If you want to get control of your projects, you should use timesheets. Or should you? Is the accepted wisdom really wise?

Timesheets allow you to measure effort; i.e. man-days of work. All project management methods suggest you should control timeand cost. Human effort one dimension of cost. It is normally expressed in man-hours or man-days of work (which usually can be  converted into a financial cost). To control effort, you need to estimate it when you plan and then track the actual effort. That’s where timesheets come in, to track the actual effort.
The Prince2 project management method follows this approach. The Prince2 planning process has an estimating step. For Prince2, effort is the primary resource estimation for each task. (Secondary resource needs include equipment, travel or money). By saying that you should control effort, Prince2 ask you to plan and then to track effort. Prince2 therefore assumes that you will use timesheets.
That’s what they are doing at one major bank using Prince2. Effort is indeed the main measure of project resource estimation. A small banking project may have a budget of 50 man-days of effort, whereas a large project may have a budget of 3000 man-days. To monitor progress, the bank uses timesheets to record actual effort by the project teams. So, for example, a 10-week project estimated at 50 days may finish with 45 (or 55 or whatever) actual days of effort. This is calculated from the timesheets of all the project team members submitted during the 10 weeks.
So timesheet solutions aggregate a lot of data from a lot of people. You need timesheet software, which lots of people need to use correctly and regularly. That’s where the problem starts. The software vendors will tell you that the software is easy to use (maybe true, maybe not!), but they won’t always tell you how much work is needed to achieve a sustained, widely-used solution which truly delivers benefits to your wider organization.
In some organisations, there can be hundreds of people working on various projects. A large hospital tried to implement a timesheet solution to control project effort.  Inside the IT department of about 50 people, this worked OK.  But most projects go beyond IT. The hospital has about 3000 staff, very many of whom could work on a project. You can’t ask 3000 people to fill in timesheets, just because some of them may work on a project from time to time.
Even for the small IT department, the hospital hit another problem, of scope creep. Once they had estimates of project effort for their teams, they had a partial forecast everyone’s future work plans. So they decided to go for a 100% solution, and complete the picture with plans on non-working time (holidays, etc.) and non-project work (support, maintenance, staff meetings, etc.). Once you try to manage the full working week for your entire team, you add extra complexity for little benefit. The hospital could not sustain the effort, and the timesheet solution failed.
There are a lot of failures with timesheet implementations. It’s hard work and there can be a lot of resistance. People don’t like filling in timesheets. It takes a lot of work to get everyone to submit a time sheet each week (and to sustain this 52 weeks per year). Furthermore, if you succeed, the data quality may be low, and consequently the benefits for project control may be slim.
Timesheets can work well in certain environments, for example where hours are billed to the customer. Or in closed environments, such as software development teams, where all projects are done by a limited number of project team members. In these cases, there is a clear benefit to the organization, so you can more easily succeed with timesheets.
If you choose not to implement timesheets, what can you do? One major chemicals company has decided not to use timesheets today for their projects. They know it’s premature – timesheets wouldn’t work today. Their solution is to track cost and time, but not effort.  Costs are tracked (expenditures); time is tracked (activity start and finish dates); but effort is neither estimated nor tracked.
So should you use timesheets? If your goal is to improve your team’s or your company’s project management maturity, yes, it should be on your long term agenda. Should it be a priority? You need to analyse timesheet deployment as a long term project. It’s not a quick-win software implementation project – you need sustained long-term commitment to get any benefits. Work out the business case, study the risks of failure.
You’ll possibly find that deploying timesheets is not a priority project. Your return on investment is perhaps too uncertain, your risk too high. Focus instead today on easier project management improvements with more certain benefits. Wait a while until you tackle timesheets. Mañana, demain, morgen, tomorrow.
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Written by Jeff on July 22, 2013 in blog
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