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Taking Baby Steps

I ran across a nice video of how to take baby steps to implementing time tracking within your organization.  It’s worth watching.  Follow the link below for the video.

The theory is that you can get immediate value from a time tracking product like Standard Time® with minimal input.  And then after implementing the product, you can take several baby steps to gaining incremental value.  It’s up to you when you reach the point of diminishing returns (when more employee participation yields less value).  But this program has enough upward latitude to allow you to explore the upper limits of your company’s needs.

Follow the steps and see what you think!

Baby Steps For Time Tracking

There are no big problems; there are just a lot of little problems.

There are no big problems; there are just a lot of little problems.

— Henry Ford

Henry Ford was the genius of the 20th Century assembly line.  He almost singlehandedly designed the Model T and Model A Fords.  Those two cars were the workhorses of the early 1900’s.  So when Henry speaks of “little problems” he’s talking about inventing the entire automobile industry.  But that’s big enough for anyone.

His point, though, is that in engineering you have dozens of little issues to deal with.  And they stay with you indefinitely.  In other words, engineering is a constant fight with little problems that you must work out with patience and perseverance.  If you don’t have the aptitude, don’t get into engineering!

1. One of the biggest problems engineering people have is balancing quality with cost.  Any engineer can tackle the myriad of little problems before them.  But can they do it cost effectively?  In other words, does it take forever to solve them, thus costing a fortune?  Or can they resolve each one rapidly and without expensive solutions.  The balance between polishing your work in a craftsmanship style, and pumping product after product out the door is a big, big problem that requires a lot of thought.

2. The next biggest problem engineers face is collateral damage from engineering fixes.  I.e. bugs.  Here’s an example: Say you are an electrical engineer designing a printed circuit board.  And in your haste to produce a cost effective product, you forget a circuit trace.  The manufacturing department is now forced to hand-wire that trace.  It now costs your company much more in the long run.  That’s a bug that must be retooled.  Things like that happen in every engineering discipline.  It’s definitely the next biggest problem you must face.

3. The final big problem engineers face is time estimates and project schedules.  Engineers do not think like other human beings.  They cannot estimate time with any degree of accuracy.  And they do not like being interrogated about how long their work will take.  You’ll just have to wait until it’s done, they’ll say.  I’m working as fast as I can.  Problem is, big money is riding on their engineering work.  Sometimes the company just can’t wait.  It the engineer that has to hurry up and product the product on the company’s timeline.  And that can lead to big battles.  So this is a fairly big problem facing engineering departments and company executives.

And then after those three, there are just a lot of little problems.  🙂

Epic Fail: Why Projects Go Off the Rails

Are you beginning to think your project may be a total wreck?  Is it way over budget?  And does anybody but you care about that?  Does it bother anybody that there’s no end in sight?  And feature-creep never seems to end?  If so, that’s a sign that your project has gone off the rails, and is doomed for failure.

Chances are you’re not the only one who’s noticed.

A dark cloud of failure sometimes descends upon project from time to time.  I’m not sure if anybody really knows why.  It just happens.  I suppose you could call it a “perfect storm” of incompetence, wrong choices, and apathy.  When those circumstances form up into that dark cloud over your project, forget it!  You’re done!

Epic Fail

 

This begs the question of whether there should be an assigned person whose responsibility it is to watch for telltale signs of failure.  Such a person should first of all have been involved in a few epic failures so he knows the signs.  Peering into the hazy fog doesn’t do anybody any good.

Here are some signs to look for:

Missing half your milestones
If your project is consistently blowing past half the milestones (evaluation points), then you clearly haven’t identified all the work required.  And if that’s the case, your project may last 2 – 3 times longer than expected.  Is that okay?  Can the budget hold that much water?

Cynical Team Members
Are your project team members gossiping about management?  Has water cooler talk all gone negative?  If so, the team may have lost its moral.  Employees can’t always pinpoint the problems, but they sure can gripe.  If that’s happening a lot, then you project may be in trouble.

No End In Sight
Can team members see the light at the end of the tunnel?  Are you making progress, or just spinning your wheels.  You had better see some progress or you might be in a death march.

The Death March
This is when overtime rises to 60 – 80 hours per week.  You’re working weekends to meet a vague deadline that has no obvious payoff.  And you get the distinct impression that you’re still climbing the hill rather than sledding down the other side.  Project leads say you’re just about finished, but you get the sense that that isn’t true.  Why else would the work keep piling up?

Pulling Out
As we said earlier, the only way to pull out of the situation like this is for a whistleblower to call it.  Do you have one on your team?  If so, chop the product into quarters.  Deliver what little you have done now.  Take a big break.  And then take up the monumental challenge of boiling the ocean.  Maybe your project is just four times bigger than you first imagined.

