Why timesheets are unnecessary and damaging
Timesheets should not be used in businesses. This doesn’t mean the overall recording of time spent working, that is, the beginning and end of the working day, overtime and so on. Rather, it means the chronicling of working time in detail, with the aim of being able to allocate the hours worked to a particular task, project or client/funder.
The organisations VISTEM help want to speed up their projects, increase their reliability and capacity, all with the same resources, that is, without creating extra costs. In order to achieve these aims, specific, clearly-defined changes in the organisation were introduced. When we do this, we notice again and again that detailed timesheets have a braking effect on change.
Most organisations use timesheets, especially when projects play an important role, e.g. in product development. With the use of timesheets, managers hope to;
- Find out if a project was worth the resources invested
- Improve future plans/projects in order to improve the quality of planning
- Establish how effectively resources are being used, and improve this if possible
- Use the resources to optimal effect so that employees are always engaged in tasks.
- Ultimately, all this concerns the overall cost-effectiveness of an organisation.
A typical vicious circle in multi-project organisations
In most multi-project contexts, the workload is high. Too many projects are undertaken at the same time. When projects are competing for resources, someone has to decide which project team members should be working on at any particular time. In order to reduce this decision-making burden, resource managers distribute the resources among active projects. At the same time, they are permitting damaging multi-tasking. The consequences: increased workload and delays, which endangers the cost-effectiveness of the organisation. It seems paradoxical at first, but timesheets bear part of the responsibility for keeping this typical vicious circle in place in multi-project organisations.
Figure 1: The vicious circle
In project management today, the use of timesheets drives people to determine the time needed for various tasks right down to the smallest detail. Of course, we want to reliably complete our projects on time. How do we do this? We divide up large projects into their constituent steps. Then we estimate how long each of those steps will take. Then we set a deadline for each and every step’s completion. When we carry out the project, we make sure that each of these individual deadlines is met in order that the project can be completed on time. Being able to rely on processes should mean that we can be sure the project can be reliably completed.
However, we live in an uncertain world where Murphy’s law – whatever can go wrong, will go wrong – rules. This means that we can only guess the time and effort needed for a single step of the project. In general, our guesses are wrong. Let’s assume I’m the one who has to give permission for the use of resources within the framework of a fixed budget. If I also take into account the fact that employees should be reliable and have control of the timesheets, we produce two effects:
Project length and margins of error
If I have to estimate the time needed for a task, I will always do this in such a way that it is highly likely to be enough. On the other hand, there is also the effect that the time allotted will always be used up. If a team member is well known for saying he will need more time for a task than he really does, his estimate will be automatically corrected downwards for the next project. However, he will not be able to meet this target reliably. So, for employees, it is important for their survival in the organisation that they use all of the time allocated and do not complete their projects ahead of time.
From the organisation’s point of view, there is an additional motivation for using timesheets: the work expands to fit the fixed budget. Since the actual cost will always be as much as the predicted cost, it is highly desirable, because the time taken will be charged directly to the client. Employees are motivated to use up the available funds.
- Projects have significant built-in margins of error
- More resources are budgeted for than are actually needed
- Budgets are always used up, at the very least
The calculated amount of work for a project’s different tasks, and therefore the project as a whole, is in total higher than necessary.
This means that conclusions drawn from timesheets are not suitable for improving future plans. Also, it is not possible to tell from timesheets if resources have been deployed in a sufficiently productive manner. The effect of resource use expanding to fit the budget available is so strong that a comparison of prediction with reality is not helpful or informative.
„Tactical“ timesheet recording
I hear time and time again from employees that the use of timesheets does not benefit them personally. They don’t gain anything from it personally in terms of knowing where distractions are present. They do it pretty much “just for the administrators”. A complicating factor is that it has negative consequences for team members when they don’t keep to budgets. It is often confirmed to me by employees and managers that timesheet keeping doesn’t record the actual situation but is simply used “tactically” so that plans, budgets and assignments can be satisfied as well as possible. That means that the times recorded differ strongly from the actual time spent, and conform to the planned, rather than the actual, use of time.
Organisations cannot achieve their aims with the use of detailed timesheets. Quite the opposite: the process can be demotivating for workers, and even lead to a damaging vicious circle of damaging multi-tasking.
Isn’t there an easier way? In part 2, I will introduce a method that serves the original purpose of detailed timesheets far more effectively.
Or see our detailed webinar here: