Your Cancer Is Called a Timesheet

Dividing cancer cells
Timesheets: the cancer of the professions

I stood silently among a group of a dozen managing partners of regional firms as I hooked up my MacBook to the projector to begin my talk about becoming a firm of the future.

They had just been presented a state-of-the-profession address by an MP of a Top 100 firm. I have heard much of the content of the presentation before at other gatherings of professional accountants.

The litany of “challenges” repeated the narrative that has been well documented and continues to grow for over the last decade:

  • While there are more people graduating with degrees in accounting, fewer of them are sitting for the CPA exam. This is leading to fewer new hires for firms.
  • The new hires they do have are “millennials” who desire a challenge and think they should be made partner sooner rather than later.
  • Attrition, especially at the mid-career level, is over 10 percent and is mostly initiated by the professional, not the firm.
  • The loss of people in the middle and bottom of the pyramid is eroding the traditional economic model. Non-equity partners are increasing and funding for partner buyouts is disappearing.
  • Cries of “We must become more efficient,” and/or, “We must embrace new technology,” and/or “We must hold people more accountable,” reverberate in meetings.
  • Compliance work continues to flat line and while new offerings are growing revenue, they are not growing fast enough. Worse still those that do this work are often not even CPAs!

After my presentation was successfully displaying on the projector – the modern equivalent of the campfire in this narrative. I paused to get their full attention.

“Here is what I heard,” I began.

“Our profession is sick, even dying. We might have cancer. We really don’t know, but it is bad.”

After another pause and with no one disputing my summary, I continued, “I think you are right. I think you do have cancer. The good news is, I believe I know the cause and it is curable.”

They all looked at me in hopeful, but suspect anticipation.

“Your cancer is called ‘a timesheet’ and you must cut it out completely before it kills you.”

There were a few barely perceptible nods and even some smiles and hushed chuckles from the two “younger” people in the room. The chuckles quickly morphed into coughs as they remembered their MP was seated among them.

I proceeded to dismantle all the arguments (there are only four) in favor of the timesheet before anyone else could say anything. I even went so far as to do something I rarely do in a public live event. In fact, I call it the nuclear option.

The brief exercise is so stinging, so devastating to the timesheet argument that I fear that it could cause emotional damage to everyone in the room. Because of this I usually reserve it for online anonymous events so that folks have some time to themselves to recover.

“How many of you have ever filled out a timesheet?” I boomed as I raised my hand in the air. All hands joined mine in pointing heavenward.

raised hands“How many of you have put down on your timesheet the incorrect number of hours you worked on something, be that too many hours or too few hours with full knowledge that it was incorrect?” As is the case everywhere I have done this exercise, all hands remained with mine in the air. One participant, I do not know who, meekly mumbled, “Every week,” under his breath but audible to all.

I paused again, then quipped softly, my hand still in the air, “The ethics session begins later today,” trying to make a bit of joke to relieve their inner guilt.

Why is this? Why, in one of the most ethical and honored of professions, is this not only the norm, but ubiquitous? Why are these good people, moral and upright members of the community, whose commission is, in part, to identify, correct, and in some cases, prosecute financial wrongdoing (aka, getting the numbers right) sitting before me all guilty of that same crime?

The answer, again, is the timesheet.

In my session on Trashing the Timesheet, I speak mostly of how the timesheet is suboptimal as a pricing mechanism. There is no doubt about this, it is beyond dispute. However, my argument goes beyond this mere deficiency in pricing. The timesheet, not the people who fill them out, is immoral and unethical.

Why? Because it – the idea of a timesheet – is based on a falsified idea known as the labor theory of value which was developed in part by Karl Marx. Time/value equivalency is a false notion that causes bad things to happen. As explained by my “nuclear” exercise, it is the timesheet causes otherwise moral people to do immoral things; it is the timesheet causes people in a highly ethical profession to do unethical things.

I realize this is a dramatic statement, but it is nonetheless true. Think about it no one has ever said they have behaved completely honestly. In addition to this reason, my distain for the timesheet and belief it is immoral expands when it is applied inside the organization to judge individuals.

People come to believe that their worth is actually in their hours they “bill.” They start to believe their hours have a specific “worth” not only to the firm but to them as if hours “spent” with children or aging parents must be evaluated against the hours “spent” at work.

Country singer Jamey Johnson recorded a great song a few years back entitled The Dollar. In the video for the song, scenes cut back and forth between a little boy and his father. When the boy asks his mother, “Why does Daddy go to work?” the mom replies, “Your Daddy’s got a job, and when he goes to work they pay him for his time.” The child then goes to his piggy bank and returns to his mom and in the chorus of the song asks:

How much time with this buy me?

