In the 1980s when I was a programmer and consultant at Hoskyns in London I was invariably the last to fill in my weekly timesheet. I hated timesheets. They were an unreasonable intrusion. How I spent my time, I felt, was no one’s business but my own, as long as I was doing a good job.
Now, thirty years later, I’m the designer of a timesheet system and I go around the world telling everyone how important timesheets are. Who would have thought it?
So many of our youthful enthusiasms and prejudices seem unreasonable as we age. Platform heels, cheese-cloth shirts, transcendental meditation, Chianti flasks with candles, the music of John Cage, Tony Blair, all seem inexplicable enthusiasms now. How odd It seems that I thought it was no business of my employer to know how I spent my working time.
But getting consultants to fill in their timesheets is just the first battle of many if you’re managing a professional services firm. Getting your consultants to tell the truth is the second and larger battle. These are some of the voiced and unvoiced reasons why consultants don’t record time accurately:
- ‘I always put eight hours. It’s the easiest thing to do.’
- ‘I didn’t feel I could charge the client. I don’t think the work I did was really worth what he’d have to pay.’
- ‘I don’t want my boss to see that it took me so long.”
- ‘I never charge more than a whole day, even if I work extra hours.’
- ‘It’s a fixed price project and there aren’t any hours left.’
- ‘I don’t like to charge for time I spend on research. The client expects me to know what I’m talking about.
- ‘It was only a few minutes work. Not worth recording, surely.’
- ‘It’s an internal project. No one minds how many hours I record against it.’
- ‘I made a little mistake on the project. It really didn’t take me long to put it right.’
- ‘I wanted to make it really perfect, so I spent some of my own time on it.’
- ‘I know we need more work of this kind, and we won’t get it if we’re completely honest about how long it takes.’
- ‘I won’t get my bonus if I don’t hit 35 chargeable hours a week.’
- ‘This client doesn’t care how much we charge. The other one does. So I put all my time on the first one.’
- ‘The work was useful for two of my clients, so why not record it twice. We can charge them both.’
- ‘I can’t record time correctly because the law doesn’t allow me to work overtime.’
You can penalise staff who don’t submit their timesheets by reducing their bonuses or applying some other harsh measure. Making sure they tell the truth is a matter of explanation and encouragement.
But without knowing how long tasks take you’ll never know if you are charging too much or too little for the work you do, and you’ll never know if you’re staff are working too hard or just idling their time away.
So, try to convince your staff that timesheets must be done on time and must be truthful. And if there’s a young man in platform heels and a cheese-cloth shirt listening to some weird modern music, and scowling, tell him to grow up!
My first real job had a very simple timesheet system. I had to start at 08h00 and finish at 17h00. everyone signed in on the same sheet and at 8h03 precisely the boss drew a line and you had better be sure you signed in above that line every day. We signed out at 17h00. sure enough the boss drew a line at 17h00 precisely and you had to be sure never to sign off until he had drawn that line. So at 16h50 every one stood around with coats in waiting for the boss. what you did between 08h03 and 17h00 (or even 16h45) was anyone’s guess because it was just that – a guess.
My next employer was a trusting soul. For every job you did you had to write down a new sheet saying who the customer was, when you started when you finished how many hours in between you were actually working versus lunch or breaks and then get he customer to sign it. most of these were not chargeable hours but some were so they had to be accurate to 15 minutes. I progressed within this company and eventually found that all these reports were scanned into a database and written out to mag tapes . These were sent to our European HQ in Geneva, catalogued and sent to our corporate HQ in the USA. Once there they were shipped to a datacentre and piled in a corner where they sat and grew and multiplied and no-one ever read the content .. ever!. The only purpose these timesheets served was the 5% that were chargeable work that were separated off for billing back in the original office they were created.
As I said, I moved onward and upward and worked in our national support centre supporting customers and engineers remotely. I was asked to start filling in a time sheet through the day that recorded which division I was supporting, whether it was presales customer technical, or product support etc, a total of about 20 possible codes for every fifteen minute slot in the working day. The whole thing was tedious and appeared to me to bit of little statistical value and I had better things to do with my time (sound familiar Adam?). So the first week I worked out roughly how much time I spent on each division and what task I was doing and for the next few weeks copied that data into the next tie sheet in 4 hour chunks. Much more efficient, yes?
About six weeks later I had an “interview” with the boss who explained that I was either the most consistent and efficient worker in the team or I was somehow cheating “the system”. It was clear which he thought I was so I was asked to be more accurate. Again i did some digging and found that of all the data that was being collected the only content being used was how much effort was being spent on each supported division. Presales, software services or field service. Sounds like a good idea yes, track how much effort you spend and bill accordingly. Well not quite, The three divisions had agreed to split the costs 25% 25% 50%. so the time sheets were not even used for billing. In effect we spent only 10% on presales, 40% on s/w support and 50% on field service. All of them were happy. Presales were paying for 25% ad only getting 10% effort but presales was fun – so whenever they wanted help they got it, s/w were happy because they were paying 25% but getting 40% and field service got what they paid for. So all the effort to catch all that detail from 20 possible codes every 15 minutes of every day was just waste!
Scroll forward a few years and I was then working as Project Manager and everyone on my team had to fill in time sheets that recorded which project what task/skill and what phase of the project. Strangely enough that system was written by Hoskyns in the 1980s – Adam can I have a word !!!!
The big difference was that the data was properly recorded, analysed and used for billing, efficiency monitoring (usabaility, charegability etc,) and the best estimating system I had seen to that date. Feed in the characteristics of a project and it would churn out how many people with what skills you needed for how long at each stage of a project. It was not perfect but it gave a real close estimation for quoting and with a but of tweaking from the project plan and some actuals data along the way and it was really close to actuals at completion.
I saw a similar system to this some years later that a brilliant PM I knew had written himself in Excel and it constantly adjusted itself as more data became available. It had been adopted by a large practice within a very large software house in the UK. These two systems must have saved the relative companies millions. What a change form those early time recording systems. and guess what … as the people responsible for time sheet completion saw the true value of the systems they actually did that very rare thing ….. they filled in their timesheets on time and accurately.
So what;s the moral? simple if people see the value of the output they are more ready to “do the right thing” , fill TS in accurately and submit on time without needing to hide the truth. So sell the benefits of the TS system in its own right, to ALL the stakeholders and avoid the need for the carrot and the stick.
Now what codes do I need to use and who is paying for this?
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Hi Chris, thanks for the comment and anecdotes. I agree that if no one has a good use for data there’s no point in collecting it, and if no one has an interest in its quality, it won’t be worth collecting. By the way, was the Hoskyns software Project Manager’s Workbench?
Thoughts on Measuring and Managing Professional Services Organisations – Adam Bager