The polarity of time and progress reporting

A common question I get asked when clients are implementing a PM methodology or framework is “What level should our staff use to report time and progress against tasks?”.

The simplest answer (as any good consultant would say) is “it depends”.

For time reporting, consider the following two conditions:

1. How often are staff entering time?  If they are doing it on a daily basis (What planet are they from?) then they may actually remember what they did at day’s end to be able to report time against one task vs. another.

2. How much multitasking are staff doing?  The more activities a person has to do in a day, the more likely they will forget what they’ve done as well as how much time they spent doing it.  For staff that are focused on a very few activities in any given day, task-level time reporting is feasible.

If either or both of these conditions are not met, then you are better off from both a compliance and data quality perspective to have time tracked at a higher level of detail – possibly by phase, work package or even at the overall project level.  Now the purists amongst you will argue that this will prevent the use of these actuals for refining estimation practices and you are quite correct, but my rebuttal (and no, I DON’T have pointy ears!) is that estimate refinement based on perceived accuracy is illogical.

Let’s now consider progress reporting.  The “right” way to do progress reporting on a task is to get an understanding of how much effort remains – this helps to eliminate the games that are played with reporting percent complete.  Even if you are using the percent complete reporting method, the same question arises – at what level should staff report these percentages?

My recommendation is to always report progress at the lowest level of detail possible.  A couple of reasons:

1. You will get better accuracy by having someone report remaining effort or percentage complete on an “atomic” task as opposed to a large module or work package.

2. While you might get occasional inaccuracies in progress reporting for some tasks, when more tasks are taken into account for overall progress calculations on projects, individual task progress inaccuracies cause less of a quality impact than when a progress calculation is done using the progress data for a small set of high-level tasks.

This recommendation assumes that you have a work breakdown structure that is detailed to that “atomic” level…

Therefore have staff track time at the highest level management reporting will permit (unless my earlier conditions are met) and have them track progress at the lowest level possible.

Categories: Project Portfolio Management | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “The polarity of time and progress reporting

  1. You have again picked up on a core issue – quality of input information. In order for project management systems to do their job, and for the information to be useful for those using the information, the input data must be timely, accurate and complete. Miss any of those points and no matter how good your management system and software, it will still be Garbage In = Garbage Out.

    The question is, by getting lower resolution data are you reducing the error by burying it in quality information, or are you spoiling the good by contaminating it the bad?

    American businessman John Wanamaker fameoulsy said “I know half of my advertising is wasted, I just don’t know which half.” I think the challenge in project management systems is essentially the same. It is really hard to identify, in real time, what effort is being deployed where, especially when it is knowledge and professional services that you are trying to manage.

    I have never seen any firm, where the management tell you that the timesheet information they use is reliable. Estimates that I see have employees estimating a 70-90% accuracy, while management guess that the information is 60-75% accurate. No matter what the real number, you’d never rely upon any other system (car, taxes, bank, etc) that you felt was only 70 or 80% reliable, yet that is the perceived and I believe practical limit of one of project management’s most critical inputs – the timesheet. Even more amazing is that management teams know the problem is there and chose to ‘live with it’. Is this problem too big to be conquered, or does complacency rule the day? And who’s problem is it? Has technology failed us, or are we failing to manage?

    I suggest that in simplest terms, the problem is at least two-fold. You’ve got to have technology in place that makes the timesheet data as easy to collect as possible, and offers practical aids to the users (both management and staff) to make sure the input information is timely, accurate and complete. That’s the easy part. Getting lawyers, engineers, accountants and just about anyone else to bow to the needs of some unproductive, removed-from-the-front-lines administrative system like Project Management and Job Cost systems is a much bigger challenge. Management, process and communications are the biggest challenge. You just can’t buy that off the shelf, and it doesn’t become operational at the push of a button. It takes a long time and a lot of commitment.


    • kbondale

      Great feedback again David – thanks!

      I am interested in the statistic about timesheet data quality – would you happen to have a specific reference that you could point me to for that?



  2. thanks !! very helpful post!


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