Timesheets are the funniest thing I’ve come across during my career as a developer. Many companies use timesheets to track the amount of time a certain individual has been working on a certain task. Keeping accurate timesheets can be a great tool for gaining insight into your business. However, in every single instance that I’ve been forced to use timesheets it was used for a very different purpose altogether; surveillance.

The problem with timesheets is that many businesses are simply using them the wrong way. When you work in a knowledge environment, such as an creative agency or software development studio, your primary task is to solve a problem. Sometimes a problem is similar, or even very similar, to a problem you’ve solved before. But other times a problem is entirely new and forces you out of your comfort zone and learn new things. Within this context there is nothing wrong with keeping track of time.

However, the problem is that within a creative environment you also work with estimates. You could say that estimates are the enemy of timesheets. An estimate is usually made at the start of a project and is more than often a fixed number (a.k.a. the budget). When you start working on a project a funny thing happens which I call “Insight by Progress”. This means, the longer you work on a certain problem, the more insight you gain into this problem. When you made the estimate you had virtually no insight and half way through the project you understand a lot more of the nuances and edge cases of the problem you’re trying to solve. Half way through the project you realise that the estimate you made at the start suddenly no longer applies and either needs to be revised or the problem domain needs to change to fit the estimate (a.k.a. adjusting the scope).

I’m slightly digressing here but you might begin to understand what this might have to do with timesheets. Many companies are using timesheets to track how much time a certain individual has worked on a certain project. However, timehseets should be used to track how much time has been spend on solving a certain problem. The issue is that timesheets are often tied into the billing system of a company. One place I once worked at you had to write at least 40 hours into your timesheet every week and if you didn’t your company email would be cut off. These timesheets would then be used to bill the client (for as long the budget allowed). The problem here of course was that no one was really keeping track of the time they spend on their work and at the end of the week (or sometimes at the end of the month) would bang in a bunch of numbers into their timesheets to get their 40 hours, regardless if they had actually worked those hours or not.

This company lost a great opportunity to measure “time spend” vs “estimates made” since the timesheets mostly contained bogus information. In this company most projects went over budget and no one knew how to fix it.

Timesheets can be a great source of business information when used correctly and within the correct context but timesheets can also be a thorn in a company’s side when idiots make the rules.

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