Where Does the Time Go?

How often do you ask yourself this question? Are your projects getting done on time or are they consistently late? Do task delays multiply in a domino effect? Are you profitable or are over-budget tasks digging deeply into your margins?

These questions frustrate us as managers, project managers and front-line leaders. The most common time thieves are interruptions and non-project work. Even minor interruptions are very disruptive of workflow and can cause errors and rework. Protecting the work-time of our team is a fundamental priority for team leaders. This may involve negotiating with other leaders and managers. Techniques such as “no-meeting Tuesday” and the “cone of silence” can be employed to promote concentrated creative time.

If your team is bleeding time and most tasks are over budget or taking longer than anticipated the best answers will likely come from the employees themselves. What reasons are they giving? Is there a time management problem or an estimating problem? In our experience there is usually a combination.

Here are some contributing factors to consider when meeting with your team to discuss the issue:

  • How well the team is working as a team. An assessment may help determine this answer.
  • Employee engagement and satisfaction. Again, an assessment may be in order.
  • Operational workflow efficiency. Is there a process? Is it being followed? Is it effective and efficient?

Reliable predictions are possible! Yes, you can reliably predict your project outcomes in terms of time and budget. It requires using techniques that are appropriate to your industry and size. It involves continuously updating and improving your methods to keep pace with the changing dynamics that make up your particular business environment. Here are some questions to consider about your cost and time estimates:

  • What techniques are being used in the estimating process?
    • Is the precision too granular or not broken down enough?
    • Are you using range estimates?
    • Do you know and understand the probability of success within the estimates?
  • Is risk contingency built into the plan?
  • Are there shared resources? If yes, then these resources need to be managed at the next level up, the portfolio level. Resource leveling and smoothing will be needed to eliminate over-allocation of shared resources.
  • Is the work estimated by the person executing the task? This is known as the golden rule of estimating! This probably needs to be done on a project-by-project basis because, as much as we’d all like to think of projects as similar and able to be templated, this is generally a myth. Remember that analogous, or top-down estimating, while the lowest cost estimating technique, is also the least reliable and accurate.

A template is most useful as a checklist reminder of tasks and risks to look for when planning a project. However, projects are not like widgets moving through a production line. Creativity, innovation and complex problem solving require variation and flexibility in scheduling and will introduce uncertainty into the development life-cycle which must be accounted for with contingency planning. Otherwise, time spent thinking or waiting for information or other downtime will result in low output efficiency and when projects are planned sequentially, then project delays are likely to become the norm.

There are performance factors that must be considered when planning and estimating a project. For larger projects with many team members, time off has to be taken into account. When you add up the number of days each person is allowed for personal time and holidays, and multiply that by the number of people on the team, the number can be quite significant! For example, many companies have 10-12 holidays and 2-3 weeks of time off including sick and vacation time. Let’s use the low side and say that each individual is allowed 10 holidays and 10 days of personal time. That’s 20 days or 4 weeks out of the 52 available. That means for a team of only 13 people we lose one year of productivity.

Speaking of productivity, how many productive hours are there in a workday? Some estimates have it as low as 3 hours per day. Most people estimate this generally at 5-6 hours per day. That means each week we lose 10 hours of productivity per person. Is this reflected in our schedules? Is it accounted for at the shared resource level? Often it is not, and the result is that our highly motivated employees work 60-80 hour workweeks to get it all done! Result? Stress. Mistakes. Injured relationships. Health problems. Road rage. Climate change. Wait…maybe not that last one.

We also need to account for the efficiency of the individual and their availability to a specific task. If the estimator is not the producer of the task estimated, how does the productivity or proficiency of the team member compare with the estimate?

Finally, we should consider the data itself. Here are some questions about the work performance information:

  • How accurate is the time reporting?
  • Are there any trends in the data?
    • Project types or duration
    • Individuals or specific pairings/groupings
    • What was good on the best projects?

If your projects are habitually late, there are a couple things you should know.

  • First, you are not alone. There are a lot of people out there with the same problem. We see it every day through workshop attendees and frustrated managers experiencing pressure from all sides.
  • Second, there are solutions to your problems. Basic project techniques are easy to understand and sometimes very difficult to implement. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution nor is there a magic formula.

The great news is that by applying analysis to your particular situation to understand the root cause of the issues within your specific environment you can determine the best approach for your team to optimize resource allocation, improve operational efficiency and drive your projects successfully!