You’re Not Late—You’re Using the Wrong Metric (Yes, Time)

If there’s one metric that used more than any other, it’s time. Time is unique in that we all have a limited and finite amount. You can’t make more time, stockpile it, refund it, or spend it faster. Time is priceless.

Its usefulness as a metric is convenient because it’s constant. One hour today is the same thing as one hour tomorrow. Costs, productivity, effort, etc. are driven from time based metrics and used to forecast spans of time (months, years, decades). We use time to plan—and thus—we use time to watch and control the present; as well as, benchmark the future and past.

As a project manager, I’m always dealing with time. And as a project manager, I’ve realized that while time is a constant in the sense of measuring the void of space; it is not a human constant. Businesses are nothing more than a group of humans and thus susceptible to all things humans are susceptible to. And in lies the focus of this aside—I think we (from a business sense) have misinterpreted how to use time. Time is not the best way to bill, pay, measure, quote, plan, manage, or lead. My reasoning for time being a poor metric I’ve broken into three parts; timing, scalability, and control. What follows is then my suggestion on how we move forward.

But before we start I want to tell a quick story. Years ago a sleep study was done to see what would happen if all circadian clues were removed from an environment. Would we never sleep? Never wake-up? In the end they found that we reverted to sleeping about eight hours after a seventeen hour day. That’s right—a twenty-five hour day is what happens when left to our own accord. To a point, we work to fill the time allotted; but, we are also hardwired into this place called earth and even then—without us meaning to—we revert to that constant of time. What I mention below isn’t conventional, but I ask you proceed with an open mind. After all, in the end we’re only human and we’ll revert to our (twenty-five hour day) human ways.

TIMING

While one hour today is the same as an hour tomorrow in measuring space; it is not in the sense of human productivity, mood, chance, etc. Hence the term, timing. How productive I am at 3:00am is vastly different from how productive I am at 3:00pm. How well I can concentrate, negotiate, plan, etc. is affected by when I ate last, slept last, and the environment (stressful, hot, loud, etc.) I’m inhabiting. What happened the minute before and minute after matters. Did I just get yelled at? Did I just get interrupted? A minute is a constant of space between two others—all absorbed by interruptions, distractions, and life.

And timing isn’t constant. You can’t plan for it. It doesn’t average out over time or any other constant.

SCALABILITY

Guess how many hours are in five days in April? And five days in December? Yep, they’re the same. And if we double the days in April, the hours also double. Pretty wild, eh?

If you have to make ten pancakes Sunday morning, how much time will it take? What if instead you had to make 100? It wouldn’t take ten times longer, would it? If you needed to build a website, doubling the developers working on it wouldn’t cut the timeline in half either. And doubling the number of framers on a construction site doesn’t half the duration.

The three steps involved of any task (beginning, doing, finishing) apply to everyone involved and everyone goes through them at a different pace. And the speed at which anyone goes through them is directly related to the number of people involved and complexity of the task. Numbers, days, and calculations can’t be applied to any of these and thus don’t and can’t scale.

CONTROL

Intrinsic motivation outweighs extrinsic and is based on autonomy, mastery and control. We can’t control time. It goes on at its own pace with or without us. Benchmarking ourselves to an element we can’t control, when other factors like timing and scalability come into play, simply removes all autonomy. And without control or autonomy—there’s no desire or way to become a master. Anytime we tie a task or goal or mission to a time bound constraint, we’ve lost. There’s no sense in bettering what you can’t control—or measuring against it, or thinking there’s purpose in either of the prior activities. If you can’t control it—and you can’t—it’s best to find how you deal with it. For example, we don’t control the weather—we deal with it. Time is no different.

SOLUTION

For a year I was a middle market insurance broker. While a good broker, I failed at that job for a number of reasons. Brokers without a book of business walk-in to the office each day with no emails, no voice mails and no to-dos. No one is telling you what to do and there is no “work.” One of the hardest parts is coming in each and everyday—day after day—and creating work. Hitting the phones, emails and lunches. It’s a tough time and one of the pieces of advice that stuck with me was that at the end of every day, it doesn’t matter how many hours you put in, what matters is whether you’d sign your name to that day. In other words, if you’re not proud of what you accomplished and don’t want to sign your name to the day then eventually you’ll fail. Whether you’re in the office twelve hours a day or five—what matters is if you’re satisfied with what you got done.

Go into any school room and watch the teacher handout assignments. The first ones done aren’t the smartest—they’re the fastest. Ask a group to read an excerpt to themselves and those who finish first—while consistent—may not have the best comprehension. On the flip slide, the same applies to those who finish last—they aren’t necessarily the “best” either. The point being—we all work and do our best work at different speeds. Is it fair to tell someone who works best slow that they’re always late? Or make the fast worker sit around for three of eight hours every day because they’re already done with their work?

The point here is that at the end of the day—what matters is what was completed—not how much time it took. Further, that which has the most value is that which is most difficult. If it takes two people one hour to complete a report, is one of the person’s hour more valuable if they can automate the report so next time it only takes five minutes? Effort isn’t valuable—but progress and complexity both are. And unlike time, progress and complexity are valuable to the employer and the customer. A customer isn’t willing to spend more because your employee took more or less time—but they are willing to pay for completion (progress) and utility (complexity). For the sake of simplicity as we continue—let’s call this headway going forward.

So if a customer is willing to pay based on headway—and headway is what’s truly valued within a company; why don’t we use the results of headway as a benchmark and metric? Headway is tangible and its achievement can be felt. We also have a feeling for what headway is required to complete something (which is not time based). Headway is the solution to our time based ways. And the reason that this isn’t clearer is that there is no measurement for headway—no universal way to communicate what headway is. There are no MS Excel formulas for headway—or columns within MS Project.

My proposition is for a new way of running companies where metrics have direct value and meaning (to people… humans), where employees no longer punch time clocks and metrics aren’t abstract numbers that aren’t directly impacting results. In my next post I hope to lay out exactly how the above can be accomplished.

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