A friend of mine, Gary, builds large million-pound houses. Each one is a one-off, a completely unique build taking many months to complete. Yet, irrespective of the size or shape of the house, Gary always predicts correctly – within a few weeks – when the build will be finished. One day, he noticed that one of his bricklayers was repeatedly stopping for tea breaks and to check his phone. At the end of the day, Gary did a quick calculation of the number of bricks his tradesmen had laid. This calculation was enough to tell him how late the project would be and how much it would cost him. I asked him to explain.
“Years of experience” he told me, “means I have a thorough understanding of how the rate of bricks being laid can help me to predict when my house will be finished”. Gary also does something most other people in his position do not – he spends a large amount of time on site. Not just watching but helping. Making sure that what is supposed to be getting done is actually getting done and if one of his people encounter an issue, he ensures it can be dealt with quickly. If you ask Gary when you will have your house, he can predict – within a week either side – when it will be ready.
Another friend, Brian, has bought his house from a large builder. The house is an extension to the estate he currently works on. It was due to be ready in February – presently, it is predicted for late July. This has led to Brian having to go through the mortgage process a few times, and as a result, he has lost significant cash. On meeting the site agent, he was told that it wasn’t their fault: “materials are in short supply”. One day, on a dog walk, Brian walked around to check the progress on the house and found that nobody was there. He jumped in his car and drove to another estate which he knew was being built by the same company. He saw all the tradespeople there. Recognising one of the bricklayers, he walked over and asked why they were not at the estate where his house was being built. “Well,” the bricklayer began, “if we get some of these houses started, we are more likely to get a deposit on them”.
If we think about these two systems, one receives regular injections of cash, and the customer is happy; the other waits months (sometimes years!) to complete and requires constant negotiation with customers and suppliers about delivery dates. The key difference lies in the rate of small tasks being finished and sticking with the build sequence until each house is complete.
Recently, we were supporting one of the largest digital projects in the UK. The project was running late. It was built using ‘scrum’ and ‘sprint’ based planning and execution. The team had built all the tasks for the next six months – there were hundreds. Each fortnight, a number of tasks will be pulled into the ‘sprint’. This is meant to provide focus and aid faster delivery. When we begin working with a client, we study the project’s ways of working (e.g., Gary’s one house at a time vs. the housebuilder idea to build many and have them all be delivered at the same time). What we found was more akin to the latter housebuilder than Gary’s slick delivery methods. At the start of each fortnight, the team looked at all the tasks and pulled out the ones they liked to do, knew how to do, or had the resources available to complete. Any tasks that do not get completed within the sprint would be put back into the backlog and revisited at a later date. The result of this is that hundreds of tasks are being worked on at any given time, with the complex ones being left until the last minute. This leads to projects running late, costs soaring, and constant negotiation being required with the stakeholders and customers to manage the pain of the late-running project. With updates only being provided fortnightly, nobody knew the project was late – until it was too late. In most cases the same excuse is given for the delays: “this is complex work”.
I sat down with the leader and explained what was going on. He gazed at the ceiling for a moment and responded, “it seems that one of the things you are advocating is to get better at managing the small chunks of work – the tasks that might take two to three days to complete?”. I confirmed he was correct. “But,” he challenged, “projects are not built by managing one task at a time, they are big, wieldy things that require the leader to pay attention to the whole”.
This is true, and false. The leader, of course, must have one eye on where the project is in relation to the completion of the home. However, like Gary, they also must know that it is not the rate at which the bricks are being laid but that the capacity of the team is not being lost through working on the wrong tasks at the wrong time.
Having small tasks done in sequence, with regular completion is also important psychologically. When we complete a task, we get a release of dopamine – it makes us feel good! If we are constantly having to switch tasks due to blockages, changes in priority (both at the end and during a sprint), and thus not completing tasks, we will soon lose motivation. Furthermore, if all the difficult tasks are left until the end of the project due to choices made by individuals during the sprints, there is little left to complete the project.
Once we have studied what is going on in a project, we generally start by establishing task management. We ask the team to adopt the following rules:
- Only work on one task at a time.
- Only start what you can finish.
- If you get blocked, stop and get help.
- Work on the tasks in the order in which they fall in the project.
- Make sure you are clear on what you have been asked to do – before you start.
One project running five months late were predicting a further three to four months until completion. The team adopted these rules for task management and completed the project within just four weeks. The key to success was in in not losing capacity which was achieved through the tight management of the sequence of the tasks to be delivered. Gary knows this, and if he were running a project, he would say projects are delivered one brick – or one task – at a time.
By Stuart Corrigan
©2022, Goldratt UK
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