Timetracking: Good or Evil?

There’s a saying that you get what you measure.  Is tracking time any different?  Is time tracking really all that bad or is it a sign of mis-trust?  Reality check.  Some companies need to track time for various reasons, the question is are you using time tracking for good or evil?

The company I’m working for tracks time.  We track time because every year we go through a SRED (Scientific Research and Experimental Development) audit as we do a ton of experimental development.  This government program gives credits to businesses that meet the criteria and basically it’s a detailed tax audit.

Personally, I think time-tracking is useless in most cases.  There are much better and more effective ways to visualize work in your organization than relying on time-tracking.  Here’s an example.  Suppose you have a 1 full time customer support person working for you.  There’s lots of hearsay about the need to hire somebody.  So you decide to have them track their time.  I would assume the time-sheet probably looks like:

Week 1 – Joe – 40 hours

Week 2 – Joe – 40 Hours

Possibly there’s a breakdown by client or type of issue or something like that.  Do you need a new person when Joe records more than 40 hours?  What if Joe only works 39.5 hours, does his pay get docked?  Since Joe is a full-time support person why do his hours matter?  Shouldn’t he always be working 40 hours?  What if he’s up at night working, are you going to pay him overtime?

Again, you get what you measure.  Here’s a more effective alternative for time-tracking in this situation that might work better.

Week 1:

Opened Cases: 5

Closed Cases: 15

Joe is doing pretty good, although you could wonder why 15 cases were closed.  Was there a big backlog last week? Did Joe forget to close some cases and bulk closed a bunch?

Week 1:

Opened Cases: 15

Closed Cases: 5

Hmm, something wrong is happening here.  Is there a huge backlog?  Are these all new cases? Visualizing this data will give you insight into being able to ask the right questions.

That’s going to get you much more effective data than time-tracking will.  It’s a simple case of input vs output.  If your demand exceeds supply in customer support, you have a problem and the problem likely isn’t support related anyway.  The problem is likely somewhere else such as crappy software, bad infrastructure or other causes that customers call about.

I remember doing a test at a company I used to work for.  We looked at the flow of issues over time.  In a given month 85% of the issues closed were on maintenance and support.  15% of course on new features.  This company mandated time tracking as well so someone argued you can’t measure flow, features take more time than maintenance does.  So we ran a time-tracking report.  Same result.  Ok, similar, it was an 83/17 split.

So is time-tracking good or evil?  Depends, I suppose.

Good Things:

– tracking for tax purposes (in our case SRED)
– tracking for client project costs (also in our case)
– tracking for other regulatory purposes
– tracking for time and material projects

Bad Things:

– getting data about how well or not well your company is doing (support, development or otherwise)
– using it to keep tabs on your employees
– doing it because, well, you don’t really know but everybody else does right?

As with all things, common sense prevails.  Understand why you want to track time or whether there’s a more efficient way of getting the data you need.  Do be careful though, you will get what you measure.  Employees forced to track time without knowing why will get you a bunch of timesheets with “Joe – Week 1 – 40 hours” which is pretty much useless.