Increase Efficiency and Productivity Through Time Tracking

24 May 2018
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Whether you’re an established manufacturer, a scrappy young startup, a passionate freelancer, or just working your own side hustle, ultimately, you’re managing the use of time. How much time does it take to make a thing? How much time are workers and machines spending making it? Where are places that action stops but the clock keeps ticking?
Let’s suppose you’re the project manager for Better Blogging Inc. You create engaging blog posts for your clients and business is good. But demand has increased and now you’re spending as much time juggling deadlines, managing quality control, and riding herd on a writers’ group as you are making sure your clients’ strategic needs are being met.
You suspect you need to add more writers, but you wonder how much more volume you yourself can handle.
Management wants answers on how you’re going to handle increased volume and keep quality at previous standards. And your family at home wonders if they’ll ever see you for dinner again.
There’s only one way to find out.
You’ve got to become an adept at time tracking. Learn where the time goes and you’ll be well on your way to identifying What Really Matters as you look to increase your business’s efficiency, productivity, and, ultimately, profitability.

Prepare the team.
Gather the group and explain that you’re trying to learn more about how long actual work takes so that the group can do work more efficiently. You’ll be surprised at how interested your team is in helping management understand how much time work really takes.
Set aside discovery time.

You’ll need to pick a typical day, week or month to do some thoughtful watching and investigating. Identify how groups of like or related tasks happen. Where and when is work handed off? Take notes, use white boards and sticky notes to begin mapping out how work really happens. You’ll formalize all of this later when you have more information. At this point it’s important to gather all of your connected and useful technology, including data from CRMs, employee scheduling software, applicant tracking software, ERP data, and anything else that will shed insight into where teams are spending their time.

Pro Tip: Lean Manufacturing adherents know this as the Value Stream

Stop. Timer time.
Have your team members keep track, with a clock or stopwatch on their phones, how long it takes to complete their portion of the project.
Pro Tip: Project management and time tracking platforms can make tracking the time much easier, and can digest the data to give you a quicker, more actionable visualization of how long work is taking.

Sample early. Sample often.

Avoid the urge to grab a couple of idealized examples of a task and use those to set the expectation. Your editor may have only needed 45 minutes to turn around markup on a project. But was that speedy turn the exception to the rule? The more data points you collect, the more realistic a view you’ll have of how long work actually takes.

How does it move from point A to point B?
Forbes estimates that we spend 2.5 hours dealing with an average of 200 email messages every day. While email and chat are valuable tool, don’t fall into the trap of confusing “answering email” with “getting work done.” Think of how many messages you send that are variants on the “Did you Get That Thing I Sent Ya?” theme.
As you’re doing your time study, don’t forget to keep track of how long you spend sending emails, follow-ups to emails, phone follows up, and when all else fails, actual trips down the hall to follow up on the follow-up. It all figures into the how much time it takes to get a thing done.

Visualize it.

Now get your sticky notes up on a whiteboard, blow that spreadsheet up to full screen size, or run that time report. Put the steps in a visual order that makes most sense to your work group. This is where Gantt charts and similar visualizations really shine.
Make sure you’ve shown each work step, the person or team responsible, any dependencies, and the length of time that the step takes. It can also be helpful to include the range of times you observed for each step. An approval may take an average of two days, but it’s important to know that sometimes it takes two weeks.

Now gather your team around and discuss what’s up on the wall. What looks weird? What step did you inadvertently leave out? What Blinding Glimpse of the Obvious do you find?

Who does what, and when do they do it?

Time tracking helps answer not only how long a project takes, it helps you focus on who does how much work and, just as importantly, when they do their work. Better Blogging Inc.’s writer may spend four hours writing on any given project, but the project manager might touch the project six different times.

Time tracking’s ability to show both number of touches AND the duration of those touches is an important diagnostic tool for improving efficiency and quality.

Now that you know what’s what, you’ve got a better idea of what’s next.

Now that you’ve visualized your work stream, and you’ve got a better idea of how long work actually takes, you’ll be able to identify the bottlenecks that seem to confound every team at some point. For example, you may find that your writer ends up spending two extra hours per project waiting on answers to one question that would allow them to finish their piece of the project, and hand it over to an editor. In essence, you’ve got two machines waiting to do their jobs, leaving other jobs undone.
Knowing this, you might decide to tweak your process so that the work is handed off to an editor or a project manager to follow up and fill in the final missing piece of information before moving it into approval.
It’s a simple step, but one you might not have known to take without the perspective created by tracking time and understanding how your process works and why.

Conquering the Iron Triangle

Conventional wisdom and clever promotional items often oversimplify what good project managers innately know: that the quality of any given project happens through the balancing of three constraints: Time, Scope, and Costs.

The so-called Iron Triangle dictates that as any of of the three elements change, the remaining two become more constrained.
Effective project management, then, involves judicious adjustments to the elements under your control to create the highest quality outcome possible. And while all three elements can prove to be annoyingly slippery to grasp, knowing how time is spend can be a powerful tool in controlling the quality of the end result.

You Can’t Manage What You Haven’t Measured
Whether you’re writing blog posts, staffing up for an event, covering all the operating hours surrounding seasonal ups and downs, or trying to figure out whether to add staff to cover a growing project or client list, you’ve got to be able to quantify your current workload if you hope to maintain efficiency and productivity.
Time tracking gives you the rock-solid data set you need to make decisions on what needs more attention and what needs less.

Web Webster is a writer for, and writes about technology, education, healthcare for companies across the US. He’s found that intuitive, easy-to-use time tracking and project software is worth every penny.

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