Timesheets – the blunt object of management

It amazes me that so many of my colleagues and other professional knowledge firms (lawyers etc) still utilise timesheets as the basis for “managing” staff and billing their customers.

dilbert - customer serviceI have written on numerous occasions about the lack of logic in this approach and the fact that it places the interest of the firm in direct opposition to the interests of the customer (the incentive for the firm is to spend more time on the job as doing things more quickly leads to lower bills).  The fact that it also impacts adversely on the customer relationship is an issue that many who argue the opposite rarely mention.

Using timesheets to manage your people is not at all edifying.  It doesn’t create the behaviors you want and causes your team to be more focused on inputs rather than outcomes.  This then leads to staff feeling they need to deliver high recoverable hours rather than results that matter to the customer.  I know when I was using timesheets, I found the process cumbersome, tiresome and irritating.  When it comes to assessing performance using the “all powerful” measure of “productivity”, it became a stick that no-one liked using or having used on them.

The timesheet is a very blunt object which many professional knowledge firm managers use to analyse the performance of their people.  Many years ago, I was having a discussion with a retired lawyer and we were talking about the difference in team members in his firm – as he indicated at that time, he would rather have a staff member who was really solid at client relationships rather than one who was better technically as the customers really valued the relationship they had – his summary was that the relationship was, in effect, more important to the customer than the quality of the work!

Now, when we take this issue a step further, the time that is “spent” building and managing a relationship with the customer, in the world of timesheets, needs to be recorded and billed to them.  After all, it is work relating to the customer and, when you are being assessed on the amount of time you have spent working on the customer, well, you need to record it and it becomes part of the timesheet/WIP world.  It then gets charged to the customer and, when they look at the bill they see they have been charged for talking about their recent holiday, the kids and school, weather, sports results or current interesting news and they get pissed off.  The work that has been done to develop and relationship then turns into a point of argument and resentment.  That is of course unless the manager on the jobs writes it off the WIP – in which case, it impacts on their performance metrics…

All this reporting, analysis and processing.  For and to what end?

Hit tip to my fellow Verasage Fellow Ed Kless for the following reference in his blog post of 10 June, 2009:

Reports and procedures should be the tool of the man who fills them out. They must never themselves become the measure of his performance. A man must never be judged by the quality of the production forms he fills out – unless he be the clerk in change of these forms. He must always be judged by his production performance. And the only way to make sure of this it by have him fill out no forms, make no reports, except those he need himself to achieve performance. – Peter Ferdinand Drucker, The Practice of Management, 1954, page 135

Stating the obvious – Drucker is right.  There is no point in having forms filled out for the sake of filling out forms.

There are so many different ways that can be used to assist your team in their development.  As I discussed with the senior staff of an accounting firm in Melbourne the other week – if you are relying on timesheets to determine the level of performance of your people, you’re probably not doing a great job of managing your people in the first place.

The whole approach takes the human out of human beings.  It reduces them to being cogs in a wheel, ciphers on a page.  It does nothing apart from create new and different ways of disengaging your people and aggravating your customers.

The challenge is for my colleagues to stick their heads up and determine what has helped them get here will actually hold them back from getting to where they want to go.

Using Drucker’s logic, we therefore need to review whether the forms and recording that our people are doing is actually helping them perform their roles or if it is in fact holding them back from doing better, more valuable work and therefore making a more positive contribution to the business as a whole.


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