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Dispel The Myth - Rebound Project Performance

By Expert Author: Anantha Keerthi

Organizations dealing with projects often make the typical mistake of adapting the same best practices, which are actually evolved for operation or production environment. Despite knowing that the key commitments of project (time, budget and scope/quality) all are interrelated, control actions are taken as though each of these commitments can be achieved discretely. While the framework of Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM) has given a more holistic approach for dealing with project business, some of the nuances are far from popular.

Project Postmortem.... & few wrong Diagnosis

When it comes to managing time in hindsight everybody is wiser. Planning is usually blamed for poor project performance. Any postmortem analysis of project reveals that there was plenty of opportunity for starting many tasks much earlier than actual. It appears; with good time in hand price negotiation with suppliers could have been better, alternate sourcing was possible and also scope control would have been much better. Yes!All in hindsight. No doubt;this perception forces the next project to push as many tasks and a mandate to do it as fast as possible.

"Start As Soon As possible" - Is there anything wrong with this approach? Does this really help the project to finish early? More than 70 to 80 % of the total number of tasks in a project does not fall on the longest path of task sequence. That means starting them early does not reduce the total duration of the project, but can it cause a delay in project completion?

Let us take an example that is applicable to most projects, ranging from large green-filed plant project, High capital expenditure capacity enhancement project (CPEX), Multi project EPC business and even valid for custom engineered product business. An activity such as 'Designing & release of drawings' - this is a basic task in this environment as it further triggers subsequent major tasks like civil construction at site, manufacturing of equipments& parts, Procurement of structural and other items and many service contracts.

The task manager (The design Engineer) responsible for this task usually works on many such tasks and sometimes across many projects as well. This activity requires inputs from various departments, agencies, suppliers and also sometimes decisions from top management.

When there is a pressure to start tasks as soon as possible, the pressure is relatively higher for major tasks with longer durations where the progress of the project can be showed visibly like in Civil construction and manufacturing of equipments involving higher expenditures! This phase of the project is sort of rush hour for the design engineer. There will be many expediters from subsequent tasks putting pressure on the design engineer to get their drawing released so that they can start of their work as soon as possible.

These days designing & release of drawing itself is not a time consuming task for a seasoned design engineer, But it takes lot of time and invisible co-ordination efforts to integrate all the inputs required for completing a design engineering work. No doubt missing inputs & decisions from the client is a common problem faced by most of the design engineers.

In the absence of timely inputs, the design engineer ends up in moving from one design to another not completing any. Under such bad multitasking the task manger struggles to keep up his/her personal credibility in meeting the schedule and resorts to any one of the following.

1) Get relieved from expediting pressures by releasing partial drawings so that the subsequent task (Civil construction) can start! Of course not enough to finish.
2) Design based on assumptions (without waiting for the actual data) and some how release drawings with conditions & omissions.
3) Pass on drawings, which are relatively easy to finalize without much integration of inputs.Tasks on the longest path require relatively higher integration and are much difficult to finalize.

Of course each of the above action has its own consequence! Action 1 & 2leads to a situation where the civil work either slows down or faces interruptions in execution leading to poor utilization of civil resources. To improve utilization of civil resources, more civil work fronts are opened, resultant effect is frequent day to day expediting, priority changes causing bad multitasking leading to further interruptions, rework and associated delays. Drawings go through several revisions leaving a perpetual gap between drawing Vs actual site work. No wonder insisting on 'as built drawing' has become a well-set industry practice!

Action 3 leads to situation where civil, manufacturing and purchase department manages to receive easier designs earlier and civil work fronts, procurement and manufacturing items requiring much later in the project are worked upon much ahead of time. Project budget gets consumed on unplanned activities leaving the finance team with fund flow going haywire.

Now it appears! In such project environments, expecting tasks to complete as per the project plan is nothing short of winning lottery consistently!!

So what went wrong? Are we stumbling on few missing steps?

Let us carefully observe... the example described thus far is no unique case.

Every project goes through the same cycle, task type could be different; Else the end consequences are no different.

