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Don’t Fail to Plan; Plan to Succeed

by Patrick on September 1, 2011

There is a popular phrase whose variants average out to “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Putting aside the fact that one’s failure to plan makes the upcoming failure a complete surprise, the saying offers some sound advice. For anything with more than a very small number of steps, planning is an important part of accomplishing. I plan on discussing a couple of popular, efficient, and possibly downright fun methods of planning complex projects.

For several decades now, the most organized project managers have used a method called the Critical Path Method. In this method, a project manager lists the tasks required to complete a job and organizes them into chains in the order that they must be completed.

The red path is the critical path.

Task B needs to be completed before Task C can begin, and Task A needs to be completed before Task B can begin. All tasks are not usually in one chain. If Task B and Task E require Task A to be done, but do not rely on each other, they could be done simultaneously by different teams. Once the paths are all laid out, the project manager assigns time estimates to each task. The chain of tasks that will take the most time is called the Critical Path. This path is given the highest priority because it determines the minimum time that a project can take. Speeding up tasks that aren’t on this critical path will not speed up the project as a whole.

Project managers can often speed up certain tasks at increased cost. Hiring temp workers or renting faster equipment can shave hours or days off of a task, but don’t get carried away. There’s no sense in getting a 2 month project done in 2 weeks at astronomical expense when the client doesn’t need it before 2 months. Make sure an earlier delivery date is worth any extra expense to the client.

If focusing on time doesn’t float your boat, give the Critical Chain Method a look. This method is about keeping your resource load as constant as possible. This means that if your bakery has a big sale on cakes, you don’t go out and buy a bunch of ovens so you can have them all finish at once and totally swamp your icing artist. This method has the bakery baking cakes in smaller batches and having the icing guy ice the cakes as they finish. This minimizes bottlenecking and provides a smoother and more predictable schedule so you don’t pay workers to wait around for cakes to finish baking. (Pro tip: This doesn’t just apply to bakeries. Apply it to your industry; I don’t know where you work.)

In the end, it all comes down to priorities, both yours and your client’s. If you have plenty of resources and the client wants it done ASAP, go for Critical Path. If your hiring/firing expenses are high or you don’t have room for more ovens, try Critical Chain. You can even make up your own system to keep track of your project, but these two methods have a great track record of keeping projects organized and pointing out places for improvement. Don’t fail to plan; plan to succeed.

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