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Why Project Management Is Difficult
By Skip Reedy

Project Management made a huge leap forward fifty years ago with the Critical Path Method (CPM) and Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT). Since then, computers have helped to track projects and provide amazing amounts of details and views. And yet, projects have settled back to a dismal record of being late, over budget and less than the original scope. And often canceled. A study by the Standish Group, a project management research organization concluded that, “There is no reliable way to measure project status until it’s too late!”

Why?

The project plan has morphed into a project schedule. It used to be that we worked the project plan. Now we work to meet the project schedule. The important words here are “meet the project schedule” Project managers are aware that task durations are estimates. We have an optimistic time, a most likely time and a pessimistic time. We never know how long a task will actually take.

Then the craziest thing happens. The task duration estimate is entered into the project management software. At that moment, the estimate becomes a duration. The software uses that duration to create a schedule for the tasks. Each task gets a start date and end date. The start and end dates become “milestones.”

And how do we work with milestones? We work to meet them. We see the finish date as a target. Our effort is to get the task done by that date. Subconsciously, it would be okay to get the task done early, but that’s secondary to getting it done on time.

This crazy thing leads to counter-productive behavior. If the task is planned to be done by the end date, there is little point in getting it done early. No one will expect it or be ready to do the following task. In fact, completing it too early makes it appear that we don’t know how to estimate. Our credibility is at stake!

We now have three choices:

  1. Complete the task and turn it in on the end date.
  2. Take our time so we finish it on the end date.
  3. Do other things until we have just enough time to be on time with it.

What’s going on?

  • We estimated the task durations.
  • We turned the estimates into firm start and end commitments.
  • We behave so we don’t get anything done early.

This is why Project Management is so difficult. If tasks rarely get completed early, and some tasks take longer than scheduled, there is a very high probability that the project will be late.

Missing a commitment is usually taken personally. The typical response is to increase the next estimate of that kind of task. This little additional safety should make all the difference. But that just moves the end date and pushes the following task’s start date. Perhaps it just needs a bit more. Or maybe a bit more than that. We call this process “experience.”

To give you an extreme example of where experience takes you, a Fortune 500 company has a task that takes 8 hours and has been done every day for years, yet it is planned at 108 days. This is caused by estimate creep and shows up in thousands of tasks. With 107 days of safety, they still struggle to get it done on time. So much for this solution. This company is sophisticated and careful. And typical of most companies. No one paid any attention to this planned duration until a senior manager asked how this part could take so long.

Let’s get back to the Project Management software! Why does the software turn estimates into fixed dates? Because that’s what it was programmed to do. Are we stuck with fixed dates? Perhaps the thing to do is ignore them. As crazy as this sounds, it’s the right direction for the solution.

It is possible in Microsoft Project to blank out the dates above the Gantt chart. The Start and Finish dates can also be hidden.

Think about how tasks will be worked if there are no dates! Scary isn’t it?

Skip Reedy is a Theory of Constraints Jonah and is TOCICO certified in Critical Chain Project Management. Visit his websites on CCPM: http://CruiseControlForProjects.com, and http://ccpmconsulting.com.

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