'The leaders we studied typically spent 70 per cent of their working lives in meetings. Yet only 36 per cent of attendees made a significant contribution to the meetings'

Over the past five years, I've written in HSJ on nearly 30 topics. The greatest reader response has been to the topic of techniques for improving personal productivity.

Improving the productivity of leaders is a hot topic in many industries, including the NHS. The NHS Institute's Productive Leader programme has been working with the senior leaders of seven organisations, including primary care trusts, foundation trusts and a mental health trust. The programme's aim has been to find out how applying principles such as lean thinking and Six Sigma can reduce waste and variation in leaders' work processes.

We examined how NHS chief executives and those who report directly to them do their work and how this adds value to their organisations. We identified how wasted time could be reinvested in more value-adding action such as strategic planning, preparation and reflective activities. The results have been consistent across sectors. A typical NHS senior executive team could liberate and reinvest several thousand hours of 'non-value adding' time a year.

Meetings, meetings, meetings

The biggest problem was meetings. The leaders we studied typically spent 70 per cent of their working lives in meetings. Yet only 36 per cent of attendees made a significant contribution to the meetings we observed. Only 27 per cent of meetings began on time and only 18 per cent finished on time. There was typically a lack of focus on actions, roles, responsibilities and deadlines and a lack of an effective protocol to ensure meetings added value.

By contrast, our leaders spent only four hours a week on their 'own work' away from their core tasks of meetings, communications and people management. This meant there was little time for strategic thinking, direction setting or personal workload planning.

We calculate that by adopting evidence-based best meetings practice, a chief executive or director could release around 12 hours of non-value adding meeting time a week.

E-mail policy

Another opportunity for improvement was e-mail management. Few of the leaders were trained in this and no standardised e-mail policy was actually in practice. There was a lack of clarity between leaders and their personal assistants on how e-mails should be managed. Every direct report stated that their chief executive produced more. e-mails than necessary.

Another six hours of senior leader time per week could be liberated by consistently adopting best practice, defining roles and responsibilities more clearly and working more effectively with PAs.

The NHS Institute is working closely with a PCT and foundation trust to create and test high-impact solutions for NHS leaders. We aim to launch the Productive NHS Leader as a comprehensive programme early next year.

This will not be a time-management programme for individual leaders. I've been on eight time-management courses during my career. Coming back with great intentions to an unreconstructed work environment, I have found it impossible to sustain the new practices. The Productive NHS Leader is a systematic, evidence-based strategy that entire leadership teams (and ultimately whole organisations) can adopt to make the best use of leadership and management resources.

Helen Bevan is director of service transformation at the NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement.