How to measure work

How we measure work – the time it takes to do something – has been the subject of debate since FW Taylor’s famous writing on the ‘science’ of management. Today, the idea of ‘work sizing’ – estimating an amount of work – is coming into its own as a way to get a handle on the demands of new projects and initiatives.

Work in the knowledge era is typically derived from an external driver or an internal strategic agenda: a new customer demand, market shift or opportunities to use a new technological innovation. The executive board often sets the programme of work. It might decree, “Here’s our strategic intent – a transformation programme. Off you go, operations/HR/finance”, with no appreciation of the scale, magnitude and actual work needed.

But why should the executive team be bogged down in that minutiae? What’s needed is a work-sizing estimate and a high-level MVR – minimum viable resourcing – outlining the level of resource required. This comes before any commitments are made, internally or to clients, regarding deadlines, investment and the days of work that will be done. The process is: decree the vision, then immediately make a work-sizing estimate, before ‘cutting the ribbon’ on the declaration.

How can leaders get work-sizing right? I saw one answer on a ‘culture tour’ of a digital technology company in Michigan. Work is sized by units that double, like computing memory: 0.5 hours, an hour, then two, four, eight hours, and so on. Imagine a programme to introduce more automation in employee onboarding. Conducting research – is that eight, 16, or 32 days? Building a prototype – 64, 128 or 256 days? These initial estimates give a sense of scale and aid planning. We might start with 16 days for research to inform prototype development; if that indicates a 256-day development timetable is needed, we can make an informed plan.

Get work-sizing right before kicking off endless new initiatives and it will give your people a fighting chance of doing their work in the best way possible.

Perry Timms is the founder and chief energy officer of PTHR, a consultancy aiming to create better business for a better world. He is a TEDx speaker, top-selling author, and three-time member of HR Magazine’s ‘Most Influential Thinkers’ list