This week, I spent an hour with a needy coffee machine.
Don’t get me wrong, it makes a great cup of coffee, but it also needs a bit of care, between degreasing the brew unit to cleaning the milk pipework, there is a lot of maintenance that goes into producing a piping hot cup of motivation.
The same can be said of a timekeeping system.
When we began our company, a spreadsheet did the trick. It documented time well, but required a lot of manual interaction when it came to project management. Manual interaction increases the chances of human error, so we upgraded.
Next came a system called MindSalt. MindSalt is very basic. The structure of Client->Project->Task was very general, allowing us to capture time on a variety of different project types from service based fixed-fee, to time and materials. MindSalt came with basic reporting features, an effective expense capturing module and simple approval functionality.
As our organization grew, we felt the need to force our time into the most granular capture possible, putting the burden of time management onto our employees. We changed timekeeping systems to one that incorporated project management functions and allowed more levels of organization (we now had subtasks!) as well as a more advanced approvals process. In addition, a more robust reporting functionality allowed our management and executive teams to design custom reports that calculated things like project profitability and employee utilization. It seemed like a great idea, we were getting the data that we wanted and we didn’t have to jump through hoops to get it! This tool was our “silver bullet”!
Except that we were wrong.
The more we required our employees to enter (“I spent 0.25 hours loading a software update.”), the less data we captured. People were getting sloppy with their time entry, putting their hours into “catchall” categories, if they entered it at all. Managers were paying less attention to the approvals process because they knew the data they were approving was mediocre at best. The reports we were running from the system were not a true reflection of time against projects, were full of holes and were wildly inaccurate.
We needed a reset.
We held informal meetings and Q/A sessions with management and executive teams to understand what they wanted. They wanted accurate reporting. PMs want to know “how many hours have I used?” and “how many hours remain?”. Executives want to ensure that there is a return on investment in personnel, training and systems. We already had a running list of issues from employees that included items such as “how do I know which milestone I’m working on?”, “I ran out of hours on a task last week, so I just added the rest to ‘admin’”. We discovered that we were spending too much time trying to make our timekeeping match with the structure of our contracts, requiring our employees to enter time against a task (i.e. “support”) on one job and against a milestone (i.e. “3: Integration”) on another. We were getting in our own way.
The decision was made to return to MindSalt.
MindSalt’s beauty lies within its simplicity. Returning to the Client->Project->Task structure allowed us to capture employee time in “buckets”, leaving it up to the project manager to determine how the buckets apply to milestones. By assigning our projects 7 standard tasks, we could cover nearly all of the billable time in our project types. We also included “projects” under each of our new organizational departments that allowed us to create tasks beneath those departments, even though the time isn’t billable, we wanted to ensure that we were best reflecting how our employees were spending their time. Although Mindsalt has an “advanced” approval functionality, we currently use the basic setting.
Since our relaunch of Mindsalt, we have fewer incomplete timesheets, fewer support questions and an exponential increase in compliance across the organization. We are able to run both canned reports, as well as ad-hoc, that truly reflect the level of effort being invested in both projects, as well as internal endeavors. The key is not only selecting a timekeeping tool that works for your organization, but also taking the time to configure it in a way that best captures the data you are seeking.
Because just like a coffee maker, you are only going to get a great cup of joe if you take the time to find the right beans.