries to get through the first 10 items by noon. But Vaglia also tries to be realistic about what he can accomplish, given the multitude of unexpected crises that can arise at an operation that transports 104,000 students over 5,000 routes with 1,285 school buses every day. “A lot of people who try to follow time management techniques get frustrated after they realize that they can’t accomplish everything they wanted to accomplish,” Vaglia says. “The key to this is to recognize that you may not be able to accomplish everything.”

    The 8-minute method
    Anyone who watches television knows how much can be accomplished during a three-minute commercial break. School bus managers can learn a thing or two from this TV-watching habit. For example, Joseph Madsen, transportation director at Spokane (Wash.) Public Schools, likes to break up his important duties into eight-minute blocks. With an eight-minute burst of energy, Madsen tries to make significant headway into selected projects. Explains Madsen, “Instead of saying, ‘I’ve only got a half hour and four hours’ worth of work,’ I find something I can do in eight minutes.” One tool that Madsen uses to help manage his time is a Palm Pilot, a hand-held computerized personal organizer. Information from his desktop computer can be easily transferred to his personal organizer, and vice versa. Madsen says the device saves him about 20 minutes per day because he’s able to calendar events and look up important phone numbers while in the field. Twenty minutes per day doesn’t sound like a huge savings, but it works out to 100 minutes per week or 5,200 minutes (or 86.67 hours) per year. That’s equivalent to a two-week vacation, which is something that certainly would help to recharge the batteries of anyone who’s running a school bus operation.

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