Transportation Planning: Tips for Putting Out Fires

Every transportation planning organization must balance tackling new priorities while maintaining routine work on schedule and on budget, all while effectively responding to daily "fires" to be successful...
caitlyn cook association of metropolitan planning organizations (AMPO) technical programs director

Kristen Z, Transportation Planner

[<5 Minute Read]

Every state and local transportation improvement program must balance tackling new priorities while maintaining routine work on schedule and on budget, all while effectively responding to daily “fires” to be successful.

Does the task-list below sound familiar?

  1. The latest TIP amendment needs to be posted for public comment
  2. A DOT regulator sent you an email that needs attention ASAP
  3. You want to checkout the new transportation infrastructure project in person
  4. Your team just hired a new employee and you are the trainer
  5. There is a proposal to evaluate a new TIP software package 🙂

And just as you’re in the middle of starting your task sequence, you see the Technical Committee Chairperson’s number flash across your Caller ID. It’s going to be a crazy day – some days are just like that.

In the above scenario, what do you cut? If you’re like me, it’s probably evaluating an TIP software package because it doesn’t “have to” be done like the other tasks 🙁

However, if that same decision is made day-after-day, week-after-week, year-after-year, it comes at a cost. A big one. In the moment it feels like the right thing to do, because these other tasks are more urgent. And it may be the right decision that day, but it won’t be if it happens every day.

It’s crucial to set aside time to evaluate new technologies, skill-sets, and research. The transportation projects we plan everyday continue to evolve and change to meet new demands, so why wouldn’t the key planning processes that support them do the same?

If you find yourself spending every day like the one described above, here are a few tips that might just help you and your transportation planning organization while figuratively “change tires while driving 80 MPH”!

1. Communicate Priorities

When choices have to be made, choose to spend time on tasks consistent with the priorities of the organization.

2. Strive for Efficiency

Find efficiencies in routine tasks and reward employees that design or promote more efficient processes (e.g., Eco’s eTIP / STIP tool).

3. Invest in Innovation

Investing in intuitive software that virtually any professional can pick-up not only reduces staff training and onboarding time but is a force-multiplier for team output.

4. Manage the Calendar

Follow tried-and-true time management strategies like prioritizing your daily to-do list and block out “Focus Time” on your calendar at least once a week.

5. Ask for Help

Ask for help, it always feels less overwhelming knowing you are part of a team.

6. Evaluate New Options

Ensure the annual work program has an activity to evaluate new software options.

7. Do the Research

When kicking off a new project, budget time to research best practices and read case studies, it could save time and minimize mistakes in the long-run.

We asked AMPO Technical Programs Director, Caitlin Cook, to help us weigh-in!

Q: What are your “go-to” strategies to handle daily fires, routine work, and time to look at new priorities?

Caitlin Cook, Technical Programs Director – Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (AMPO)

Simple project management techniques like Gantt charts, weekly stand-ups, and Kanban boards have been my go-to strategies for keeping all of my daily and long-term tasks organized.

For several years I’ve been using a web-based product called Trello, which is a Kanban board that looks like post-it notes organized into lists. I have the post-its (called cards), organized by tasks that are:

  • On Deck
  • In Progress
  • Under Review
  • Done

This is where 99% of my daily and routine tasks are organized as their own cards with their respective due dates, notes, priorities, checklists, and any necessary attachments. I leave the board open in a browser all day, regularly checking back to mark progress on items or add new cards. I couple this with weekly stand-ups with my supervisor to confirm priorities for the week.

My coworkers are also working within Trello and have their own boards for daily and routine tasks. Because we are on the same Trello team we can easily leave each other comments, questions, and updates on shared tasks – I do this frequently when I have questions or need direction from my supervisor. By doing this on the task card, we cut down on emails while staying up-to-date on work.

For larger projects like organizing an annual conference or putting together a strategic plan, we create a project-specific board to organize tasks and divvy up responsibilities amongst the team.

When fires pop up, I’m able to more effectively address them because my daily work is already scheduled out. I can quickly make a judgement call on lower priority items that can be moved to another day, giving me time to focus on putting out the fire. I can also easily hand-off tasks to other staff that might have capacity that day so I can focus on the fire instead.

While Trello is my personal choice of tool, there are a myriad of project management tools on the market. At the end of the day, it’s important to remember project management is a mindset, not a tool. You can easily Word or Excel to organize your thoughts, create due dates / checklists, and communicate with your team. Regardless of the tool you choose, if you can plan out the daily and routine items, you’ll have a better chance of handling the small fires that pop up through the week.

As professional transportation planners, we evaluate transportation improvements and transportation projects, we interact with transportation engineers, local governments, State Departments of Transportation, and federal agencies. We plan highway projects, safety initiatives, and upgrades to the local street network. We write emails, take phone calls, and focus our attention on several different initiatives. It’s important in our day-to-day activities that we set aside time to assess new priorities and potential process improvers. In other words, we must change the tires while driving at 80 MPH. If we don’t, we’ll be left in the dust.

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