Unlike operation or production environment, task durations of project are not deterministic. Project tasks are subjected to uncertainty and are not expected to complete exactly as per planned duration. Even though uncertainty is the hallmark of project, the level of uncertainty is not the same throughout the project. The level of uncertainty goes higher at integration points. With increased number of predecessor tasks the probability of timely completion of integration task drastically goes down (like the example described above - Designing & release of drawings, Final assembly & testing, erection & commissioning etc). Whenever the project flows through these pockets of integration it experiences turbulence, flow rate of tasks goes down and remains unpredictable.

Not recognizing such flow entities that dictate the speed of the project and pushing all tasks as soon as possible results in only negative ramification. Thus giving an impression that bad planning is the cause of all failures.

A Simple But Yet Robust Solution

Planning serves it's purpose when it helps execution. The overall project progress is usually measured by extrapolating the current rate of task progress with respect to project plan. Decisions & corrective actions are taken with an assumption that current rate of task progress will continue and impact future unless management interventions are done. But this assumption is not valid for tasks at integration. Integration tasks never experience linear flow & task progress remains erratic. This can be solved if there is good synchronization of inputs from various predecessor agencies/departments. But in reality it is not easy for the owner of integration task to maneuver different corporate power centers and seek subordination from many agencies/departments.

Identify The Flow Entities: Before putting the project plan to work &start to expect benefits, the first step is to identify the flow entities within the overall project. Tasks demanding high integration of inputs are the first place to look for. Merit of any task is usually biased by it's associated cost, duration, safety risk and many, but never based on the level of synchronization it demands.

Full-Kit Gate Control: After identifying the flow entity, Synchronization between multiple agencies can be forced upon when there is a strong gate after Integration point. Not allowing the chosen integration task to release any output discretely to the subsequent tasks (No piece meal) and Also not allowing the subsequent work to start until the integration task is complete in full (Full-kit); This action ensures delay becomes "Visible" which in turn triggers expediting & focused management attention at the right time. Example: Civil construction is not allowed until the entire set of Design & drawings are complete.

Flow Monitoring: Full-kit Gate control indeed provides a Visual alert for delays. However if the delays are not prevented in the first place, there will be a pressure to break the full-kit rule leading to all associated problems. Delays in providing & receiving inputs increases when there are loops of iterations (Information moving back & forth), such task dependencies are difficult to represent in project network. Having a default process of daily cross-functional meeting (Flow meetings)chaired by an empowered person to resolve open issues can cut the loops of iterations between different agencies & departments.

Project Planning: Traditional planning team resembles a young lad playing the Angry Birds game, making several re-planning attempts to hit the actual execution scenario. Planning should help execution - not the other way round.

A large project plan with independent task milestones leads to hidden buffers and prevents early detection of issues. Shifting the safeties (buffers) from the tasks to the end of their respective task sequences (paths) conserves overall project safety due to aggregation effect. (Even though project budget is allocated for each task owner, the money is not disbursed upfront! Why to take chance with time!)

CCPM helps in establishing Buffered project plans for each independent area and released into execution based on full kit completion.

Project Execution: A large project will have several tasks getting executed simultaneously. Every task delay will not delay the entire project. Critical Chain Buffer management is the only system that provides priority of task according to its impact on the overall project completion. A suitable graph (fever chart) can give one page clear picture on the status of all the project areas. Along with daily flow monitoring meetings at the ground level, Periodic buffer management review by top management to proactively resolve issues is a far different culture than chasing date after date.

CCPM is a holistic approach for managing projects. Vector Consulting Group has demonstrated significant results for its client in project business by leveraging CCPM philosophies. 25% reduction in project lead-time, more than 50% reduction in design lead-time with significant reduction in drawing revisions has been achieved in VCG's implementations.

Anantha Keerthi is a Consultant at Vector Consulting Group and a Theory of Constraints practitioner since 8 years. He has implemented Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM) in diverse environments like multi project - EPC (Engineering Procurement & Construction), Green field - new plant construction and plant maintenance.

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