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Time Estimate or Time Padding? OR: How to Improve Scheduling.

By:  Collin Quiring


In trying to set up schedules, one of the best ways to find out how much time is needed for a specific task is to ask the person doing the task.  And, one of the worst ways to get an accurate amount of time is to ask the person doing the task.  More often than not, when asking the person that is assigned the work how much time they need to complete their task, they will give a padded number – sometimes significantly.


Why?  Is it that they don’t really know how long it takes?  Is it that they are born liars?  Is it because they want free time and hope that you will build it into the schedule?  The answer to all of these is a resounding “No!” 


It seems that Resources (what Project Managers like to call people) have a few concerns about answering the time question.  Usually, a Resource has multiple projects that they work on.  And, they have overlapping work from those projects.  And, they have non-scheduled time (from mandated training to watercooler discussions).  And, they are given conflicting priorities.  And, and, and, and….. 


So, what are they often doing when they give a time estimate?  Are they padding the time unrealistically?  They might be padding it a bit but I think that most people add up the “and’s” of their work life and they come up with a relatively accurate time estimate.  The disconnect seems to be between the Resource and the Project Manager (or Resource Manager).


The Project or Resource Manager wants to know how long it will take to do the task in THE schedule of the moment while the Resource is providing how long it will take due to ALL of their work.  There are lots of “solutions” to resolve this problem– some technical and some business or company cultural.  However, I submit that the core issues are not resolved and that we tend to address the symptoms. 


The root causes of the problem seem to me to be trust of each other and understanding.


Part of the reason that the Resource gives seemingly extreme time estimates is because they have learned that if they give a short time frame, the Project/Resource Manager will hold them to it regardless of other work or variables.  And, from the other perspective, the Project/Resource Manager has seen the Resource do this work “in less time than that” but doesn’t seem to understand that there were other tasks neglected to do so.  (And, Project Managers have learned that at the start of a schedule it is easier to have an unrealistically short deadline and then deal with missing it when the time comes than it is to tell the sponsor from the beginning they can’t meet the deadline – but, that is a different post.)


How can this tidbit of knowledge improve scheduling?  If we would just sit down and sing Kumbaya together the world of scheduling would be a better place.  Ok, maybe not.  But, the way to immediately improve scheduling is to try and understand the capacity and utilization of a Resource.  From the Resource’s perspective, they would need to give estimates that are “in a vacuum” – a time estimate for how long it takes to do the work, if that was all they did.  The Project/Resource Manager needs to understand and compensate for variables that affect the time estimates for THE schedule by accounting for ALL work.  With a real time estimates and a schedule that can move with the changing realities of work, a schedule can become a powerful and accurate tool.

Easy to say, difficult to do. 


However, we have found when working with customers that getting to this point has always paid off. 


I think about the phrase “We never have time to do it right the first time, but we always have time to do it again.”  Perhaps, if we trusted each other and extended an understanding of work realities we would have done it right the first time because we would have scheduled enough time.



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