A few days ago, I received a request for commentary on a topic via Twitter. Cheryl Smithem, a public relations professional in Summerville, SC, forwarded me a link: a creative services firm was extolling the virtues of throwing away time sheets and not tracking time to specific projects. Cheryl wanted my perspective.
An analogy is the best place to start with this complex issue. Some people never have to diet or watch what they eat. The rest of us privately seethe with envy and either make good eating choices or do not. I fall solidly in the “rest of us” category.
When I entered my thirties, I weighed 119 pounds. Really. Now that I’m staring at the big 4-0, I weigh around 140ish. Several years ago, I decided that I did not care for this trajectory and signed up for Weight Watchers points tracking online.
Revelations abounded. I never knew that having a piece of chocolate cake would mean that I would either be at the gym for 24 hours in a row or could not eat for 2 days thereafter. I relentlessly stalked my husband around the kitchen, measuring every little dose of butter and oil that he wanted to add to a dish. Never had I consumed so many crunchy, good-for-me vegetables. I reorganized the way I ate, made better choices, and started to see results almost immediately.
After a couple of months, I started to slip in my points tracking. Keeping up with all of this data was a complete pain. My husband was going to stab me with a carving knife if I asked him to cut the butter down one more time. I truly thought I would die if I had to eat edamame with no salt again. I stopped tracking points, thinking that I had learned enough about the process to monitor my food intake without it. What a relief!
Result: abject failure. I regained all the weight I’d lost within a month. Without knowing details, it was so easy to cheat on my food intake. I couldn’t compute how much activity I needed to incorporate into a day, and I routinely (and very conveniently) “forgot” things I’d consumed. Tracking points was truly the best way for me to measure my success and to hold myself accountable for my eating choices.
The same is true of tracking time to a project or job. I say this despite working in public accounting for 11 years, where I had billable hour quotas that went up routinely. While I completely agree that the “billable hour mentality” is self defeating and ultimately does not focus on yielding value to a client, tracking time to a project is an absolute necessity and provides valuable information, whether or not the time is actually billed.
Tracking time to a project helps ensure that you as a professional are charging enough for your services. When I have forced my creative clients to track their time, they are always amazed to learn how much time they spent on a job compared to what they quoted for it. That data alone has given several of them the confidence to charge more for their services, because they could see how little they were truly making.
Without time records, it is impossible to assess whether or not fees are in line. Making decisions based upon the level of money in the bank or by following what others in the field are doing is not good enough. Evaluating historical records of both the time and cost components of each job provides critical information about whether or not certain services are worth continuing or if they could be revamped.
Time sheets give useful data for mentoring newer people. Instead of forcing people to bill a certain number of hours a week and then writing it all off, senior people should take time data from juniors and identify learning opportunities. If a junior person routinely spends 15 hours on a task that should only take 5, they obviously could benefit from some instruction. That coaching and correction contributes to a more collaborative environment, more focused and efficient workers, and more net profit on each project.
In the absence of time details, it is a challenge to determine proper allocation of labor resources. Some people have a knack for always looking busy, whether they are or not. During a crunch, time information can lend insight into who may really be available to help. Additionally, cumulative data about what a person has contributed to different jobs can provide a concrete reason to keep someone or let them go.
Regardless of the agreement made with the client up front, disagreements over work performed happen every day. When a dispute arises, time sheets are a contemporaneous record of what was done over the life of the job.
Time sheets add a dose of business reality. We never think we spend as much time on things as we actually do. Time spent is a key benchmark for determining when to wind up a creative process. It provides structure to a process that could never really be finished, as one can have ongoing light bulb moments in creative mode.
It is a mistake to make the focus of work all about billable time, but it can be equally disastrous to choose not to track it at all, no matter how good it feels. As with my weight loss analogy, tracking time does not shift the focus from the good outcome of value provided to the customer. Rather, I argue that it is a firm’s point system, yielding concrete, measurable, dynamic tools for perpetual improvement in internal processes, communication and overall client service. Used correctly, your firm will be leaner, will be healthier, and could have a fatter bottom line. That’s fat we all want.
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