Beemer (dr_tectonic) wrote,

Falsehoods Organizations Believe About Timecards

Many organizations have policies, procedures, and tools for reporting hours worked. These are often used to determine how many hours an employee has worked on different projects and hence how much to charge to the account keys associated with those projects.

For some kinds of work, this accounting process is relatively straightforward, but for others, not so much. Particularly when it comes to knowledge work, these systems rely upon and encode a variety of assumptions that are, to varying degrees, wrong. (It's the view imposed by this system that matters here, not what individuals involved with the system think, which is why this is titled "Falsehoods organizations believe..." rather than the usual "Falsehoods programmers believe...")

For jobs like mine, none of the following assumptions are reliably true, most of them aren't even commonly true, and some of them are never true. (Note that this is by no means an exhaustive list.)

Falsehoods Your Time Reporting System Probably Believes
  1. Work can be cleanly associated with a single project.

  2. Work can be cleanly allocated amongst a fixed set of projects.

  3. Projects are distinct from one another.

  4. There is no essential work that isn't associated with a project.

  5. Switching tasks takes no time.

  6. Working productively is a boolean state, either off or on.

  7. Working is synonymous with being in the office.

  8. Employees have regular and predictable schedules.

  9. Hours worked can be predicted in advance.

  10. Knowledge workers can do 8 hours of useful work in a day.

  11. The amount of useful work an employee can do in a day is a constant.

  12. A 40-hour work week maximizes net productivity for knowledge work.

  13. Productivity has a linear relationship with hours worked.

  14. Project budgets reflect estimates of work that are accurate and precise.

  15. It is possible for estimates of work to be accurate, precise, and bounded.

  16. Project plans accurately reflect the work to be done.

  17. Projects are finished when the funding runs out.

  18. Once a project is complete, it stays finished and no longer requires work.

  19. A supervisor's approval of a timecard is meaningful.

Now, the fact that these assumptions are wrong doesn't mean that something is broken and needs to be changed. A timecard system is essentially a model of how employees do work, and everyone knows the aphorism that all models are wrong, but some models are useful. As long as the model is useful, it's okay for it to be imperfect. Plus, it may be required that the system pretend that these assumptions are true for various legal and practical reasons.

Consequently, there are there important things to keep in mind when implementing or changing a timecard system: first, that it is in fact a model and not an objective measurement, so the measure of its worth is its utility, not its correctness. Second, that context matters and it's best to proceed with caution when considering policies, procedures, and tools that were created for other endeavors and may have different wrong-but-useful assumptions. And third and most importantly, that the work performed is what matters, so if there is a divergence between how work actually gets done and assumptions about how work should be done, the thing to change is the assumptions.

Feel free to suggest additions in the comments!

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