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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Project Lessons: Focus on Completing Projects On-time, Not Completing Tasks On-time

It may seem counterintuitive, to say we shouldn’t focus on completing tasks on-time, in order to deliver our projects on-time. After all isn’t it obvious that if we complete each task in a project on-time, that the project will finish on-time? This statement is of course true, but within it hides another trap for people managing projects.

Since this method of driving timely task completions is probably the most widely used strategy for trying to bring projects in on-time, we can look at public data on project performance to evaluate its effectiveness. Various public studies (Forrester, Gartner, World Bank) illustrate the widespread problem of bringing projects in on time. Depending on the source the studies show 40% to 67% of projects miss their planned delivery date. While there are many factors at work here it’s pretty clear from the data that this method is not very effective at overcoming the challenges of bringing projects in on-time. But why?

The trap in this methodology comes from two elements of managing projects. The first element is that uncertainty on projects is very high, making it very rare and almost impossible to finish every task on-time. Unplanned events, changes, disruptions, resources not being available, etc. wreak havoc with even the best plans, resulting in many tasks sliding beyond their planned completion date. The result being that the project as a whole is delayed and misses its completion date.

The second element is the human dynamic that results from any attempts to focus on task completion dates. If an organization makes completing each task on-time important, how will people respond? We all know the validity of the statement “tell me how you measure me and I will tell you how I am going to behave.” Even if there is not a formal measurement, but just a management focus, expectation, or even the belief that management judges something to be important, it will impact how people behave. So how does making timely task completion impact people’s behavior in project environments?

The first way is pretty obvious, people will provide and negotiate for task durations that are conservative, for task durations they are confident that they can achieve. No one wants to do a bad job, and when management drives timely task completions people will respond by increasing their estimates of how long a task will take. This is not bad behavior on their part, after all the reality of projects is uncertainty. No one really knows how long a task is going to take this time, what challenges we will encounter, whether the specifications will have changed, what other work they may be required to do at the same time, etc. So in order to provide a reliable task duration people will naturally provide estimate that they believe is achievable, even if things go wrong.

This behavior is magnified if management routinely uses the practice of trimming the durations of people’s estimates to insure that project timelines meet the organization’s business needs. If people know their estimates will be trimmed anyway, they will add additional padding in their estimates. It is identical to the dynamics organizations experience with budgeting. Every manager knows that if he needs a million dollars to run his department next year, that he better ask for much more initially, in order to end up with the million he needs. The same “game” is played with task durations. And again it’s not bad behavior, it’s people trying to do the best job they can within the rules of the system.

So, one result of focusing on completing tasks on-time is that the task estimates (and therefore the project plans as a whole) get inflated. This however creates for us an apparent paradox. How can it be that our task estimates are so inflated and still we cannot meet them reliably?

Again basic human behavior is at work, but this time it is the behavior during project execution, not in the planning stage. Imagine the reality: we have a task estimate that provides us with what looks like ample safety time, because we have buffered it for uncertainty and other factors in order to be able to deliver it reliably. So when the work actually arrives, there is a clear sense that there is ample time to complete the task. In other words there is very little sense of urgency to start the task immediately, and in any event most project resources are overloaded with other things already so it might even be that there is not the ability to start the task right away. We know this dynamic from our school days. We know the test is out there, but when there is the perception that “we have plenty of time” there is really no need to start studying. Often we end up beginning only the night before, or at most a few days ahead of time.

On projects this translates to the reality that some, often most, of the safety time gets wasted at the front end of the task because of lack of urgency. Now if there is any unforeseen delay, change, or hiccup of any sort on the work, the task date will in all likelihood be missed. So even though we have put safety time into the task estimate, common human behavior will in most cases cause it to be wasted.

While this is not hard to picture in reality, a sharp mind will point out that it will not happen in all cases, and even when it does, sometimes a task will go smoothly and could be finished ahead of the planned time. This is in fact true. Unfortunately when an organization places importance on finishing tasks on-time, it is at the same time creating a strong dis-incentive for people to finish earlier than expected. Again picture the reality: what is likely to happen if someone reports finishing a task a week ahead of schedule? What will be the expectation for a similar task on the next project? Of course, finishing early will result in the task duration being cut the next time, again just as not spending all of your budget in a given year will result in your getting less the next year. It’s obvious that you padded the estimate so you can expect it to be cut even more the next time.

Similarly if a task is ready ahead of time the committed employee is also likely to spend the remaining time “improving” the work, making it even better than it was. As long as there is still time available people are likely to fill it with efforts to make the work as good as possible. We all know this behavior to the degree that it has a common name, Parkinson’s Law: the work expands to fill the time available. The result is that task rarely finish (much) ahead of their planned times, so the potential gains are typically lost in the process.

In total some tasks finishing late, while others finish on-time, and almost no tasks finish early. The sum of this is that projects will finish late in many cases, exactly what the studies and most people’s experience shows. Of course if finishing a project on-time is a mandate there are alternatives that will mask the reality with apparently good on-time performance. Organizations can turn to a reduction in the scope of a project or to increasing their spending to compensate for the delays. But while the project may finish on-time in our metrics, it often does so only at the expense of the original scope or the original budget. In reality then, even organizations with “better” than average on-time performance are being directly impacted by the methodology of focusing on completing tasks on-time.

Unfortunately a common reaction to the poor project performance is to sharpen the focus on timely task completion. It is not uncommon to see managers get more and more involved in the details of managing individual tasks in the effort to “get control” of the situation and help insure that more tasks finish on-time. Not surprisingly this only heightens the behavioral response described above. The more important it becomes for people to hit task dates, the stronger the above behaviors will be. So in their efforts to address the problem, most organizations only serve to solidify the underlying causes of it.

It may be possible to change these underlying human behaviors, but it seems to me that the better and faster way is to change the system of managing projects. For more on this see other postings in this blog on Critical Chain project management, or send you specific information request to info@tocc.com.


isaadeh said...

Hi Kevin,
I really enjoyed reading your posts about TOC.
Is their a certificate for that?

kevinffox said...

There is a very good certification organization for Theory of Constraints applications, including Critical Chain. It is called TOC-ICO www.tocico.org. Check it out.


Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.