I went to visit my brother- and sister-in-law this weekend. They have three boys between the ages of 15 and 7 and I have seldom seen kids so well-behaved – the most notable thing being how willing they are to wait their turn to speak.

All too often, I see little kids who will start talking as soon as something pops into their heads and, if no one responds instantly, will just yell louder and louder until someone finally notices.

My nephews, on the other hand, will look around to see if anyone is already talking before they start. Occasionally, they will blurt something out without thinking (they are little kids, after all) but when they notice people are already talking, they’ll stop and apologize!

Wouldn’t be nice if Ideas were as well behaved as my nephews are?

I used to work with a lady who was tossed and turned by ideas. It was difficult to get any work done because she would constantly be distracted by new ideas that popped into her head. She was completely at the mercy of her own creativity.

Yesterday I wrote about how to use the 5S tools in Six Sigma Lean’s Visual Workplace to organize your electronic environment. Today it occurred to me to wonder if you can apply the same practice to the inside of your own head.

Here’s how I envision it working:

Step 1: SORT

Inventory your head. Write down as many ideas that you can think of, all of the projects you’ve been wanting to do but haven’t completely thought through, all of the suggestions people have given you, as many things as you can think of.

Step 2: SET IN ORDER

Organize them into broad categories:

  1. Business Development,
  2. Market Development,
  3. Product Development,
  4. Policy and Procedure Development, and so on.

Not too many categories, you just want to identify the different facets of your business.

Step 3: STRAIGHTEN

Pick a platform that you’ll use to document your ideas: OneNote, Word, Excel, you can even use a notebook if writing by hand is what gets your creative juices flowing. Create a document / folder / notebook section for each category and write your list of ideas down in each category.

Step 4: STANDARDIZE

Here’s the part that I’m interested in seeing if it works or not:

Set aside some time each day to sit and work on fleshing out your ideas.

If your “Idea Time” is between 8am and 9am each day, then for the rest of the day (from 9:01am to 7:59am) if an idea pops into your head, just stop and make a brief note of it (enough to remember the gist of the idea), save it in the appropriate category, and then go back to what you were working on.

Tomorrow at 8am, go to your list and pick an idea and give it your full attention.

Step 5: SUSTAIN

Monitor the situation and don’t be afraid to make changes. Maybe your Idea Time works better in the evening instead of the morning, or maybe you get better results by working on it every other day instead of every day. Maybe you need to change up the Categories to more accurately reflect the different facets of your business. Or maybe you decided a Word document doesn’t work after all and you want to change to a notebook. Maybe you keep a little notebook in your pocket all day to write notes and then transfer them to a Word document later.

The objective here is to let your creativity know that if you don’t respond instantly, it’s not because you’re ignoring it. It just needs to wait for its turn.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts about this idea! Do you think you can train your creativity to be polite and wait for its turn? If you give it a try, come back and tell me how successful you were!

Some people recognize they do need to get better and they admit they aren’t the most organized person in the world, but they don’t feel they’re ready to throw in the towel and hire an assistant yet. They want to try and fix the problem in-house first, before looking externally for the solution.

There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, if they do manage to get themselves organized and get the new processes engrained into habit, onboarding a Virtual Assistant into the mix at a later date will run much more smoothly.

If you don’t feel you’ve hit the wall yet on your own resources and you want to defer hiring an assistant for a while, getting your electronic environment organized is the single most valuable thing you can you do to increase efficiency and effectiveness in your workplace, and at the same time reduce waste in your processes.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat and watched people endlessly searching through lists of emails and electronic documents looking for the information they need. In my estimation, the reason why email is the number 1 time waster is that people don’t know where to put all of the emails they get so they can find the information again later. What used to be moving stacks of paper around the desk is now sorting through piles of emails and electronic documents.

The Visual Workplace approach from Lean Six Sigma is one tool that can help you start to get organized..

Visual Workplace essentially means that there’s a place for everything and everything is in its place.

  • A place for everything means you won’t have loose documents or emails sitting around because you can’t think of a better place to put them.
  • Everything in its place means you won’t accidentally have 12 duplicate copies in 12 different places, or you can’t put your hands on the most current revision of a document.

Creating this utopia is going to be a grassroots project. There are five steps to the process and Lean Six Sigma refers to them as 5S:

Step 1: SORT

Put everything out on the table (figuratively speaking) so you can see what you have. Organize them into groups of like types (Word documents, pdf documents, PowerPoint slides, etc) and get rid of any duplicates.

Step 2: SET IN ORDER

Take what you retained and organize them again into functional groups (sales tools, marketing tools, training tools, etc).

