Improve Project Estimates with Timesheets
“How long will this take?” asks the salesman that popped his head into your office. He is of course referring to the deal he just sold to your company’s newest client. “I’m not sure,” you reply. “OK, just wanted to get an idea of when I could tell them when it would be ready”. Then it hit you. The deal has already been sold and the real question that is being asked is “Does your estimate fit into the timeline and duration that I’ve already given the client?”
This is a very different question than “how long will this take” and one that is encountered every day in companies that sell projects to their clients to generate revenue. You are put into a position of either accepting the timelines and durations of the project that this salesperson has already provided the client, or providing a reality check on what it will really take and resetting expectations out of the gate.
What? You don’t know how long a project like this will really take? You don’t have a timesheet system in place that you can refer back to as a point of reference to show the salesperson what is really involved? Well, that definitely puts you in a much tougher spot if you don’t have any historical information to stand on. That’s why it’s critical that you put a timesheet system into place immediately!
The 4 steps will help you optimize your project or employee timesheet system and enable you to give an objective answer the next time somebody asks how long something will take to complete.
1. Define Your Activities Clearly
When you are setting up a timesheet system it is essential that there’s a clear definition of what needs to be done at what time on a project. One of the most effective ways of doing this is through the process of “modular decomposition”. This is when you start with the largest building blocks of your project and continue to break them down into smaller and smaller chunks. You’re probably familiar with this when it comes to putting together a WBS but the same principle applies for how you track time.
Here’s an example that would work for a web development company. You would start at the highest level by defining a Phase for your project. Most web development projects would go through something like Sales > Plan > Design > Code > Test > Deploy > Maintain. This is the highest level of your project.
Next, you would determine all the deliverables that are generated during each phase. In this example, we’ll focus on Design. In the Design phase you would create Logos and Comps. Then, you would drill down one more level and define what action you are taking on each of these deliverables. Comps would then have Create, Review, and Update.
By setting up such a hierarchy you’re now in a position to clearly define each activity by Phase, Deliverable, and Action. This allows you to start pulling together historical information that shows exactly how long it takes to create a logo during the design phase. You’ll have this same type of information available for every other phase and deliverable on the project that you can then use as a basis for your solid estimates.
2. Define Start and Stop Points Clearly
To help your resources give you the type of information you need to provide accurate time duration estimates they need to understand exactly where they fit into the production workflow. There are two scenarios that occur if people don’t understand what they are responsible for on a project: 1) the work will be duplicated because two people thought they were responsible for a particular aspect of a project. This results in activity estimates that are twice as long as they should take or, 2) the work will not get done because they thought the other person was responsible for the work and was going to take care of that deliverable. This results in understated hours for a project.
What can you do to remedy this situation of double-work or no-work? Put together an easy to understand diagram of the activities you defined in Step 1. This will allow you to clearly articulate and communicate who is responsible for each deliverable and when they come into play. A swimlane diagram works wonders for this type of documentation or some other type of document that provides Inputs, Processes, and Outputs that are assigned to an owner. The objective is that everyone clearly and precisely knows when the handoff occurs and is picked up by the next person in the production line.
3. Have Your Resources Focus on Reality
Your resources need to understand that the timesheet process that you put in place is not to catch them doing something wrong. This of course goes under the assumption that you have the right people in place doing the job. Rather, your system is put in place to get an accurate picture of how long something really takes to complete. If you have never tracked time before, you will be amazed at how long something actually takes to complete.
Communicate to your team that this is the type of information you need in order to manage effectively. Some may feel ashamed that it takes so long to complete something. Others may put in some arbitrary, flat-rate number that they put in for everything they do (for example, I worked with a developer once that anything and everything you would ask him to do was 40 hours…no matter what it was). Make sure to communicate to them that this will help you provide the sales team with real numbers that they can work with to provide accurate estimates. It will also identify some areas that may be broken or in need of process improvement to make things better and easier for the team.
4. Compile and Analyze the Facts
Once you have defined your process, assigned clear owners to activities, and asked them to capture their real durations in the timesheet system, you can now analyze and report out on the facts. There is nothing better than Microsoft Excel Pivot Tables for this type of analysis and reporting. Pivot Tables allow you to slice and dice the data in myriads of different ways to produce the types of reports that will be helpful and meaningful to your team, the sales department, and upper management.
This will allow you to filter by resource, phase, deliverable, activity, and client in order to get a crystal clear view of what something takes to complete. Over time this type of priceless and meaningful information will allow you to answer the question of “how long will this take” with a deeply insightful and experienced answer based upon reality.
One final thing you can do to make sure these estimates stick is get your sales team together and review the facts. Understand that they are out doing their job and if they don’t have these facts readily available they may veer into the path of some pretty far-fetched numbers. Give them the tools they need of how long something really takes and you’ll end up with happier customers for them and less stress for you!
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