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The Art of Organizing

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Back in 2008, one of Melanie Dickey’s family members was in a jet skiing accident. And for several months, Dickey took it upon herself to update friends and family on her family member’s status.

But here’s the problem: Updating that many people over the phone takes time—hours of time, more time than somebody working full-time as an office manager for two auto care shops has to offer.

“I decided that talking on the phone with all of my family and friends would be very time consuming so I figured I could better handle it by sending out an email each night,” Dickey says. “It included everything that happened that day and what was supposed to happen the next day. I kept this running email where I would just update the bottom part of it and send it out.”

What might seem like a simple solution to most is actually the perfect representation of Dickey’s Type A personality. In every possible situation, she’s looking for the most structured and efficient way to keep everything organized—from her life to her post as office manager for both Carfix and Auto Pro To Call in North Carolina.

“I guess it's just part of how my mind works to figure out a better and more efficient way to do things,” Dickey says. “So I create a spreadsheet, an email, a list, or whatever works. I try to figure out better ways to do things.”

Dickey explains how she organizes the shops’ finances, tracks stats for both shops, and how she separates her multitude of tasks into easily manageable daily, weekly and monthly (and even yearly) sub-lists.

When I first started, I went through a phase of Post-it Notes and lists everywhere, but soon everything became habit—especially now, nine years later. For me, it's about breaking my position into three different categories: daily, weekly, monthly. But even then, I stand by the rule my mother taught me of only touching something once whenever possible and I try to incorporate that into my personal and professional life.

Being organized gives peace of mind—you don’t have to worry about everything. Did I do that? Of course I did, because I remember doing it the way I've always done it. As soon as things become habit, you don’t have to think about them and you know you've done them.

‘DUMMY-PROOF’: As the office manager of two high-paced repair facilities, Melanie Dickey meticulously organizes her work space, the shops’ production schedules, and anything else she comes across. The idea is to make the offices of the two shops “dummy-proof,” so that staff members can find the items or information they are looking for.

When I take vacations, James (Allen), the owner, may call and ask, “Do you remember where ‘such and such’ is?” And I say, “OK, go stand at my desk, look in the gray cabinet, it’s in the second drawer, third folder on the right.” I always know where I put things. I even have a folder on my desk for when I'm not there that has passwords and locations of things.

I've always tried to make my desk dummy-proof. If you need something it's always in the same spot.

Customer communication isn’t a key part of my job. The service advisors in the lobby deal with accounts receivable and communication between the mechanics and the customers. Communication with vendors, the payroll company, our bank and insurance reps is a key part of my job. But I have more fun communicating with employees while completing new hire packets and changing beneficiaries due to marriages and births. I also help employees complete applications for medical, dental, vision, life insurance, short-term disability, long-term disability and Aflac. The not-so-fun part of the job is completing workers’ compensation applications and termination packets.

I don't work a full 40 hour work week anymore. It used to be that I came in really early years ago, but now I've become so organized and efficient that I can do my job in a much shorter timeframe. It helps that the office I share with James is at the very back of the building, in a little yellow painted concrete bunker. Not many people want to walk to the back of the building to bug us.

The first thing I do in the morning is log into our bank accounts to check balances and see what has cleared and what has not cleared. When rent or mortgage payments are due, I check to see if any money needs to be moved around.

Then I start collecting data. I collect sales info from both stores from the previous day. Some might say that our owner loves charts, graphs and spreadsheets, but part of that stems from me—it keeps me organized. There are charts that I put on the wall, daily, weekly, then monthly and the spreadsheets correlate with that. I counted yesterday and there were 139 columns of data—and I update most of those columns daily. We collect it through Microsoft Access by running queries from our database to provide sales numbers and benchmarks from the previous days’ business.

We track everything to see if we can fine-tune the way we do business or market something differently. We might need to advertise a specific item such as a cheap oil change in a particular mailer to bring customers to our shop. We've even used the data to see if we should do radio or TV advertising. We track which ads, coupons or discounts bring people in, which then helps us know how to better advertise.

I know what things have to be done daily but separating tasks into weekly lists is also important and helps me balance my days. Payroll has to be done weekly.

On Tuesdays, I add timecards, figure out sales numbers and calculate how many hours the technicians turned the week before and pay them off that. Figuring out the weekly schedule was trial and error. For example, if I tried to do all of the marketing—printing, folding, envelope stuffing and postage—for both companies in one day, it was too overwhelming. That's why I designated the smaller store to Tuesdays and Thursdays and the larger store to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. That way I don't come in and dread the day because I have 10 things to do on a list. I try to balance my tasks throughout the week.

If something doesn't happen according to plan, I can adjust because it’s my daily or weekly schedule, not the schedule James gave me. If I didn't do something yesterday, it's done today. After nine years, I can easily make an emergency item a priority without stressing about daily tasks. If James steps in and says, “I have this project I need you to do immediately,” there's enough flexibility in my schedule that it’s no problem.

This past December, I formatted a new Excel spreadsheet that saves me about eight hours’ worth of work each month. Previously I had been manually calculating data from our financial statements—profit & loss statement, balance sheet, and cash flow statement—to report to the Elite Pro Service group. Now I electronically move data from our financial software into the new spreadsheet. On the 15th when our numbers are due, it's just a matter of copy and paste versus before when it was about three to four hours per store putting that together. I would spend hours doing tedious math and now a spreadsheet does it for me.

A large amount of my job is spent paying bills. I really try to use all sorts of resources so that on the 10th of the month when payments are due, I'm not writing checks on that day. I use online bill pay from our bank, which is free, so we're saving on stamps and we don’t have to buy checks.

FROM ONE TO THE OTHER: Melanie Dickey’s role is critical to the success of both facilities, but she says the staff’s overall ability to operate as a team is what leads to optimal efficiency.

We've negotiated terms with a few of our vendors so we can pay them in 60 or 90 days instead of 30 days. Even more of our vendors welcome credit card payments. We earn credit card points that we use to buy airline tickets for employees to go to training and allow us to not pay the bill until the credit card statement is due. Some vendors who accept credit card payments will let us call early to approve the payment but will not charge our credit card until the 10th, per our request. This permits me to spread bill paying over many days rather than all on the 10th. That way I'm not completely slammed with doing that job in one day.

After all the bills are paid and the bank statements are reconciled for both companies, I create our financial statements. Once James looks them over and approves them, I submit those numbers to the Elite Pro Service group on the 15th of the month.

I set yearly reminders in my email and phone calendars. They remind me when it is time to renew the business license, fire department permits, business owner’s insurance, workers’ compensation and other once a year things. I also set reminders for employee's birthdays and anniversaries. It’s all mostly the non-accounting tasks that are done yearly.

I am a big proponent of calendar reminders for daily, weekly, monthly or yearly tasks. When I first started this job, even though I was very organized, I kid you not, it looked like I had a yellow desk because there were so many Post-it Notes. Now it’s all in my head or in my calendar reminders ... I just have to stick to them.

I’ve been thinking about this for the last week: How do you teach someone to be organized? I guess it's just commitment. You have to not only know what you need to do, but you need to commit to doing it even if that means reading those little notes and checklists. It helps you in the long run to commit to doing that. When you're that organized and that efficient, then you have time to take an hour-long lunch or take a vacation. It's not only recognizing you have the list, but reading it and doing it.

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