Step 3: STRAIGHTEN

Create a file system that these documents and emails will eventually be moved into. You’ll want to customize this step to suit the needs of your particular situation. If one person handles training material and another person handles marketing material, you may want to give each person their own file to use.

If you’re a one-person show, you may want to create a file for each project.

As an example, in my corporate days, I supported a high end storage vendor, Hitachi Data Systems. The number of reseller partners was reasonable, so my file system was based on individual reseller accounts. Everything for that reseller (quotes, deal registrations, POs, etc) went into their own file.

When I moved to the Quantum account, there were 10,000 resellers who transacted Quantum products in any given quarter. So my file system changed to function based. All quotes went into a file, all deal registrations went into another file, POs had their own file, and so on.

Don’t make the file system so complex that you’ll never use it, but don’t make it so shallow that you’re forced to sort through multiple functional areas in a single folder.

Step 4: STANDARDIZE

I’m a big believer in standardization and naming convention is a huge opportunity for standardization. Outlook allows you to rename the subject line of an email into something more meaningful to you. Electronic documents can be named in such a way that different types of document group together when you sort the list by name.

Pick a naming convention that’s meaningful to you and stick with it.

Here’s an example of an Average Joe File System.

Here’s an example of a Function Based File System.

Here’s an example of a Project Based File System.

Step 5: SUSTAIN

Sustain will be the hardest step, especially for anyone who is admittedly disorganized. But if you build the process wisely and stay with it, it will eventually become an ingrained habit. I’ve heard experts say that it takes 21 days for a new process to turn into a habit.

Merlin Mann shares his thoughts on email management in this video titled Inbox Zero.

And me? I practice a modified philosophy of Visual Workplace. In my world everything has a place, but everything isn’t necessarily in its place every second of the day. I do get a little disorganized when I’m in the middle of a project.

But as soon as the project is over, everything gets put back into its place. It’s my symbolic way of closing one project and getting ready to open a new one.

I hope this helps you get onto the road to a more efficient and effective workspace!

Since I hung out my Virtual Assistant shingle two months ago, I’ve started to attend local professional networking groups to get to know the local business people and to let them get to know me. I can see them trying to wrap their heads around what a “Virtual Assistant” is and how they might get some use out of one. The best way I’ve come up with to explain Virtual Assistants is by referencing Six Sigma.

The philosophy of Six Sigma focuses on improving the effectiveness and efficiency of organizations and the philosophy of Six Sigma Lean focuses on reducing waste. And how do you reduce waste in your work space? By getting rid of anything that adds no value to the business. Value Add activities are anything that:

  1.  Your customers consider important and are willing to give you money for doing
  2. Make actual changes to the product or service
  3. Are done right the first time.

Anything outside of this criteria falls into the Not Value Add category. NVA activities are those that consume your time but don’t create revenue for your business.

So tell me, Mr CEO of a Sales Training company that charges $500 an hour to help companies bring their sales reps up to speed – are your clients going to pay you $500 for sorting your email for an hour? Is it an effective use of your time to organize your schedule, order your airplane tickets and book your hotel? How about for spending a couple of hours formatting that eBook you’re getting ready to publish?

Or how about you, Mr Highly Paid Keynote Speaker who can charge $1,000 for a single keynote speaking engagement. Wouldn’t it be a better use of your time to create new speeches and practice your delivery and let an assistant curate the material you already have, research copyright issues, and create handouts for your audiences?

All you Life Coaches and Therapists out there – your time is better spent focusing on your specialty, thinking up new workshops and programs, getting to know the community from which your clientele comes. That’s where your revenue is going to come from. The marketing, the social media, the content creation can be handed off to an assistant for whom this would be an effective and efficient use of their time.

Those tasks that fall into the Non Value Add category for you are definitely Value Add activities for a Virtual Assistant! Your client may not be willing to pay you to sort your mail, but would you be willing to pay me to do it for you?

If you’re wondering whether it’s a sound business decision for you to hire a Virtual Assistant, consider how much of your time is spent working on your business, and how much of your time is spent working in your business.

Time spent working in your business is work that can be handed to an assistant.

If you have less than 40 hours a week worth of work (or no space for an assistant) then a Virtual Assistant could be a great solution for you!

I heard once of a businesswoman who felt insulted when she learned that the certified virtual assistant she contacted had a consultation process and asked whether it’s professional for a certified virtual assistant (VA) to interview a potential client. The businesswoman felt that the VA was out of line interviewing her, when she’d be the client paying the bills.

It’s actually a great question so let’s explore it.

Are you looking to tango or line dance?

