Milestones or Millstones? Why a deadline focus actually makes projects finish late

by Michael A. Dalton

Milestones are millsotnes

Imagine that you are Pat, a design engineer with Doitallnow Corp. You’re in your office with a design calculation running in the background while sketching out some ideas for an upcoming project. You take a sip of your energy drink, and in walks your boss, Lee, along with Terry, one of the company’s project managers.

Lee and Terry have stopped by to let you know you’ve been assigned to a new project called Global Impact. They need your best estimate of how long the design tasks will take to complete.

After hearing everything that’s involved, you suspect that it is about two and a half days worth of actual work, but you also know that:

  • The rest of your workload won’t be put on hold and the other project managers will still expect you to make progress on their tasks.
  • People dropping by to ask for help with other projects will interrupt the flow on the design work you are doing
  • Some problems you can’t anticipate might come up in the design
  • Lee has been pressuring you to do a better job of meeting deadlines.

Taking all  of that into account, you figure that five days would give you ample padding and about a 90% chance of finishing on time. On second thought, you know negotiation is part of the process, so you add a day for that and another half day to make it sound more precise. “Hmm..” you say as you scribble some notes on your tablet, “I’d say about six and a half days.”

Of course, Terry has managed other projects like this before and thinks it could easily be done in 4 days. For Lee’s benefit, you explain that it would be suicide to build a timeline without some padding in it.  Finally, after some back and forth, you all agree on five days, and they leave so you can get back to work.

So on a Friday afternoon a few weeks later, Terry shows up at your office with the design specifications and requirements document and tells you that your task for Global Impact is due by close of business next Friday. That’s  when it gets interesting:

Scenario 1 – Student Syndrome:

If you are like 80% of the folks out there, Terry’s project is far from all you have to worry about, so you work on other priorities and put off starting for a few days. After all,  if everything goes well, you don’t really need to start until Wednesday afternoon. So that’s when you get started. Then with only minimal interruptions on Thursday, you go home knowing you have a full day of work remaining to finish the design and have it ready to hand over to engineering so they can start on Monday.

Of course, that’s when it all goes wrong. As soon as you fire up your computer Friday morning, you get an email from Lee about an unexpected meeting this morning. The VP of marketing has volunteered you for a working meeting across town to help with some design changes requested by one of the company’s largest customers. Of course, Lee also notes that it was a good idea you asked for that extra day of padding.

You go to the meeting and they insist you join them for lunch, so it’s 2:00 pm before you  get back to your office and get restarted on the Global Impact design.  Plus it takes you a while to get going because this mornings meeting has you thinking about the next project you’re going to have to jump to.

Now you’ve got a sinking feeling and a choice to make. You either work this weekend and miss your daughter’s softball game or finish late knowing that your performance review is coming up soon.  And Lee and Terry aren’t likely to be very charitable after giving you plenty of padding for the task.

Scenario 2 – Apple Polishing:

Or if you are like the other 20% of folks out there, you like to start things as soon as possible. Unfortunately, that still doesn’t mean that you’ll finish them any earlier. In this scenario, you start on Monday and by Wednesday, you have a pretty decent design – but work always expands to fill the time available.   The design is good enough but it’s not perfect. Plus, the prototyping engineers aren’t expecting it any earlier, so you take advantage of the extra time and spend the next two days perfecting the design.

Scenario 3 – Sandbagging:

Remember how hard you had to negotiate to get a day and a half of padding for your task? If everything went perfectly and you finished two days early, what’s the likelihood you would actually turn it in early? If you did, the chance of getting any padding next time would be very low.  Three days would be the new normal meaning that any hiccups would result in working late or finishing late.

Question: So what problem do all three of these scenarios have in common?

Answer: Deadline or Milestone focused project management is based on the mistaken belief that optimizing protection for each task optimizes protection for the project. In all three scenarios, the buffer intended to protect the milestone from unexpected problems was ineffective – wasted on procrastination, unnecessary perfectionism, or on managing future expectations. Replicate these scenarios across hundreds of tasks within each new product project and the real problem is that the only deadline that really matters (the project deadline) is left almost completely unprotected.  Then when any real problems or issues arise you are assured a late finish.

Solution: A Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM) approach eliminates these behaviors by ignoring the individual task deadlines and instead focusing on the finish line in a relay race like manner where you:

  • Start critical chain tasks  as early as possible
  • Work critical chain tasks as fast as possible with no interruptions or multitasking
  • Hand the completed task over to the next task owner as soon as possible

Of course Murphy’s Law exists for a reason , but instead of padding each task, CCPM uses a highly visible global buffer. Aggregating the buffer means much less buffer is required and it also becomes a key tool for communicating the health of the project and for ensuring on-time completion.

The More Impact Bottom Line

Companies that embrace CCPM report an average cycle-time reduction of 30-50%, and their projects finish on-time with more than 90% reliability. Of course, it takes leadership and management commitment to let go of milestones and to make buffer management a strong part of your new product culture. But when you do, you’ll see high impact new products regularly finishing on-time, in much less time.

You can learn more about CCPM and how it fits into an overall program of innovation improvement by downloading or listening to the free executive summary of Simplifying Innovation.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Brook July 31, 2014 at 10:20 am

Very good post. I definitely appreciate this website. Thanks!

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