Wednesday, 05 December 2012 07:12

Project Capacity: How to Find It in an Operations vs. Projects IT Department

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I’ve worked in two service desk IT departments for two different organizations now that are doing both operational work (i.e. work orders) and project work. The similarities between the two departments are striking, and it makes me wonder how many other organizations face the problems that these two organizations face. I’m starting to think it is a much more commonplace problem than I originally thought.

Here’s the problem. You’ve got your staff, even the senior staff, working on operational work and project work on a daily basis. The percentage of time spent on operational work could probably be loosely estimated for a short period of time for any given staff, but with each new project that is completed, a new system comes online that requires support. What that means is your time spent on operational work goes up, and the remaining time available for project work goes down, unless you hire more staff. If you want to hire more staff, you have to make a case for it to upper management. You have to prove that you don’t have enough resources to do all the work. Well if you aren’t able to reliably predict the amount of time you spend on operational work over an extended period of time, how can you prove that you don’t have enough resources to perform the upcoming project work? And so the cycle continues…

The solution to this problem is you have to know your project capacity, i.e. know your limits! But this is not a simple thing to get a handle on. It requires knowledge of both your yearly operational work estimates, and your yearly project work estimates. So how do you get those estimates? Let’s start with operational work. We all know how much everybody likes to keep track of the hours they spend on every task they do throughout the day. Yeah right! Ask your staff to start completing timesheets, and good luck to you, my friend. You will be confronted with anger, resentment, and even outright refusal to complete the timesheets you give them. The problem with timesheets is many people see it as an invasion of privacy. To them, it means you don’t trust them. They think you want to make sure they’re actually doing their work all day and not slacking off. This can be insulting to employees who take great pride in their work and feel offended that you need to track them to make sure they are doing their job. Needless-to-say, this is not the road you want to go down with your staff. Moreover, even if your staff, all happily agree to complete their timesheets, how accurate do you think they would be? You get busy with your work, you forget to do it for a day or two, and you go back and try to remember what you did. What if you were jumping between tasks all day? How are you supposed to estimate that? Unless you are updating your timesheet with every task you complete as soon as you complete it (and who has the time or energy for that?!), you will not get accurate estimates. Then there are work orders. You may think you can keep track of your operational work in a work order system, but work order systems often don’t operate in a way that you can get accurate estimates of all your operational work. For example, at what point do you open the work order and start clocking time? Do you start it as soon as the work order is received? Or create the work order later after it’s been resolved? If you are working at a service desk counter and serving long line-ups of customers, you probably won’t have time to be opening, updating, and closing work orders for each person you serve, at least not if you want to be able to serve each customer in a reasonable amount of time. Furthermore, what counts as work performed on the work order? Does the time you spend updating a knowledge base after you resolved the issue count? Some work orders may capture some knowledge information, if that feature is being used, and some may not. What about the time that is spent conversing with other colleagues trying to resolve the problem? Should this be tracked? There are many issues with tracking time in a work order system, and there are too many to list here.

I believe there is only one way to start getting accurate estimates on your project capacity, and that is by separating the operational staff from the project staff. Employees either do 100% operational work, or 100% project work. If the employees you assign to one area or the other don’t like this arrangement, then you can rotate out the staff on a quarterly basis, or whatever timeframe you see fit. Think of it as a deck of cards: you put down one card, and then pick up another. That way, every employee will get experience both on the operational and the project side of things. Not only does it garner knowledge for the employee, but a respect amongst the teams for the unique challenges they face.

Without the constant interruptions from operational work, your employees will be able to give much better task estimates. Moreover, your projects will see fewer delays due to employees being pulled away to fight fires. With more reliable project schedules and task estimates, you will be able to implement resource leveling. For those of you who are new to project management, resource leveling allows you to spot when your employees are over-allocated on tasks, and shift resources around to spread out effort on a more consistent level. The benefits of resource levelling include a reduction of stress for over-allocated employees, reduction in overtime costs, and fewer project delays due to resources being unavailable.

With this separation of projects and operational work, combined with better resourcing, you should see an improvement in the number of projects that are completed over the course of a year. Not to mention your clients will be happier, and have more trust in you! With this approach, it will take some time to gather the data needed to get an accurate estimate of project capacity, but lucky for you, there are immediate benefits to taking this approach, so it will pay off in the long run.

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Amanda Bennett

Amanda Bennett started out working as a software developer for a small IT company back in 1999. Over time, software development lead to web development, and web development lead to project management. Amanda attained her PMP in 2008 and remains enthusiastically engaged in project management, as well as business analysis. She is currently working towards a CBAP certification.

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