We have just completed the initial test phase of our NHS Productive Leadership Team programme. The participating local NHS leaders have shown it is possible to reclaim a day's worth of time a week by improving their e-mail and meetings management and adopting new personal work processes, writes Helen Bevan

The greatest learning point from this test phase is the critical role of secretaries and personal assistants. There is an opportunity to mobilise the army of NHS personal assistants, executive assistants and team secretaries to drive out waste and variation and save hundreds of hours of leadership time.

In the first test phase of the programme we created some development opportunities for PAs but focused our training and change efforts largely on senior leaders. We have completely redesigned the approach for the next phase. PAs are now participating in all the core training and development, alongside the leaders they work with, and playing a central role in all the leadership productivity projects. Within the programme, PAs have moved from backstage to centre stage.

As part of our research, we talked to many NHS executives and their PAs. The PAs had worked with their leader for an average of seven years. Yet typically, the PA and leader have never formally clarified their roles. As one director described it: 'I have been working with my PA for a long time now. We haven't ever taken the time to step back and look at the way we work together - it's just grown over time.'

The research shows that, typically, PAs and their managers have inconsistent views about what they are responsible for. Leaders are often overloaded with meetings and e-mails. This leads to lack of communication between leader and PA and lack of time for effective diary management. It creates a vicious circle. Many PAs feel they are tasked only with administrative duties when they could be offering so much more support. In fact, we met few NHS PAs who feel their working arrangements with their leader enable them to use their full potential.

As part of the Productive Leadership Team programme, PAs and their managers jointly complete an objective review of their working relationship and establish a process for reviewing the relationship together regularly. As a result, the leader/PA teams are able to create greater clarity of accountabilities and responsibilities.

The programme offers opportunities for PAs to expand their roles and undertake personal development with goals and actions to follow up. As one leader put it: 'This programme has provided a systematic way of working that has totally changed the way I work with my PA'. As well as saving leaders' time, it can also save PA time, up to six hours a week to invest in other duties.

None of this is rocket science. It involves the same best practice principles that we would apply to clinical services - we just apply them to work processes that are even closer to home. So when was the last time you sat down with your secretary or assistant and clearly defined who was responsible for what?

Helen Bevan will be talking about the NHS Productive Leadership Team programme at the HSJ Leadership Forum on 19 November.