A Helpful Timesheet Product: Standard Time®
Here’s a link to YouTube video that could help.  This is a timesheet project that may have a few answers, and may impose some order to your project.  It’s worth a look.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJRKTBye2j4

 

YouTube Video: Consulting Software

This YouTube video for consulting software is pretty neat. It covers a lot of ground in five minutes, and is worth taking a look at. Amateur, but neat. The premise starts with a timesheet and closely related time log view where consulting hours are displayed. Of course, the timesheet is a typical Monday thru Friday grid with client projects on the left. Things got cooler with the time log ivew. The time log displays the same records as the time sheet, but in a top-to-bottom view.

Consultants will drool over this. Trust me.

For every time log record (which is also displayed in the timesheet) you get a client field, project, category, start and end times, actual work field, client rate, client cost, billable, and billed columns. There are other columns not shown that can be added to this view. Plus, you can filter that time log view to show only the work you did for a certain client or project, or only the work for a selected consultant. Or only work for a selected date range. That’s slick! You can also filter out the non-billable records and only see what is billable to the client.

But this is only where the app just begins…

The video goes on to show a glimpse of the billing rates window. (Wish it showed more.) It seems that you can set the billing rates for each consultant, and for each project they work on. So every consultant has his own rates for every project. And they only see the project they work on. Nice. But again, the video is brief, so you have to check this out for yourself – it’s just a five minute overview.

If time tracking is not enough, there is a menu item to show project revenue over a 12-month timeframe. This lets you see trends for the coming months and identify bad months that require attention. If only it also showed historical results for the last 12 months… That would be cool, but probably not as useful. Every project has its own win/loss percentage projections so it acts like a sales funnel. But all that’s a side issue that consulting companies get for free. Sure, you’ll use it, but the real stuff is logging billable hours.

The video sticks right to the point: client receivables and consultant utilization rates. That’s is the heart and soul of consulting. Get those wrong and you fail. So those reports let you see where your money is coming from, and what your effective billing rate really is. In other words, how much is your organization is billing for the work it does. Reports like this naturally raise the question, “How to increase your effective billing rate?” Edging out small increases is what consulting is all about. If you spend too much time on non-billable or in-house jobs, you die. If your effective billing rate is too low, you die. If you don’t book gigs, you die. If you don’t invoice billable hours, you die. This program seems to get that.

What is not mentioned in this video is equally valuable: expense tracking, client invoicing and QuickBooks integration. Yes, the product has those things, but the video fails to highlight them. Why? Not enough time, I suppose… I’m not sure. But it’s nice to know that there’s more to this product than the basics that can fit in a 5-minute video. Definitely worth a look.

Check it out: Consulting Software

False Front Prototypes

When you watch the old Westerns like ‘3-10 To Yuma’ you are usually treated to a Main Street with old-time businesses and homes on it. Horse drawn wagons lumber by. Victorian dress is on full display. A child taps an iron barrel ring down the dusty street with a stick. There’s the obligatory livery station, bank, gunsmith and hardware store, and cobbler. They all sport a nice tall false front, as the turn of the Century buildings often did. It’s exactly like “real life” in 1880.

But what you don’t see is the backs of those buildings. The Hollywood cameraman never goes back there. Guess what? There’s nothing back there! The buildings are literally just false fronts. You couldn’t actually live in one of those houses or do business in one of those stores. Sure, there are a few sets where you see characters going into and out of those businesses, but those movie sets may be in a completely different sound stage. Nothing is as it seems; it’s all staged for the camera.

Got your attention? Now consider how this happens in engineering…

In engineering, we build prototypes to help people see what a finished product will look like. What people? Customers, potential investors, buyers, company executives, project stakeholders. Everyone needs an idea what a product will look like when the engineering is complete. It gets everyone on the same page, and dispels misunderstandings. Sure, the prototypes have a few warts. It can have reduced functionality, but it must *look* like the finished product, and must allow the sales force to tell the story and make the sale.

The problem with these prototypes is that they have almost none of the proper engineering – much like a Western movie set. Sure, they look good, and may even appear to work. For the purposes of a First Look, they satisfy everyone curiosity and need to see something tangible, and they get everyone thinking in the same vein. But they may not have any of the correct functionality! That fact alone leads to a false sense of completion.

Project managers, engineers, project stakeholders, and everyone alike can be lulled into a false belief that these systems are just a step away from completion. In actuality, they are like false front Western movie sets. You could never consider actually using them for everyday purposes. But after looking at them for an extended period of time, you come to a false belief that you could. You forget how far they are from reality.