Is it enough to take me camping in a tent down by the stream?

If I’m a little short, then how much more does Daddy need,

To spend some time with me?

Cue weeping.

It is my contention that this song illustrates what happens to people who record their time. Over years indeed decades it affects their internal belief system about who they are in essence as people. It robs them of their humanity. This is evil and it must be destroyed.

It is time the profession rid itself of this meddlesome method of malevolence.

12 thoughts on “Your Cancer Is Called a Timesheet

  1. Nice! My hand would have been high up too and felt like they were up against my will.

    Would you have turned the question to today my hand would have been way in the ground.

    If you are ever in the Toronto neighborhood I would be happy to share my story with your audience.

    Thanks Ed for the inspiration over the years form you and Ron!

  2. Thinking of CPA and IT firms, I think most of this reluctance to trash time sheets comes from a fear of confrontation. The professionals in these are largely introverts, and really prefer dealing with their number and software puzzles than with people. “Solutionists” as you call them. So, thinking of customer value and dreading talking with customers about something that will likely result in a price increase for a customer scares them silly. Fear of loss outweighs anticipation of possible win.

    It is then compounded by a lack of trust in their employees to work “efficiently” (“effectiveness” is lost on solutionists generally …) to deliver the goods. “How can I manage the projects if I don’t know how much time …”

    I suspect what will happen is Millennials will move to newer firms headed by people who can experiment with these new forms. That is the competitive pressure that will ultimately force the industry to change.

  3. Ed, your piece brought my public accounting days rushing back and had me recalling Manager guidance of “don’t eat time”. It was undeniable that you were learning on the job to a large degree, and therefore felt it unfair to charge the client time when you were skinning your knees or cutting your teeth on a topic for the first time. In fact, it felt more unethical to charge the time than it would to short the timesheet……..and so you ate hours. I still believe the profession is one of the highest in ethical conduct and standards, and have to agree that putting a fork in the timesheet could have firms more focused on value delivery.

  4. Dear Ed,

    I will never forget when I heard you present this at a Sage Consulting Essentials class in 2009. After you showed the Jamey Johnson video at the end of one of the days, your voice cracked as you said, “now go call your kids”.

    It was the most human moment that I have ever experienced in a professional setting. You had made a connection between my work life and my home life in a way that had never been made before.

    After class, I asked you if you believed that someone could implement ERP software for a living and only work 40 hours a week. I was at a point where I was looking ahead at my career and seeing nothing but longer hours, poor physical health, and deteriorating family relationships. Billing by the hour meant that more time equalled more profit. So you had to put in more time. I saw this when I worked at Deloitte & Touche where your reward after every promotion was a longer work week. And I saw the same thing in ERP consulting.

    You were the only person I have ever heard respond “yes” to my question. It gave me hope.

    Since then, I have made some progress in learning to work smarter, not harder, learning to uncover value and say “no” to things that aren’t adding value rather than simply grinding away to accumulate actuals against a budget. For 4.5 years I was an overhead item on a company’s P&L, but now I’m back in a job where I have to fill out a timesheet. So the memories have come flooding back and I have found myself revisiting your material. I have to say that it is very helpful.

    I am not motivated to earn more money, but I am motivated to earn a decent wage while getting home in time for dinner and going to bed on time. And looking for value, not more hours, allows me to stay motivated. Even though I have to fill out a timesheet now, going through your material is re-configuring my internal belief system. I am not a COG in a machine. I am a contributing member of a team who can bring value to the table.

    Thanks to you, I can refuse to be robbed of my humanity.

    1. Tim, WOW! I am so honored by your comments. Reading them actually gave me chills. Thank you so much for telling me about this.

      Please let me know if you think I can be of help to you in casting off the timesheet in your new organization. I would be happy to have a call with you and/or whomever you believe might be of influence.

  5. Nice post Ed. But, as cost is still a component of value-based pricing, aren’t time sheets a necessary evil to evaluate whether or not perceived value exceeds cost of doing business (i.e. labor)?

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      To answer your question, no. Timesheets are not necessary simply because they are not a true measure of costs. Time is not a cost, or a resource, but a constraint. In reality, your costs are fixed, you are asking a cost allocation question.

      There are hundreds of firms across all professions who are managing without timesheets. I personally have helped a few dozen of them to move to not only value priced engagements, but also eliminate timesheets.

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