Saturday, September 10, 2011

Focus and Leverage Part 53

In my last blog posting I discussed the negative impact that multi-tasking has on projects and how it extends the time required to complete a project. In this posting, I’d like to talk about two other behaviors that also unnecessarily extend the time required to complete projects, Parkinson’s Law and The Student Syndrome.

Most people using project management use a technique called Critical Path Project Management (CPM). CPM has been around for a long time and the results are actually pretty lousy. Lousy because numerous studies and surveys tell us that the on-time completion rate using CPM is typically reported to be below 50%. I don’t know about you, but in my world, 50% doesn’t quite cut it. Think about it… least half of the projects don’t finish on time. By not finishing on time, the cost of the increases dramatically and it’s not uncommon for the scope to be reduced at the same time.

There is an alternative methodology, the technique that I use, called Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM) and I can tell you from experience that the success rate of projects using this method is typically above ninety percent. Let’s see….50% versus 90%....I think I like the higher number better. Let’s look at some of the basic reasons why CPM has problems.

In projects using CPM, individual task estimates are turned into a project schedule….a list of dependent tasks with estimated durations plus start and finish dates defined. People plan their daily activities around these time periods and make every effort possible to start on the start date and deliver whatever they’re working on (i.e. the tasks) by the completion dates which are based upon the estimated durations. These estimates include built-in time buffers or “safeties” to safeguard the individual tasks from the negative impact of Murphy. In reality it is not uncommon for the estimated duration to be twice as long as the tasks actually take because of these added safeties.

These built-in safeties establish fertile ground for a behavior known as Parkinson’s Law. This law states that work expands to fill the available time so the estimated duration for each task is the minimum amount of time that the tasks will take. But because of another common behavior known as the Student Syndrome, most, if not all of this safety buffer is wasted. This behavior is the practice of delaying or procrastinating work on tasks until the last minute because the person knows that a safety buffer has been added to the task estimate. So on one hand we have wasted safety and on the other hand we have work expanding to fill the time available.

We already know about the devastating effects of bad multi-tasking, so are there other things that else extend project completion times? In CPM one of the mortal mistakes is to establish individual task durations and hold people accountable for meeting them. As mentioned earlier, these individual durations include a safety time or task buffer to guard against uncertainty that always seems to always crop up. And while some of the task dates are actually completed on time or even early, most of the time they are late because of the Student Syndrome and Parkinson’s Law. Individual tasks are almost never reported as being completed early. Even if they were completed early, the successor resource probably wouldn’t be ready to accept the work. Why not? One reason is that since the successor resource won’t start the task until it is scheduled to start then if it was received early it would just sit until the current task was completed. So in this case there would be no positive impact for an early finish. The other reason is another behavioral issue. If someone finished a task early and reported it, there is a fear that if there was a similar task on another project, then they would be expected to finish it in the same amount of time. So in reality, there is really no incentive or reward for finishing early. This is the essence of Parkinson’s Law. If I have five days to complete the task, then it’s ok take at least five days.

Because individual tasks have the built-in safety time, it is not uncommon to start tasks as late as possible. These safety times are usually on the order of at least fifty percent, so the duration listed is actually twice as long as the time required to complete it. Knowing this safety exists, people will often procrastinate the start of the task which is, of course, the essence of the Student Syndrome. The problem comes when Murphy enters the picture. Since we’ve already used up our built-in safety by procrastinating the start of the task, there’s no protection to guard against Murphy. The key take-away here is that delays to tasks are passed on, but early finishes are not.

So let’s summarize the problems associated with Critical Path Project Management (CPM):

1. Not starting the task until the last moment (Student Syndrome) because individual task durations have a built-in safety.

2. Not reporting of a completed task until it is due on the schedule (Parkinson’s Law) because the successor won’t be ready and because someone will hold that person accountable for the same completion duration in a similar, future project.

3. Multi-tasking or working on multiple tasks at the same time because of the belief that starting tasks sooner will result in faster projects.

There is one additional behavior that tends to lengthen projects….Cherry Picking. Cherry Picking of tasks is the practice of picking out easier tasks with shorter durations to work on so progress can be reported. Typically reporting of progress in CPM is done so by calculating the percentage of tasks completed, so by completing tasks that have shorter durations, the progress metric might look good, but in reality, little progress has actually been made on completing the project. The problem is that not all tasks have the same durations, so completing a task that only takes a half a day is not the same as completing one that takes five days.

So how does Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM) address these behavioral issues just discussed? In my next posting, I’ll discuss in more detail how CCPM is able to counter these behaviors and why CCPM is a superior project management method.

Bob Sproull

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