Project Time Reporting

[article]
Stop Whining and Do It
Summary:
Project time reporting evokes a passionate response from most team members-- the consensus is they hate it. While Payson Hall worries about supporting something so unpopular, he offers benefits of project time reporting and explores some of the common implementation issues that undermine its value.

Consistent and accurate time reporting is a daunting speed bump on the road to better project management for most organizations. If there is one thing that everyone agrees on, it's that they hate time reporting. The passion this subject elicits is amazing. "Do you want us to do work, or spend so much time writing about it that it doesn't get done?" people will snipe. Truth be told, time reporting is not my favorite thing to do either, but I think things are getting a little shrill and silly when people begin treating time reporting as if it were the most time-consuming and unpleasant task of the day. What I'm trying to say is: I empathize, but I don't sympathize.

Let's be clear, time reporting isn't fun-particularly when you have put off doing your time sheets for a few weeks and it becomes a content-free creative writing assignment. This is the worst kind of administrative drill-no use to you or the project manager. I won't justify that silliness, but I will point out that it is a self-inflicted wound.

Tracking the time spent on tasks is necessary for effective project management. If it took an hour per team member each day, we would appropriately worry about the return on our investment. Instead, time reporting should take about ten minutes per person each week. It's hard for me to believe that civilization is going to crumble because we ask people to take ten minutes a week to let us know how they spent their time.

My lack of sympathy for the sniveling may stem from having had to do time reporting to the nearest fifteen minutes for most of the past twenty-five years as a condition of employment. Consulting clients like to know how the time you bill them was spent on their projects. As a result, I spend almost ten minutes each week making marks in my day planner so that I know where my time goes. This doesn't actually add ten minutes to my workweek; I typically make notes in my planner when I'm waiting for meetings to start, or while I'm in the elevator, or when I'm clearing out for the day. It does mean that I invest a minute or two each day in the task, and I must say that it is worth it, both for my projects and for me.

What can you do with reasonably accurate time reporting data? Here is a short list of benefits I've experienced in the real world:

  1. Improve estimates . Not only does comparing actual hours expended with estimates help me understand when the estimates are wrong, but also keeping track of why they are wrong helps improve estimation models and assumptions for next time.
  2. Anticipate resource variances . If we track the actual hours spent on a task and compare that to progress toward getting the work done, we get early insights into whether or not a task is likely to finish under or over budget. This gives the project manager a chance to take advantage of opportunities or respond to problems before they are surprises.
  3. Justify adjustments to resources, schedule, or scope . If a project is having trouble matching its expected pace with the resources available and I can show that the resources are focused and spending quality time on the project, it gives me the data that I need to support discussions with senior management about either getting more resources, modifying the schedule, or reducing project scope.
  4. Clarifying a problem's priority . When infrastructure issues or policies are consuming a lot of staff time without

About the author

Payson Hall's picture Payson Hall

Payson Hall is a consulting project manager for Catalysis Group, Inc. in Sacramento, California. Payson consults on project management issues and teaches project management. Email Payson at payson@catalysisgroup.com. Follow him on twitter at @paysonhall.

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