Thought for the day:Timesheets are a waste of time

Monitoring time spent on projects doesn't help productivity, says Colin Beveridge. So let's tear up our timesheets and just get...

Monitoring time spent on projects doesn't help productivity, says Colin Beveridge. So let's tear up our timesheets and just get on with the job.

Stop! Before you go any further, please think about how you will account for the time you spend reading articles like this. What will you put down on your timesheet at the end of the week - will it be an honest answer, or will you just enter a convenient project cost code?

I know that the odd 10 minutes now and again are neither here nor there in the grand scheme of things. But when you add them all up at the end of the working week, it's surprising how quickly we might have nibbled away at our so-called productive time.

Statistically speaking, an aggregated "misspent" hour each week may be considered a significant percentage of the time supposed to be available for work - amounting to half a day per month, or a whole six days per year. And all because you might be "wasting" ten minutes per day.

How would it look on the annual IT budget, if we aggregated the six days per person across the department and put it down to "harmless Web site browsing"? It doesn't bear thinking about, does it? Frightening really, especially if we applied the same time-recording criteria to "comfort breaks" and trips to the coffee machine.

But, of course, all of this stuff is off the timesheet; we don't record the time spent so nobody worries about it - and quite right too. Although I'd like to bet that somewhere out there, in a highly cost-conscious company, there is a workers' restroom fitted with a swipe-card entry box that directly feeds the employee appraisal system.

It seems that we are completely obsessed with gathering timesheet data, without any assurance that the time recorded equates to productivity gained.

Each week, we religiously fill in our personal account of the time we claim to have spent on each job, making appropriate allocations against cost codes. Our completed timesheet data then gets fed into the project reporting process and compared with the estimated/ allotted time for the task.

And yet, as a professional group, we are notoriously bad at estimating IT projects. Far too often we struggle to forecast jobs to the nearest month, let alone the nearest week.

Why then are so many of our projects still focused on hourly time recording and forecasting? Where is the value in creating plans based on hours spent - particularly when hours are so easily dissipated?

Most hourly schedules are fundamentally flawed or simply works of fiction because the truth is that hourly time is rarely recorded accurately and holds very little value for statistical analysis or forecasting.

Prioritised deadlines for tasks are a far more effective way of managing our workload. Work should be scheduled on the basis of "this task is urgent and has to be done by a given date", rather than "this job should take you so many hours to complete".

After all, in the real world, many of us end up scheduling projects by forecasting work backwards from an immovable implementation date.

Even where we may have started out faithfully, by making realistic assessments of individual task durations, if the project end date is politically or commercially unacceptable, we merely tend to trim the task estimates rather than trying to reduce the number of tasks involved.

As the project progresses, we subsequently find that our original estimated times prove to be far more accurate than our revised (reduced) figures.

That's why we should all forget about hourly timesheets and concentrate instead on getting the job done.

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Colin Beveridge is an interim executive who has held top-level roles in IT strategy, development services and support. His travels along the blue-chip highway have taken him to a clutch of leading corporations, including Shell, BP, ICI, DHL and Powergen.

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