What’s the point of timesheets?

As a project manager, I often hear this question. Or rather, flat out complaining about having to do them. NO ONE likes doing timesheets. Not even project managers.  They feel like a waste of time, unnecessary admin, and doing them eats into your precious “doing work” time.

The problem with timesheets, is the people doing them don’t understand WHY they have to do them. And if people don’t know why, they will most likely be adverse to doing them.

So why do project managers demand timesheets?

Three key reasons:

  1. To bill clients
  2. To understand if a project is on track
  3. To undertake effective lessons-learned analysis and improve processes.

You can’t bill T&M clients without timesheets

This one really speaks for itself. If you bill on time and materials you need to know how many hours you spent. That’s obvious. But it’s just as important to do timesheets if you bill at a fixed price, but we’ll come back to that in #3.

They help you understand if a project is on track

If you estimate a job is going to cost $100,000, and you are halfway through and the timesheets are sitting at $60,000, you very obviously have an issue.  It’s at this point that you know you need to figure out what’s going wrong.  And usually at this point, no one else on the team is aware that there is an issue.  The project is only halfway through.  It’s likely that no one has raised an issue in your standups, or come to talk to you about how their task is taking much longer than they expected.

I prefer to manage in a hands-off fashion over micro-managing, so I would much rather observe through data than ask someone every four hours if they are still on track. It’s through this data that you can identify issues, and do something about them.  People don’t always volunteer their problems, but the data never lies.

At this point, you know that you need to talk to your team in greater detail, review your contract with the client, identify if there is a more efficient way to reach your end goal and reduce your spend, talk to your client, and perhaps escalate internally if you need to.  And these are not things you want to be doing near the end of the project – you want to do this as soon as possible.  But without those annoying timesheets, it’s possible you just won’t find out in time.

They allow you to undertake lessons-learned analysis and improve your processes

At the end of a project, you should always review how the project went in detail and identify changes to your processes that may be needed.  Part of that process is going through the timesheets in detail, and comparing the final costs to the estimated costs.  By doing this, you can identify who underestimates, who overestimates, who needs training, what activities you didn’t think of originally and should do/not do again, and what activities need a higher risk factor on future projects.  And by knowing this, you can improve your estimates, improve your quotes, and improve your profitability.  You get a really good idea of how much something truly costs.

This is also really important if you have Service Level Agreements (SLAs) with clients and you charge them a flat monthly fee.  It means at the end of the contract, you can renegotiate a rate that is based on what that client actually needs.

Understanding actuals vs estimates helps everyone on the team understand how they can work better.  It helps identify areas for improvement, or things they just do really well.

Make timesheets work for you AND your team

Timesheets don’t necessarily have to be overly detailed, and they don’t need to take long to complete.  If all you need to know is how much admin vs development people are doing, then you only need two line items.  If you are billing a client, you probably need more.  But you only need the project team to complete what you are going to look at later.  In my opinion, the best would be to have one line item per key activity on a project.  And if your timesheeting system allows you to track time against key activities, rather than require detailed timesheet descriptions against an arbitrary cost centre, that’s even better.  The quicker the team can enter their timesheets, the better!

But my timesheet software sucks.

I can’t help you with that.  There are a lot that suck.  In fact, MOST suck.  But if you can sell in the benefits to the company to your project team, and the benefits they personally will get through the project analysis, hopefully it will ease the burden… somewhat.

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