Estimating, Tracking, and Scheduling

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Dawn Stevens, Jeppesen

I love numbers! They tell me so many things, and I can use them to do so many things. For example, numbers tell me when my project will be done and how much it will cost. Numbers point out that I’m over budget but also help me justify why. The manipulation of numbers can help me achieve pretty much anything I need as I run my department. I might even be able to convince some of you that 2+2 = 5 for large values of 2.

In reality, numbers are an integral part of managing the Aviation Courseware Development group at Jeppesen. We are a group of technical communicators who create documentation and training for pilots at all levels. Ask me today how long it takes to create one of our text books, I can quote it to the page. Ask me how long it takes to create a CBT, I can quote it based on the estimated length of the program. Ask me how long it takes to create an XML information repository—well, I can give you an educated guess and promise you that I’m currently gathering more specific information.

It hasn’t always been this way. Six years ago, when I started at Jeppesen, there was no formal tracking method. Management didn’t know what it cost to create a product nor when a product would be done. It cost what it cost when it was finally done. Having been “born and raised,” if you will, in the industry with the understanding that the practices of Managing Your Documentation Projects by JoAnn Hackos were the equivalent of the Ten Commandments, this was the penultimate den of iniquity, and I set about to save the lost.

Today we track pretty much everything; in fact, our estimating and tracking strategies were one of the highest maturity level rankings we received in an IPMM study conducted in 2004. We track up to 20 unique activities (management, writing, technical editing, copyediting, graphics, and so on) for each and every deliverable we create. At any one moment, I can tell you how we are doing according to our estimates and if we are on track to meet our next milestone. If we’re not on track, I can tell you how much we’ll be over at our current rate and whether there’s any way to make up the time on another related deliverable.

But tracking does you no good if all you have is a bunch of numbers on the page. There’s no point in tracking if it’s just a tick mark on a checklist somewhere: “Yup, I’m a good manager because I track my projects.” It’s the analysis that makes tracking data useful. Sure, at the highest level, tracking data tells you whether you met your budget. You can accomplish this with one line in a spreadsheet – “Documentation – estimated 1000 hours, actual 1074 hours.” But that doesn’t tell you why you went over, where you can improve, or what you can expect the next time.

Tracking is so much more than whether you met your budget or schedule. It can be the basis for all your management decisions. Certainly, you could also spend all day analyzing numbers and not get anything from it, either. What analyses you perform depend on what you’re most concerned about, and that may change over time. For me, I find the following analyses the most useful based on my Level 2, moving to Level 3, organizational maturity:

  • Who am I working for? At a project level, the numbers in my department show me who my customers are: what percentage of my time is spent supporting which business units throughout the company. This information helps me justify my budgets for the next year and also helps me know what business units I should be targeting for new work.
  • Productivity. In this case, I am referring to productivity in terms of project time: how much time does my staff actually work on project work, as opposed to training, company meetings, time off, and so on. This metric helps me more accurately schedule my projects. If, for example, I find on average that people spend 25% of their average week in non-project related activities, then my projects should be scheduled based on 30 hours of work a week, not 40.
  • Management percentages. I’ve found that my projects that go over budget typically have lower management percentages. Many people, especially new managers, think they can get the project done more easily by giving the writers, editors, or artists more time to complete their work, so they give away their management time. Tracking management percentages throughout the project flags potential problem projects early, and I can take corrective action with my managers to ensure the project gets the management attention it needs.
  • Editing/writing ratios. When we first began tracking our budgets in this department, we found editing/writing ratios of 80-120%! That is, for every 40 hours a writer worked on a document, the editor spent 30-60 hours editing it. This was a huge red flag to dysfunction in the department and helped me pinpoint areas for immediate improvement. When this ratio is high, we either have a poor writer (whose work must be entirely rewritten) or a poor editor (who thinks everything must be his/her way or the highway). As we’ve gotten this under control, continued monitoring of this ratio helps us take corrective action much earlier in the project.
  • Planning percentages. I’ve found that my projects that go over budget typically have lower planning percentages. People are anxious to start writing, not planning to write. But when they are allowed to do this, the project tends to suffer from uncontrolled scope creep and meandering. Our projects are set up now with a certain expected planning percentage, and if a project gets through its planning stage in less than that, we’re taking a second look to ensure it has been adequately planned.
  • Process. As a project progresses, I look for a spiraling trend of increasing time on each step. Frequently, early steps are right on budget, but as the document progresses through the process, it slows down. This does not necessarily mean that the editors are slow or the artists are slower just because it is their tasks that are going over budget or schedule. Instead, I’ve found that this can be indicative of people early on in the process not holding up their end of the bargain: in interest of time, for example, they didn’t edit their own work, or they didn’t think about the scope of the art they were requesting.
  • History and industry comparisons. We maintain a database of the effort required for every project we create and use that history for future estimates. Today, of course, I meet my budgets; after all, I’ve increased them for the last five years based on the actuals we’ve seen. Now that these adjustments have leveled off and we are consistently meeting our estimates, we can see clearly how we perform against industry standards and have begun to take appropriate action to bring ourselves more in line with those standards. But we had to know where we were first, before we could work to improve and hold people accountable for the expectations of their profession.

However, these analyses are only as good as the numbers that are reported, and the question that must always be asked is whether people really track accurately. As we began tracking, we encountered many issues:

  • Meetings. No one ever records the same amount of time for a meeting! Person A says they spent 5 hours on a meeting, person B, 3 hours on meetings this week. Who did person A meet with the other 2 hours? We found that we had to add an agenda item at the end of meetings to agree on how much time was to be recorded.
  • Editing. When an editor is rewriting text from a writer—is that editing or writing? Inconsistent approaches to this question led to inconsistent and misleading editing/writing ratios. As we better trained our editors, we helped this issue by pointing out that it wasn’t their job to rewrite in the first place, but just to indicate a section needed to be rewritten. This put the rewriting back into the writers’ hands and therefore the writing code.
  • Dual roles. In many cases, one person wears many hats and performs many activities on a single project. Is capturing a screen grab for a user guide writing or graphics? In our project management plan, we try to address these questions by detailing the specific activities that go into each general activity we track.
  • Cover up. Let’s face it—when you track, your staff is going to believe that they will get in trouble if they don’t meet the budget or schedule. So what do they do? Charge their time to another project or activity or don’t record their actual time at all? My approach has been to emphasize over and over that tracking is so we can be proactive during a project and that all anyone is accountable for is communication. I don’t want to know after the fact that they needed more time; when I know beforehand, perhaps I can help mitigate.

Ultimately, these types of mistakes or purposeful misreporting of time will still happen. But I’ve found that the trends are the same. Even with inherent inaccuracies about the specific details, I can spot the trends that I’ve found indicate trouble. My tracking and these types of analyses have helped our organization grow to be a well-relied upon group within Jeppesen. Our customers are confident that we will meet the promises we make about delivery schedules and cost of products.

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