A great book called Dance Lessons by Chip R. Bell and Heather Shea uses five types of dance as metaphors for business relationships.

They compare working relationships that require a great deal of trust, confidentiality, loyalty and the ability to “move as one very quickly, with minimal explanation or discussion” to the tango.

At the other end of the spectrum, line dance working partnerships are not symbiotic but work when the convenience of a temporary, transaction-specific encounter is preferable to an ongoing relationship.

________________________

“Alliances have become an integral part of contemporary strategic thinking.”

Fortune Magazine

________________________

Now, is the person who wants to “tango” better than the person who’s looking for a “line dance” partner?

Of course not. Naturally, however, the relationship is going to be more successful if both partners are working to the same end.

And that’s where it can get a bit complicated for the business owner seeking a VA, because with no industry-wide standards for virtual assistance – not even a single, accepted definition of what a VA is – there are many “flavors” of virtual assistants out there.

You have VAs who define virtual assistants as professionals who provide virtual, across-the-board administrative support to a few clients in long term, collaborative relationships.

And you have VAs whose businesses are built around providing project support. They may have repeat customers, but the relationship is more of a transactional one.

As the potential client, you need to know what you’re looking for.

__________________

Partnership is not about the paperwork, it is the human dimension.

Pat Heim

Author of Hardball for Women

__________________

 

When is an interview process appropriate? And how does an interview or consultation process benefit you?

I hold the belief that fit is the single most important factor in determining whether the relationship between client and virtual assistant will be a happy one.

For the client who’s looking for occasional, transactional support, line dancing as it were, there’s probably no special need to spend a lot of time talking with the VA ahead of time. You just need to know if the VA has the necessary skills and is reliable and the VA needs to know whether you’re going to be pleasant or difficult to work with and whether you’ll pay promptly.

But for the client who’d like someone to tango with, it’s a very different story. In this close, collaborative type of working relationship, you need to explore whether the two parties really mesh. Are their work styles, their personalities, their missions, and their values complementary? Are the required skills there? Do you see a basis for trust in the other party?

The only way to find out is by talking at some length ahead of time, which includes the potential client having the opportunity to ask any questions he or she may have.

When a VA and client begin to work together closely without a good foundation, nobody is served well.

So, is it professional for a certified virtual assistant to interview potential clients? I think so. But as mentioned before, the extent of the interview or consultation process really depends on the structure of the VA’s practice – what level of support she offers.

The businesswoman I mentioned earlier was looking for a transactional working relationship, but she went to a certified virtual assistant who specialized in providing tango-style support to just a handful of clients. My advice is to do some research into virtual assistance ahead of time. Know what it is you want and need. Once you do, the smart thing is to reach out to businesses that cater to that.

I may sound a little biased, but most VAs I know are super-talented! They are usually well-grounded, organized and fully committed to not only their business, but that of their clients. But because VAs work virtually, clients may often mistakenly see us as ‘mythical creatures’ who magically get their work done!

But I’m here to tell you that VAs don’t have crystal balls and most VAs aren’t mind readers…

For an outsourcing relationship to work it’s important both parties are on the same page and are a good fit. The relationship may not always start off this way but if both parties are really wanting it to work, there are simple things to ensure there is a better chance that it does.

Here are my 7 tips to encourage a good partnership when outsourcing to a Virtual Assistant:

  1. Have documented procedures – Even though you know how your business runs, you can’t expect your VA to. It’s a great idea to have procedure manuals in place. If you don’t have time to do this yourself, perhaps consider this a task you set your VA. This can be developed over time.
  2. Establish clear systems and processes – Every business has certain systems they use, or processes they follow. Although you can find a VA with previous knowledge of your business systems (i.e. CRMs, etc.), be prepared to spend a little bit of time showing your VA how your system works, and the processes you follow.
  3. Establish clear boundaries –This goes both ways! If you prefer phone calls than emails, say so. If you prefer to only be contacted at certain times, say so. If you don’t want to be disturbed on weekends or after hours, say so.
  4. Give clear instructions including deadlines – If you need something done in a certain way, and in a certain time-frame, make sure you specify this. Think of it this way, a surgeon wouldn’t be simply told – ‘Sometime over the coming week, cut open this patient and see what’s going on inside’. Be specific!
  5. Read and reply to emails (thoroughly) and in a timely manner – Generally, your VA will email you for clarification or to let you know a task has been completed. Make sure you read what your VA is saying before you act. E.G. Don’t call to run through a task if your VA has already received and read your email, completed the task and let you know by return email! (Yes, this does happen)…
  6. Keep communication channels open and use what’s available – Don’t go incognito on your VA! Most VAs will not continually ‘bug you’ but they will need to contact you for certain tasks. There are so many communication methods: Phone, email, Skype, Viber, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
  7. Respect that the VA is an independent worker – It’s important to remember that your VA is not your employee; they are an independent business owner who, more than likely, has many clients. I have no doubt that your VA will do everything within their power to accommodate you and your requests, however bear in mind that they are also human, often operating as a solo business, and will have many demands on their time. Sometimes a little flexibility will be needed.

