I would guess that everyone in business has been asked to fill in a timesheet with dozens of charge codes – one for this project, one for training, one for admin, one for this other activity, one for… The list is usually endless. And equally endless seems to be managers’ craving for more and more data. Right now I am working in an otherwise quite sane organisation where I am nevertheless expected to complete a timesheet in excruciating detail. Given that my time is not chargeable and I’m supposed to be the metrics and measurement guru around here, it’s all a bit galling, to say the least!
Asked what they use it for, the answer often turns out to be ‘Nothing at the moment, but it will be useful…’ Oh really? Useful for what? And when? Naturally I don’t push this too far – some things are just corporate obsessions, and it’s definitely a Career-Limiting Move to question them too harshly.
Yet there are times when this fetishisation of numbers becomes quite bonkers. Two variants are especially stupid – when the data is deliberately falsified, and when the cost of collection is wildly over the top.
Take for example a consultancy I used to work for. A timesheet was put in every week, and then our chargeability was reviewed by the board – of which I was a member. Then one day I found myself being firmly reprimanded by the Chairman himself to the effect that no one was supposed to book more 37.5 hours a week. In fact I had booked 62. So I asked him, Whose data would you like me to falsify? No answer was forthcoming, and I went on booking my real hours. But the accounts department had firm instructions to edit my timesheet so that it fell in with the Chairman’s lack of numeracy.
Of course, it’s a petty story – until you work out how much effort is put into taking, processing and reporting measurements of all kinds that are never used. Probably tens of millions of people fill in a timesheet or some other record every day/week/month, only to have it effectively ignored.
But sometimes the waste is staggering. I used to work for a big consultancy, in an internal management role. One day a bunch of consultants I had not met before rolled up and announced that they were going to ‘fix’ our project proposal process. It seemed like a good idea – we were a bit haphazard and it was not unknown for us to sign up to a real disaster we really should have seen coming.
But then they started to tell me what they were going to do, and it was essentially a process of gathering the opinion of practically every senior manager and partner in the company. I was especially surprised at the long list of data they were going to collect for me. But I don’t have any use for this information, I said. But it’s very useful, they replied. For what? I asked. It will be very useful, they insisted. For what? I reiterated (I’m not very creative when it comes to people who repeat themselves). They would not back down, and I was in no hurry to admit that there was any point in collecting data about things no one actually wanted to know about.
So I decided to investigate the matter a little more thoroughly. I went to all of the people these consultants said they we helping to evaluate proposals and asked them two questions. One, as decision-makers, which parts of the information they were being offered would they actually use? And two, as information-suppliers, how much would it cost to generate the data they were being asked for?
The answer was less than astonishing. On average, only about half of the data that was to be collected would actually be used by anyone, and the total cost of this whole process would be about £60,000 per proposal. So we would be wasting about £30,000 every time we looked at a new job.
The moral of this tale? Don’t measure what you don’t manage. And while you’re at it, don’t measure things you do manage either, unless you are perfectly sure that the measurements will really be used – ideally as the clincher, but certainly as an important source of knowledge. Not that I would expect many companies to observe such a rule – after all, how many administrations, programme offices and finance departments would survive the resulting purge?
The other moral? Don’t ask people to solve problems they don’t understand and of which they have no experience, just because they are clever people and at a bit of a loose end. But that is a subject on which I could write a book.