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Posted September 14, 2011

Minimize Last Minute Requests

By Quint Studer

It's 4:30 and you're putting the finishing touches on your monthly patient experience/satisfaction report. You're feeling good about making the 5:00 p.m. deadline. Then, the phone rings. It's your coworker Barbara asking you to take "a quick look" at the hospital newsletter that needs to go to print today.

Unfortunately, you've been down this road before with Barbara and you know what's coming. Sure enough, as you scan the newsletter, you see that several key points are missing. There is not enough time to fix this and meet the printing deadline. Also, even if you could get the needed changes made in time, you'll end up either missing your own deadline or delivering a (far) less-than-perfect finished product.

It's a dilemma. You don't want to drop the ball on your report—but you also don't want to be responsible for letting a substandard newsletter go out.

Fortunately, you can deal productively with people who've gotten into the habit of making last-minute requests and even "re-train" them. Obviously, this will help you do your best work.

You'll also be able to help last-minute requesters change their work styles, so that they can be more efficient and productive and form better relationships at work.

Read on for a few tips on how to handle excessive last-minute requests:

Hold up the mirror. Have you helped last-minute requesters in the past without any complaint? Remember, what you permit, you promote! Essentially, you've trained coworkers to think last-minute requests aren't a problem for you. If this is the case, then you'll have to start the groundwork for changing these behaviors with yourself and with your coworkers.

Put a request system in place. Put a process in place that gives people a protocol for making requests and lets them know how long certain tasks take.

At one organization where I worked, HR was being criticized for taking too long to approve new hires. The managers doing the hiring would get upset because the approval process took a couple of days and they needed the new hire in place immediately. They thought HR wasn't being responsive to their needs, but HR thought these managers weren't allotting them the time they needed.

To solve the problem, we made a rule that as soon as a manager wanted to make a hire, she was to send the person to HR and they would get back to her within 72 hours. By putting a process in place, we were able to put everyone on the same schedule so that no one was being rushed and no one felt like the ball was getting dropped.

Educate people on how long a task takes. Often, when certain tasks don't ever fall under a person's job requirements, they may underestimate how long a certain task takes to complete.

Consider how this dynamic plays out inside hospitals. A patient might be waiting in the ER to hear about lab work. He might think the lab is dragging its feet on getting the results, when in reality, it can take two hours or more for certain tests to be done. We would explain this time issue to a patient by saying, "Sir, your cultures will need to sit for a certain amount of time in order for us to get a valid result. I want you to know the process will take two hours." This would ease his anxiety and allow him to have realistic expectations.

In your job, when you receive a last-minute request, it's okay to say, "I am going to get this done as quickly as possible, but I want you to know that X, Y, and Z will have to happen and that takes time." Now the coworker knows what to expect and that in the future he should allow more time for certain requests.

Use collaborative problem-solving. When you've explained exactly what you have on your plate and exactly how long a task will take and your coworker has told you exactly when she needs the task completed, it's time to implement some collaborative problem-solving. There might have to be some give and take between you and your coworker. For example, you might have to say, "In order to do it right, I can have it to you by the end of the day tomorrow. But in order to meet that deadline, I'll need your help doing this, this, and this."

Set consequences. At one organization where I worked, every new employee had to go through an orientation program. Orientation sessions were regularly held every other Monday, and everyone knew this. Every now and then, a department manager would have a new employee starting at the organization who hadn't yet completed orientation. We couldn't allow the new hire to start, so the manager would be upset. But we'd explain that because he waited until the last minute to make arrangements for the orientation, he missed out on allowing the new hire to start on the right date. We held tight on this every time it happened. Eventually, the behavior stopped. When you hold steady on these consequences, people will begin to change their behaviors.

Reward and recognize. Take a look at the employees who are always considerate of your schedule and do the proper planning to meet deadlines. Do you ever thank them for doing so? Or if this has been a problem with a coworker but she's made changes in her behavior to do better, have you recognized and rewarded this change? If not, then it's important that you start, because behaviors that are recognized and rewarded get repeated.

Handling excessive last-minute requests essentially comes down to planning. Sure, on occasion, a situation will pop up where a last-minute task has to be completed, but by and large, last-minute problems can be avoided when the right amount of planning is done on the front end. Keep communication open with coworkers and work with the leaders at your organization to make sure that everyone is on the same page and knows the protocol for completing important projects.

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