This article is from March 2007 and may contain outdated material.
You can’t expect every project to be smooth sailing, but this six-step approach should help you to steer a course that avoids the worst squalls.
Launching the Project
Step 1: Identify the project. This isn’t necessarily as easy as it sounds. Suppose, for instance, you are an office manager and you have been instructed to set up a satellite office in a neighboring town. When presented with such a broad and general assignment, you need to break it down into its major parts before you can have a clear idea of what the project involves. In this case, you would need to address such issues as the office size (e.g., number of lanes), services to be offered, staffing (new or existing staff) and office hours.
Step 2: Determine the desired outcome(s). When you are put in charge of a project, it’s important that you and your supervising physicians sit down together and come to an understanding of the project’s goals. Without that meeting of minds, you might be driving the project toward one “finish line” while the physician is waiting for you to cross another. It is therefore crucial that the person you report to agrees to specific criteria for the project’s completion.
Step 3: Delineate each of the project’s component tasks. You need to delineate in thorough detail what’s involved in the project. In setting up a satellite office, the major tasks might include negotiating the lease, hiring an architect, putting the plans out to bid, getting a contractor, ordering furniture, ordering communication equipment, ordering medical equipment, hiring staff, training staff, marketing the new office and so on.
Step 4: Identify the players. After breaking the project down into its component tasks, you need to identify who has, or will have, responsibility for each of those tasks. Furthermore, these responsibilities should be clearly outlined so that the project’s participants understand which person is responsible for which task.
Identify who the players are within the practice. These may include doctors, the IT manager, the clinic manager, billers and other members of staff. And remember that when somebody is given responsibility for a task, they must also be given the authority to get that task done.
Identify any “project killers.” Is there anyone in the organization who can kill the project or disrupt its timetable? It is very important that you identify and neutralize any such individuals as early as possible.
Identify the external players. How do you maintain control of people who are outside your practice? After all, an idle architect or inattentive attorney could doom your project. One approach is to make sure that contracts are performance-based. These might offer rewards when tasks are done on a timely or early basis and penalties for non- or late-performance.
And suppose, for instance, there is one individual at a firm of attorneys whom you particularly want to work with—perhaps Perry Mason, Esq., provided great service when you set up your last satellite office—then specify that you want him again this time around.
You may have less leverage with other external players, such as the Medicare intermediary, but you still need to identify key individuals and cultivate relationships with them. So when you need provider numbers for your new office, you’ll know which clerk can ensure your application is on the top of the file rather than at the bottom.
Step 5: Determine a time line (or staged time lines) for each project component. The project’s major components can be broken down into stages, and each of those stages might have its own segmented time frame. A Gantt chart is a useful tool for keeping track of these time frames. It shows how long each task should take, but it also shows which tasks can be done at the same time and which must be done sequentially. For instance, you can hire an architect while you’re still negotiating the lease, but the architect can’t start work on the drawings until he or she is hired. And if a particular task takes longer than planned, this chart shows whether that delay will effect the time frame of other tasks.
Keeping the Project on Track
Step 6: Review, revise and reallocate. Run through these three “Rs” on an ongoing basis. Review the status of each project component relative to that component’s completion date. If a particular project component is ahead of or behind schedule, take a look at your Gantt chart and revise the start and completion dates of other components accordingly. In reviewing the project, you may find that you need to reallocate resources, whether that’s cash or people.
Keep everybody informed. With any major project, there will inevitably be changes—for instance, the start date for one project component might be pushed back or the responsibility for completing another might be reassigned. This makes it critical that all the project’s players are kept up to date. Do this by scheduling periodic meetings. These should include everybody who is involved with the project components that will be under discussion. If, for instance, a project component relates to billing, your billers may have great ideas about what may be helpful or necessary for the success of that task.
Provide direction. As the project leader, you need to provide direction to all the project’s players. Make sure they know what steps have been completed and what needs to be done next. And have them confirm to you that they understand what you’re telling them, otherwise you might not find out about a misunderstanding until deadlines have been missed and resources wasted. It is also important that everything is documented (though this documentation needn’t be lengthy).
Time Management Tips
Feel like you can never find enough hours in the day? These five tips can help you to attain your objectives on time without losing your mind.
Write tomorrow’s list of tasks today. Why not write that list first thing tomorrow? Because you never know what crisis will be waiting for you when you arrive at the office. And if you don’t get around to writing the list, you will spend all day reacting to events rather than managing events. Your list should differentiate between those tasks that must be done tomorrow and tasks that you would merely like to get done tomorrow.
Be honest when prioritizing tasks. Often, the must-do tasks are less interesting and more time intensive while the less crucial tasks take less time and are more pleasant to do. Without a properly prioritized list of tasks, the temptation is to procrastinate and gravitate toward the latter types of task.
Estimate how much time each task will take, then delegate. If you estimate that it will take you 12 hours to complete all of the must-do tasks, then you should go through the list and determine which tasks can be handed over to others. As the project manager, your job is not to do all the work but to see that each task gets completed.
The secret to avoiding interruptions—learn to say, “No.” Suppose somebody asks, “Do you have a minute?” What do you do? Even if you manage with an open-door policy, you shouldn’t feel obliged to drop what you’re doing. If you’re halfway through a must-do task, say, “No, I need to get this done, but come back in 15 minutes.”
Take advantage of voice mail. When your receptionist takes calls from sales representatives, let her send them to your voice mail. You can listen to those calls once the day’s must-do items have been ticked off. When you work through your voice mails later in the day, you can decide which ones you need to deal with yourself and which can be directed to others.
Maintain Personal Balance
When you take on a major project it can be easy to let work consume your life and, possibly, endanger your health. That’s why a key goal of time management should be to make sure you still have time for family, exercise, intellectual interests, social pursuits and other important aspects of your life. After all, it has been said of the medical profession that you can’t heal other people if you are sick yourself.
Mr. Laurita is practice administrator for Retina Associates of Cleveland, a practice with seven retina specialists, nine practice locations and six affiliate offices throughout northeastern Ohio.