I recently read a new book by Curt Finch, CEO of Journyx, Inc. titled “All Your Money Won’t Another Minute Buy – Valuing Time as a Business Resource.” I have always been a student of time management, so I was delighted with the opportunity to interview Curt about the book. Please enjoy the interview below, and if you like what you see, feel free to purchase the book through the PM Bookstore.
Josh: In chapter 3, “Managing Project Risk”, you discuss time tracking as a tool for project risk management. To measure risk in terms of potential cost or schedule overruns, how can time tracking software most effectively be used for early detection of risk? How can the data be used to help formulate strategies to deal with the risks identified?
Curt: Well, the most obvious thing is that tracking time on projects (which is less common than you might
think in companies of all sizes) gives you an early warning system for when things are going to overrun. Projects are generally divided into phases or tasks, and if the early tasks are running longer than your initial estimates indicate they should, later phases will often run longer as well. It is very rare that people can “catch up” in the later phases; the idea of compressing later phases is usually wishful thinking. If you have a five phase project estimated at 100 hours per phase and the first phase runs to 150 hours, it’s time to go ahead and push out the schedule, add resources, or whatever else you need to do if on-time delivery is important.
Curt: You know, I don’t have a good answer for that. I’ve seen managers of critical projects demand that people take no vacation for a while until the project is hitting its stride again. In a world of knowledge workers where everyone is a volunteer because other employment options are available, this can cause your very best people to leave. Asking workers to voluntarily schedule vacation at least a month or two in advance – maybe asking that longer vacations require longer lead times – seems like a reasonable request that would enable better planning. Automated systems like those from Journyx can enable you to monitor or even enforce such behaviors.
People need time off. The company has needs too. I think that balance is required in this as in all things.
Curt: I have seen the same behaviors you mentioned. I think they are caused by several factors:
? Employees are seen as free. Employers think, “Well, I have these guys on staff and I’m paying them anyway so I’ll just make them build it.”
? Management massively underestimates the ongoing support and maintenance cost of automated systems. Software breaks all the time, even when you haven’t changed anything. Windows ships a patch that breaks you or a slight change in usage patterns reveals a bug that was always there. And the guy who wrote your in-house system has already moved on by then. In terms of cost, many also underestimate requirements gathering, testing, documentation, and to a lesser degree, the design and creation of the software in the first place.
? Budgets for people and budgets for software or SaaS solutions are separated and unmalleable in the managerial processes of many companies. People budgets are always much higher so, again, from a budgetary perspective employees are viewed as relatively free by a first or second line manager.
? Companies may have gotten screwed by software vendors in the past. Unfortunately, some vendors raise maintenance cost too rapidly or ship what amounts to shelfware. This is common and requires forethought in the contracts initially signed with the vendor – forethought that many people don’t get around to spending time on.
? Opportunity cost is ignored because the lack of a time tracking system leads to the lack of understanding of per-person per-project profitability. There is one most profitable thing that a particular employee can be doing right now for the company. Building an in-house time tracking, CRM or issue management system is almost certainly not it. If you haven’t been measuring costs (i.e. tracking time) you can’t possibly know where you’re profitable and where you’re not.
Imagine the mythical perfect manager who has employees allocate time accurately with all expenses and fully loaded costs to every project in his portfolio. He knows which products to invest in and which customers to fire. He knows where he is profitable and where he is not. His team estimates future work accurately due to excellent historical data. His employees are aimed at the most profitable or strategic work the company has in front of it. Everyone is focused on the core competencies of the company – the activities that enhance the company’s sustainable competitive advantage. This manager is a scientist who measures things but his strategy can still be artistic.
The more common manager works with “common sense” and “gut”. In the book “Blink” we see examples of people who can really trust their guts. These people, however, live in environments where they always have a feedback loop telling them whether their decisions were right or wrong. Over time they become experts and learn to trust their intuition. Managing companies is seldom like this. You rarely know for certain if a decision was optimal in the absence of measurement, but people fool themselves into believing they know in a variety of ways. “Gut” managers seem decisive and often rise in the organization, yet many organizations ultimately fail because of them.
Curt: We have seen companies that have multiple time tracking systems for vacation, projects, billing and payroll that all employees have to use. One company actually had a time code for “filling out my timesheet.” That’s demoralizing. The best system provides a global collection point and distributes data in a master-slave relationship to systems that require it. SOA is helping to move things in this direction.
Curt: If you’re using the data for payroll, the time period should be tied to the pay cycle. Most companies are bi-weekly or semi-monthly. I think semi-monthly works best in most cases because monthly costs are more predictable. Dispensing payroll three times in some months and two times in others leads to cash flow prediction misunderstandings, in my opinion.
Curt: Boy, these are great questions. I’ve thought about this one quite a bit. The answer is actually obvious when you think about it. What do accounting systems do? Accounting systems have been dealing with this problem since they were invented by the Babylonians thousands of years ago and, as you might expect, they have it nailed by now. The answer is that you close periods and don’t change them again. If you do it’s a “big deal” (as it should be), like when publicly traded corporations restate prior period earnings and their stock tanks. Similarly, adjustments to closed time periods in a time tracking system should be added as separately maintained “corrections” that, if possible, inure to the current period for reporting so that history is not changed. Those changes should flow through to all the slave systems just like new time records do.
Curt: If somebody has more than 20 or 30 choices on their time entry screen, they will provide inaccurate data. Our technology provides several mechanisms for making sure people see only what they need to see on the entry screen: groups, dependencies, frequent use lists, etc. If you want data accurate to the day you need to enforce entry every hour. If to the week, every day. Nobody remembers what they did last week. So if one person is going to be working on a project for 1000 hours (6 months) he should have no more than 10 to 20 phases associated with it. Often project managers want to do a lot more than that by pushing MS Project files into Journyx Timesheet, and this creates a level of detail that is unmanageable for the front line worker.
Balance is perhaps the hardest thing to achieve in life, and this extends to time tracking as well.