It’s that “one step to final product” illusion that gets everyone into trouble — especially the engineers. They are the ones tasked with readying the product for release. Everyone around them believes the product is almost there – almost finished. But it’s not. The stakeholders have big money riding on a swift move from prototype to production. Customer expectations have been set, and they are waiting – sometimes not so patiently. Problem is, there is no swift move. The prototype must be thrown away and the “real” engineering begins. It’s like throwing away the Hollywood false front hardware store and building a real one. You can’t just build onto the false cardboard buildings. They have none of the real factors that go into a real building. Real hardware stores are expensive! And they take a long time to build! They are nothing like the quickie cardboard movie sets.

Task Lingering: Employees Avoid the Unfamiliar

Actually, not just employees… Everybody avoids the unfamiliar. But this post is about employees, and specifically project team members that engineer or develop new technologies. It’s about how employees sometimes try to settle into familiar tasks and avoid new and unfamiliar ones. And it’s about how to prevent that.

But wait… why prevent it? Isn’t efficiency gained by perfecting the familiar? By polishing your craft so you can perform it virtually without thought?

Yes, but this isn’t really about that. It’s about the propensity of employees to spend too much time on project tasks they have become familiar and comfortable with, to the exclusion of those upcoming tasks they dread the thought of.

I’ve heard reports of engineers racking up 200 – 500% extra time on tasks that could have been completed at the estimated time. Here’s the reason: people become comfortable with tasks they’ve spent significant time on and don’t want to leave them. The next task on their list may be unfamiliar and scary, so they stay on the one that doesn’t give off those vibes. The justification is that the current task could use some more polish.
Problem is, you’ve got to keep marching on. Your projects must be completed and delivered. You can’t afford to dally on project tasks you’ve already completed.

Here’s a technique you can use to discourage task lingerers. Set your timesheet “percent warning” to 75%. At that time, the task will begin reminding the employee that it’s time to move on. Of course, they may resist, but it’s a good reminder. Then set the “percent error” to go off at 125%. That stops team members from entering any more time. You can extend it with an administrator override, but at least you have some controls to monitor and manage task lingering.

Here’s a YouTube video that describes task lingering.

Task Drivers

Microsoft Project as a simple method to find out which tasks are driving the ‘Start Date’ for a selected task. These are called “Task Drivers.” In other words, predecessor tasks that affect successor tasks.

Here’s how to find the task driver for a selected task:
    1. Click on any task that has predecessors
    2. Click in the “Track” menu button in the tool bar
    3. Choose “See what is driving the start date of a task”
    4. A panel appears at the left, showing the tasks that drive the selected on

 

 

Here, you can see that “Task 1a” drives “Task 2”, even though “Task 1b” is also a predecessor.  Task 1a is a “Task Driver” to Task 2.

Presenteeism is the new Absenteeism

You can easily measure absenteeism in your project team.  Just count the number of days employees miss.  Bear down on them enough, and they’ll come in to work… like the walking dead.  That’s presenteeism. You are present, but not capable to work.  That’s the topic of a CIO Insight article at the link below.

http://www.cioinsight.com/c/a/IT-Management/Depression-at-Work-New-Initiative-Addresses-Lost-Productivity-663213/

 

Presenteeism is when your project team is half slaughtered by the stress and worry of everything around them – threats of layoff, political, economic, worldwide – yet they drag into work anyway.  Hey, it’s better to eke out a few hours of work than sit around on your duff, right?

I don’t suppose there’s any good answer to this. It is what it is.  We’re not living in a 1950’s ‘Leave It To Beaver’ sitcom anymore.  This decade is hardcore depressing.  Layoffs are happening all around us, businesses are failing, others are hanging on for an elusive economic uptick, but few are prospering.

My advice: just recognize this in your project team.  Be sympathetic.  Don’t bear down for more production.  Just try to be a pleasant manager if possible.  We’ll come out of it eventually. What else can we do?

Give Up Chocolate to Telecommute?

In the recent CIO Insight poll (see link below), 29% of the respondents say they’d give up chocolate to telecommute.  Yeah, right!  For how long?  17% said they’d give up a salary increase for telecommuting.  And 5% would even ditch the spouse.  Okay… that’s going a little too far.  But evidently, that’s what they said.  Check out the story here.

http://www.cioinsight.com/c/a/IT-Management/What-Your-Employees-Would-Give-Up-to-Telecommute-503693/

Evidently, people will do almost anything to work at home.

I can tell you from first-hand experience that the productivity boosts are enormous.  Focus comes so easily.  But only if you are self-motivated person with autonomous tasks.  Project team members with frequent ties to other employees can’t pull this off well.

There is also no substitute for face-to-face interaction.  Ten times the information passed between people when they look each other in the eye.  Information fidelity drops as you employ lessor communication tools like telephone, email, and finally the worst, text.  Even Morse code is faster than text, as Jay Leno demonstrated, but not by much.

But the upshot is, employees will give up almost anything to telecommute.  Just remember that, project managers!