As anybody who’s ever paid for a service knows, it’s not unreasonable to expect dependable answers to questions like “do you have time to do (X)?” and “when will it be done?” Conversely, anybody who regularly provides a service knows those questions are devilishly difficult to answer accurately — unless you are willing to turn away work in order to maintain a safe amount of ‘pad’ in your schedule. Most businesses can’t stomach that sort of inefficiency, and web design and development, ours is no different. What’s to be done?
An alarming number of businesses seem to implement (either de-facto or by design) the “promise-first, figure it out later” school of scheduling. It’s amazing how often this approach works, but it has the unfortunate side effect of rewarding the squeaky wheel and punishing the client with the most patience — inevitably inviting clients to act accordingly.
Some businesses take the “punish everyone equally” approach — either by refusing to commit to a schedule at all, or by committing only to a broad ‘window’ that places the burden of dealing with variability on the client. Think ‘cable installer.’
Some services are consistent enough to be deliverable in pre-defined timeslots, such as doctor’s appointments or piano lessons. That works great when it’s a single service delivered by a single person, but it’s woefully inadequate for a web design and development team like ours. By way of example: TPI worked on 91 projects for 34 clients in the month of August. We have 10 deadlines in the next 30 days and we estimate 1829 hours of work outstanding on currently active projects, spread across 12 people and divided into 3881 tasks which vary in length and required skillset (web design, application development, copywriting, social media, etc).
So how do we keep track of it all?…
A web-based tool, of course! In 2010, TPI started using Liquid Planner to organize our schedule and we’ve recently begun a concerted effort to take full advantage of it’s complete feature set, including scheduling and prioritization, time tracking, task assignment, project documentation and workflow analytics. It’s a great tool, aimed at the sweet-spot between Basecamp (easy but structure-free) and Microsoft Project (soul-crushingly exacting and therefore useless). It has flexible and intelligent Gantt-chart scheduling for multiple concurrent projects, smart time-tracking, nice charts and graphs for analysis and reporting, raw timesheet data export, file attachments, task notes… almost everything you’d want in a tool of this kind.
Of course, implementing any scheduling system takes effort to set up and maintain and requires participation from the entire team. Making a schedule work means following the schedule! That can seem onerous at first, particularly to a team as self-guided as ours, but we’ve started to reap the benefits: greater shared understanding about where projects stand, more accurate information with which to answer client questions and earlier warning when things are getting off-track.
Our goals? Confidence about when and how much we can deliver. Better estimates. Increased productivity. Better communication. Most importantly, unwavering dependability for the people and businesses that trust us to get the job done!