What’s actually happening here?

Reality_CheckYears ago I wrote an article about how project management required tracking not just planning. It was a time when many organizations used the terms project management and project planning synonymously. In fact many of what we referred to at the time as project management software systems were, in fact Critical Path Methodology calculators which were all about the planned schedule and very little about the actual progress.
It’s almost 15 years later but it looks like that message is finally starting to hit home. We see this in the remarkable proliferation of timesheet systems in the project management space.

As many of you know, I have been involved in the enterprise timesheet market for some time but our firm is not alone. Oracle and SAP have both linked their timesheet functionality into their project management modules and, although it’s still months away from seeing the next version of Microsoft’s Project Server, we already know that new timesheet functionality will be one of the marquee features.

A Google search finds over 150,000 hits on the term “timesheet software”.

So, what is it about timesheet software that makes it such a hot commodity these days and, how do I link the old over-reliance on planning as a project management methodology and the current interest in corporate timesheets?

The answer comes down to the very simplest of questions.

The most common request for project systems I get from senior executives is this: “Can you just tell me how we’re doing?”

You’d think the questions would be much more sophisticated and, when we scratch below the surface, those more sophisticated requests are there but the basic questions are the most thought-provoking. You would expect that senior management would be able to tell in an instant how projects are going, at least in general terms.

Executives are faced with a deluge; a virtual tsunami of data. It comes in many formats and in many flavors. Along with the data comes requests for rapid decisions on a myriad of topics. The biggest challenge for senior management is synthesizing this massive amount of data into timely business decisions.

So, where do timesheets come in?

With the economy becoming tighter and more global, efficiency levels and return on investment are never-ending thoughts for senior management. North American firms are competing not just with the company down the street, they may be competing with a firm from India, China or Africa where efficiency can be overcome by incredibly low labour costs. It turns out that one of the most sought after answers from the executive suite here is where time is being spent by their own labour force.

Everyone knows that projects are underway and I can’t think of a single organization where employees are sitting in their cubicles; idle, waiting for work to be given to them. No, everyone is as busy as a one-armed paper hanger. But yet, if you ask most project managers to identify how much time is being spent on tasks vs. the orginal plan, they will be hard-pressed to answer.
Human Resources Timesheets alone do not provide sufficient data. The most common timesheet type on the market is time and attendance. These timesheets will tell you how much time the employee has spent at work (critical information for, say, the payroll department) but won’t tell you what the employee did with their time.

Project-oriented timesheets are the answer. These timesheets ask employees to record on a regular basis how much time was spent on a task-by-task basis. If this system can be tied directly to an enterprise project management system, you have the capabilities of creating a close-loop system. This is a very, very powerful tool when deployed correctly. Since few employees are delighted to complete a weekly timesheet, the system must also be able to fulfill those duties required of it by HR and by Finance so that no one must fill in more than one timesheet per period.
Work is planned in the enterprise project management system. Actual work performed and the progress attained by doing that work is captured in the enterprise timesheet system and the result returned to the respective tasks. Now you can generate budget vs. actual tracking reports and, see the actual work done in a number of areas.

While all project managers recognize this phenomena, there are added benefits to a corporate-wide enterprise timesheet system that may not be so obvious. When data is entered on a task-by-task basis we do, of course, track those tasks which exist in the project management system but we also track tasks which are not associated to particular projects or which might not have been budgeted to a project.

Analysis of these types of tasks virtually always yields fascinating results.

In a client deployment in the US, our enterprise timesheet system was used to track work in just this way. The client was a marine engine manufacturer. The client used Microsoft Project as their planning system and tracked formal budgets there which had been broken down by task.
This particular client has numerous offices across the US and around the world but most of the project work is occurring in one particular city in the US. They are a prominent employer in this area with numerous buildings around this city.

After running their timesheet system for 6 months, they believed they had enough timesheet data for some real analysis and the results shocked them. Management was stunned to discover that project personnel were spending approximately 15% of their time in inter-office travel! Just moving from one building to another, which sometimes involved a short cross-town drive was eating away at their efficiency. No one in management had ever realized the profound effect of the seemingly short distances. Management instituted changes immediately. Project teams were to be made up as much as possible out of co-located team members. The effects were virtually immediate.

Now your organization may not have an inter-office travel effect but virtually everywhere we go we find an effect that you may be familiar with.
It’s meetings. Yes, meetings. Meetings can take up a phenomenal amount of time and when these meetings are accounted for management is almost always amazed. Remember, a lot of these meetings will have been organized by different levels of management. When confronted by empirical data, management is often willing to completely reorganize how often they schedule meetings.

Norman Augustine, the CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation wrote in his book Augustine’s Laws, “The more time you spend talking about something, the less time you have to do what you’re talking about. Eventually you spend more and more time talking about less and less until, in the end, you spend all of your time talking about nothing.”
Yes, enterprise timesheets are all the rage and in an economy that demands faster response, cheaper solutions and more and more efficiency it is critical to know exactly where people are actually spending their time.