Taking a little bit of time at the start to establish a good working practice, will lead to years of a healthy VA/Business relationship. Once you’ve developed a working style with your VA, you’ll find yourself handing over more and more work. It’s a win-win for all!

I have officially just passed my one month anniversary of being in business!

Over the last few weeks I’ve learned a lot about working with clients, identifying their needs, helping to develop a communication plan and social media management. In particular, when I read this article on Huffington Post, the first item on the list struck a chord.

10 Social Media Mistakes That Could Be Hurting Your Brand

#1 – The main reason you’re on social media is to share your voice with the world. So, how can you accomplish that if you’re outsourcing your social media account activity?

I come from corporate America, and the healthcare industry before that. One of my clients comes from an industry with which I am totally unfamiliar – the therapy and mental health industry. So when it comes to revamping the website and finding things to Tweet and Blog about, I’m completely dependent upon my client to help me create the content.

There is a particular ‘feel’ that you get when a person is speaking with their authentic voice. Their fundamental beliefs, their philosophies, what they stand for, they all shine out very clearly when a person expresses their views on a matter.  A business professional who wants to become a subject matter expert in their field needs to be expressing their thoughts as often as possible, in as many places as possible, to maximize visibility. That same business professional might want to leverage a Blog and social media to accomplish their goal, but who has time to be on-line for every second of the day to manage it?

That would-be subject matter expert may choose to hire a social media manager to handle it all for them. But consider this: How will you get all of the knowledge and experience that’s stored up in your head, into the hands of your social media manager so they can do something with it? Subject matter experts need to be very concerned about what another person is writing on their behalf. Deviations between the expert’s beliefs and the media manager’s content will become apparent to prospective clients and could do damage to the business relationship, however unintentional.

In my case, the situation is more complicated. My client doesn’t care to write, and is also very busy so face to face discussion is not always a viable option either. There is a minimum of pre-existing content available to work with, so practically everything that gets posted or Blogged about is going to have to be written as net-new content.

We needed to get creative about how to accomplish the business goals before us.

The first thing we did was to curate information that we found out on the internet. By posting Tweeting about interesting articles and posts and pictures and videos, I had the opportunity to get to know what my client viewed as important, and what was to be avoided.

The second thing we did was to send my client a couple of questions each day via email. The answers could be emailed back. Or they could be recorded and the audio file saved in a shared DropBox folder for me to retrieve and transcribe. Most smart phones have access to a voice recorder app, so you don’t even need to buy any hardware to do this.

The third thing I did was to take the transcription of a radio interview and turn it into a FAQ to post on the website.

All of these things are things that anyone can do.

Subscribe to HARO and you’ll get 3 emails a day with 40 or 50 queries on each email, from reporters asking about all different kinds of topics. Respond back to any of the queries that applies and you might even get an interview out of the exercise. If you don’t get a reaction from the reporter, then you can recycle your client’s response into a BLOG post.

Subscribe to Radio Guest List and you’ll get an email each day with lists of radio talk show hosts looking for guest speakers on all sorts of topics.

What I bring to the table, though, is the ability to speak with my client’s voice, using their own words.

I was heavily involved in the public speaking community for eight years as a communication trainer and coach. All too often I’ve seen people give feedback to speakers about how they would do it, if they were giving the speech. But I prefer to help the speaker find their own voice, perfect their own style, find their own comfort on the stage. I trained myself to avoid altering the speaker’s message through the filter of my own assumptions, beliefs, fears, and philosophies.

I bring the same approach to the people who express themselves with the written word. In my opinion, that’s the only way to be a good steward of my client’s reputation and expertise.

My advice to people who are seeking a good social media manager is to have a sit down talk with the candidate, and really listen to how they reflect your thoughts back to you. What words do they use to paraphrase what you’re saying? Do they learn and adjust when you offer corrections? Or do they cling to the same mistakes, regardless of how many times you correct them?

After all, you too are the steward of your own reputation and expertise. You would not want to put them into the care of someone who isn’t as mindful as you would be.

For those of you who are interested in building your own on-line course, check out this easy-use open online courseware! Build your own course with ease and for free

http://moocbuilder.soic.indiana.edu/how-to.html