So What’s the Problem with $%&^*!# Timesheets?

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Yup.  I’ve gone and said it.  Right there in the title.  And anyone involved in the Professional Services Industry knows exactly what I’m talking about. Well maybe not everyone.  And maybe not in the same way.

The accountants and engineers are thinking, “What? Is there a bug in our timesheet system? Have I completed something incorrectly and how can I fix it?  I hope it’s not materially off.”

The consultants are thinking, “What? My utilization stats better be right! (Or overstated . . . overstated works.)”

The advertising creatives are thinking, “WTF? They’re still asking for timesheets?!? Seriously?”

And the advertising finance guys are tearing up a little thinking, “Finally . . . maybe . . . someone understands my pain.  Are the therapy sessions all group sessions or are one-on-ones available as well?”

I grew up in public accounting so it was never an issue.  Since we were all (gasp) beancounters, we did what we were told and of course would never shy away from the opportunity to tally up a few more numbers. It’s how we rolled. AND we completed them manually. AND (horror of horrors) we submitted THREE copies to make it easier on the processing side.  It doesn’t get any more conformist than that.

But we can live a sheltered life only so long, and when I was shoved out of the nest I eventually fell into a CFO’s chair in market research.  There I learned that not everyone has the same reverence for The Almighty Billable Hour.  And if they did, it was more of a spiritual thing that really couldn’t be captured on paper.  Timesheets weren’t so much a tax form mandated by law on a certain date.  They were more of a charitable contribution . . . make an offering out of the goodness of your heart if the spirit moves you.  But this was market research, after all, and these people were data-oriented and understood numbers.  So with some healthy collaboration from the CEO and a bit of reengineering and dialogue, we eventually got to a good place.

Then came advertising.  If market research was my coming-of-age in the Timesheet War of Always, advertising was the beaches of Normandy.  This was not for the faint of heart . . . only battle-hardened troops need apply.  For if anything is an affront to the creative mind and spirit, it is the notion that the value of an idea can be captured in the number of hours it took to create that idea.  And you know what? They’re right. I get it.  Because the first struggle of cognitive dissonance that I faced in advertising was that of a highly creative service battling against the commoditization force of the clients’ procurement function. I have a deep respect and awe for creative people.  They have a gift that few others have been given.  And the last thing any smart CFO wants to do is undermine that creative mindset.  Admit it, we gotta love those folks that show up every day with blue hair and pink sneakers.  (Maybe I’ll show up with blue hair one day . . . Hint: If I do it will solve the mystery of who is the unnamed guy in Connecticut that won the Powerball Lottery).

And yet it doesn’t absolve us of the need to collect this seemingly mundane data on a constant basis.  When “people costs” represent 60%-70% of your business cost structure, it’s foolish to run blind and not understand how those hours are being spent. You have to if you are going to stay competitive and optimize your operation, and it’s critical to so many insights about the business such as pricing, client profitability, line-of-business profitability, and labor organization.  Timesheets don’t capture the value of the creative idea, but they are the Rosetta Stone to understanding the cost.  It’s almost bizarre that something so fundamental and important continues to be such a struggle.  And yet here we are in this never ending loop of frustration on all sides.

It will never be perfect but it can be better through improved user experience design (consistent with the culture of the target population); dialogue (to recognize and acknowledge the root causes of resistance); collaboration (to ensure leadership throughout the organization is aligned on the importance of this mission); and linkage of resulting benefits (to feed back some benefit to those burdened by the process).  The last point will only be achieved if the balance of the system design is of high quality and leverages the granularity of the upstream time inputs.

But there will always be those few of militant spirit that refuse to avoid the full-on battle scenario. So be brave Sergeant Finance as you crawl forward, eventually sprinting the last 20 yards and lunging into the machine gun nest, staring straight down the barrel into the eyes of your adversary and asking, “Where’s your $%&^*!# timesheet?”