Most services businesses, from law firms through consultancies to outsourcers, rely on people entering time into timesheets. At the most basic level, timesheets provide some form of audit trail that work has been done and, not least in Time & Materials projects, they provide data to support a fortnightly or monthly bill to the client. Most firms have now moved beyond paper or spreadsheet-based timesheets and have either built or bought a simple timesheet system. So far so good.
Unfortunately, complexity and human nature then enter the fray! Consultants and associates dial into the timesheet system at the end of the week (if you’re lucky!) and input a mixture of reality, the way they remember things and/or the answer that the project manager tells them to enter – filling in the timesheet is a mechanical exercise, a chore! Project managers use a timesheet approval process to manipulate reality to reflect the time estimates given in the project plan. Also, there may or may not be a company policy in place about the “professional day” and how timesheet data is used to create client invoices – for example, if the (very!) simple figure below showed an individual’s timesheet for a single week, how many days would you charge the client for Project A?
Depending on firm policies and client contracts in place, any one of the following (and more!) could well be correct:
– 5 days
– 4.875 days
– 5.2 days
– 4 days.
In passing, we used to have a timesheet code for “Internal/Other” – it took some time before we realised that it was being used as a bucket to enter time into when it wouldn’t fit anywhere else!
What we need is an internal culture whereby people enter their actual hours worked honestly into a timesheet system that is easy to use and clever enough to apply different sets of rules by project depending on company policy and client agreements (e.g. “a day’s a day” or “”a day is a period of eight hours with part days charged pro rata”)…..but that’s just the billing bit!
If the system can also compare actual time entered with what was expected when an assignment was set up, it can then report out variances to client Partners, project managers etc. to allow them to address project issues, identify potential training needs and learn about over/under estimates applied during the sales process. I’d like it to go further, however, and hold data about resource costs too so that we can understand, without resorting to endless spreadsheet analysis, real gross margin figures and compare them with plan, and highlight the right assignments to be discussed at Partner level…..now it becomes a more powerful and useful business management tool!
When used properly, timesheets contain a wealth of information that can be used to help the Partner team to optimise their business and keep their consultants fresh and ready for the next challenge.