The real reason that projects fail and how to fix it - An introduction to Critical Chain Project Management (1)

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Posted by APM on 7th Apr 2014

The branch was very grateful to be hosted by corporate member, Airbus, in their very impressive, newly refurbished, Pegasus Building.

We were pleased to welcome back Gary Palmer, of Critical Point Consulting, who had spoken at the branchs one day seminar on project controls, in September 2013.

Gary introduced critical chain project management (CCPM) and how it can offer a more robust approach to help ensure project success. He explained why traditional approaches to project management tend to result in project failure; over budget, below spec and late. 

Traditional project management uses deadline schedules which are rigid and cannot easily cope with change, which of course, is inevitable. Even when slack is built into tasks, Parkinsons Law says that work expands to fill the time available, and/or is started late, which is typically known as 'student syndrome.  The problem is that there is no incentive to do the work early, and so projects always slip, and when time is limited, compromises are then taken with scope and quality and invariably costs increase. The argument for traditional project managment is that slippage is balanced by activities finishing early, but in reality, human behaviour prevents this happening: projects simply slip.

Gary explained how CCPM can address this tendency of traditional project managemetn to plan to fail. CCPM does not have internal deadlines or slack for activities, the schedule is a pure dependency chart. Traditional planning encourages people to build in contingency at every level and every task, which is usually invisible to the project manager. This can easily double the project schedule and because of Parkinsons Law and student syndrome, will still not deliver on time. The CCPM approach is to strip these contingencies out and to incentive the completion of tasks as quickly as possible, to release resource for other tasks. Time contingency, or buffer,  is kept at project level, and not task level. This of course needs significant behavioural changes in the project team and senior managers.

Gary highlighted that the traditional critical path approach is only valid if there are no resource constraints, which of course is not realistic, there are always scarce resources. Critical chain includes resources at the start and treats then as constraints and dependencies. The project plan is sequenced to account for resource availability, be that key individual skills, or access to facilities. Of course, if there are no resource issues, then the critical chain will be the same as the critical path.

Gary next debunked the myth of multitasking; trying to do several things at once is the single best way to screw up 2 jobs!. Multitasking is inefficient, with constant stop starts, constant learning curves, lack of focus, which results in all tasks being delayed and poor morale. Doing one task at a time allows focus and the best chance to complete early or on time. 60% of the efficiency gains from a CCPM approach are from not multitasking.

The CCPM approaches are part of a virtuous circle, which all work in harmony to deliver projects efficiently and effectively, overcoming the traditional approach of terminal mediocrity. 

CCPM principles can also be applied at programme and portfolio level, in particular avoiding multitasking and overloading programmes and portfolios with under resourced projects. The senior management myth that more work in equals more work out, everything is priority 1, and lack of effective governance is clearly wrong. CCPM is based on the theory of constraints, (Eli Goldratt), which highlights the needs to focus on the things that prevent you achieving goals: resources which are used most often are strategic resources that must be actively managed; project pipelines must be prioritised to fit the scarce resource constraint.

Traditional methods of measuring progress, such as earned value, are retrospective, and provide no sense of reality about what will happen. The key questions should be 'are you on time?' and 'what is the likely completion date?' CCPM includes daily updates which provide very early warning of slippage and problems. Gary described how fever charts of percentage of project buffer used against percentage critical chain completed can be used by all levels of management to understand very clearly the actual reality on any project or programme. This key data is created by the project team as a single point of truth. This requires positive behaviours at all levels, but will help prevent surprises and late emerging issues. 

In summary, traditional project management delivers self perpetuating systematic failure resulting in terminal mediocrity. CCPM offers solutions to traditional problems. CCPM has a range of tools and techniques, but also requires different ways of working and cultural change at all levels of an organisation, but can offer a better approach to consistently deliver project success.

Martin Gosden
SWWE Branch Chairman

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