If the airline industry had the same record as we have in project management (74% failure), there would be thousands of crashes in the U.S. every day. Using another comparison, for almost 4 days out of every week, our car would break down before getting us to our destination. Or three quarters of hospital patients would not get out alive!
While project management goes beyond just the engineering function, most engineering involves extensive project work. The core problem of engineering in many organizations is identical to the core problem of project management across an organization. Most engineering departments are in a multi-project environment (multiple projects using common resources).
Every individual project is made up of multiple tasks. By definition, projects are unique and have elements of surprise. Some projects are more unpredictable than others. Within every project, some tasks are more unpredictable than others.
If we want projects to behave as predictably as airline flights, cars, or surgeries, we must approach a project holistically. The problem begins when we treat individual tasks as if we can make them predictable. We often see project managers holding individuals accountable to their task estimate. The assumption they are working with is that if each task is delivered on time, then the project will be delivered on time.
In trying to get each task to be performed according to its estimate, the project manager is defying the basic laws of statistics. Statistics can work in our favor over a collection of tasks. At the individual task level, Murphy can easily wipe us out. Individual task times are mostly unpredictable. Therefore, if an individual task takes twice as long to perform as estimated, it is quite possibly within the realm of common cause variation.
In many organizations today, team members are measured on finishing their tasks on time or on the accuracy of their estimate. The more people are held accountable for individual task estimates, the more they will fight for bigger estimates. If this practice was working, we could predict that the majority of projects would finish on time today. But this is far from true.
Often, estimates are given not as a level of effort in a task, but as a due date. The reason for this practice is that many, if not most people in organizations today are multitasking. They are working on more than just one project. Most people we survey claim to be juggling several projects plus a full time job assignment.
With multitasking, people have the ability to quote and justify a due date that is way beyond the level of effort. For example, ask a computer support person who is supporting dozens or hundreds of users when a particular problem will be solved. If the problem is complex or involves a dependence on someone other than the computer support person, the response may be several days to several weeks. Does that mean that the person will be working on the problem for days or weeks? No. His or her effort on a particular problem might be minutes or hours.
If today is Monday and the computer support person told you to expect a resolution by Friday, what action does he or she take? Does he or she begin working on your problem immediately? Often, the behavior we observe is that the computer support person believes he or she has time before he or she needs to start working on the problem. He or she has more "urgent" problems on his or her desk — promises made a week or two ago that are due today. The Theory of Constraints calls this behavior "Student Syndrome." It mirrors the behavior of students studying for an exam the night before, even when the professor gives them two weeks' notice of a test.
There are other negative behaviors caused by measuring people on finishing their individual tasks on time. These behaviors are described in the book Critical Chain.*
The answer to achieve predictability and shorter cycle times on individual projects is simple. Forget about trying to protect individual tasks. We do not care if individual tasks finish on time or not. We do care if the project finishes on time.
Follow the five focusing steps described above. Identify the constraint. In an individual project, the constraint is called the Critical Chain — the
*Eliyahu M. Goldratt, Critical Chain, North River Press, Great Barrington, MA, 1996.
longest chain of dependent events, where the dependencies are either task or resource related.
Protect the entire project by placing protective buffers in strategic places. Allow individual tasks to take longer than expected. But measure people in a way that encourages them to finish their task as quickly as possible and pass it on to the next resource as soon as possible.
Then manage according to Deming's rules, ignoring common cause variation (individual tasks taking longer than expected) and reacting correctly to special cause variation. The rules are easy to follow by monitoring buffers and trends. In Critical Chain, trends mostly determine the type of variation with which you deal.
While these rules work very successfully within individual projects, they do not address the constraint of the multi-project environment. When looking at a collection of projects, we must address the behaviors that push too many projects into the system, without regard to the capacity of resources to do the work.
In the multi-project environment, the constraint is the strategic resource — the resource that, more than any other resource, impacts the cycle time of the collection of projects. It might be the resource that is most heavily loaded across most of the projects. It might be the resource that people fight over the most.
Functional executives exacerbate the problem by pushing their new projects into the system, even when this strategic resource is already overloaded. There are now sufficient case studies documenting examples of Critical Chain application in the multi-project environment to prove its validity.*
The combination of single and multi-project Critical Chain has transformed predictability from the 0 to 25% range to the high 90 to 100% range within one year, in some organizations. When combined with top-down implementation and senior executive involvement, the results are more assured.
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What you need to know about… Project Management Made Easy! Project management consists of more than just a large building project and can encompass small projects as well. No matter what the size of your project, you need to have some sort of project management. How you manage your project has everything to do with its outcome.