Sometimes there is a distinct mismatch between what we perceive the world to look like and what it actually is. This point was made clear to me by a colleague of mine from the academic world who was trying to record how he actually spent his day.
It seems his university wanted to know how much time he was spending in three different areas; research, teaching and student counseling. This information was important as it was to be used to justify more time for research leading to future grants and funding awards. While he did not share with me the actual results of his analysis, he did say that he had downloaded a self-supporting activity software as a time reporting tool to help him keep track of his efforts.
What he discovered was that his perception of how he spent his day was radically different from the data he entered into the activity tool. His next revelation was that there was probably a similar sized gap between what he downloaded into the activity tool and what he actually did! He also realized that these issues could only be addressed if the data were automatically collected rather than self-reported.
What issues? Well, anyone who has ever filled out a food log or meal diary can tell you, the veracity of the data is a bit, well…questionable. Since self-reporting is the major way of capturing data when it comes to hours worked, time taken on activities, etc.; is it any wonder then the issue of productivity, especially in a digital work environment, is unreliable?
One of the questions I am frequently asked by sr. managers is, “My people all seem so busy but really, what is it that they actually do all day”? This is not a question about the integrity of the people; it shows that a knowledge gap exists in the perception and the reality of the time being spent on specific activities and the true effort required for its completion. This knowledge gap is often compared to an iceberg where less than half of the information is apparent with the rest existing out of readily accessible sight. This is the situation where what you don’t know can and does hurt you! Often, like in the case of my academic friend, people are asked to self-report their time onto timesheets and other self-service mechanisms. Unfortunately, this is often less than useful given the truthfulness and accuracy of the information.
How do you overcome this? The first step is to get a true measurement of the actual work being done. Through the use of automated data collection tools, the activities are recorded as they happen thus eliminating any latency or self-reporting errors. Then, based on an accurate (and I cannot stress the word accurate enough!) set of data, the proper measurements can be constructed. One of the most useful measures we have found is a simple description of the breakdown of time spent among productive, non-productive and idle activities. Most customers are able to save millions of dollars per year based upon this measure alone! It is relatively straightforward and almost always yields an ROI within the first 6 months of use (or fewer in many cases).
Next, more targeted analytics can be instrumented that measure, output, productivity, and performance improvement. While it seems relatively simple, sometimes simply making the iceberg’s true size visible is all it takes to avoid disaster. The same thing is true with work activities and employee time reporting; visibility is the first step to performance improvement and it is all based on the accuracy of the data and the application of targeted, simplified and meaningful metrics.