The Strange Alchemy of Managing Your Buffer
To manage buffers well, two things are required:
- focus, and
- effective control mechanisms.
Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM) helps provide project and resource managers with prioritised lists of tasks, so they are clear about what should be worked on next. We’ve already seen how Fever Charts can help project managers visualise performance against project schedules. As a result, Fever Charts can help bring focus and control. However, they need to be monitored on an ongoing and frequent basis: you don’t want to lose a lot of buffer because of too infrequent monitoring.
When the buffer situation is visual and transparent for all team members, we usually see a good degree of self-policing by team members. When projects start to enter the red, the team will react without the intervention of project managers being required.
This holds true provided:
- performance against buffer is transparent, and
- performance on most projects is good (i.e. most projects are operating in the green and yellow areas of the chart).
We do notice team-driven buffer management will slip when there are many projects in the black (i.e. the majority of projects have gone out of the red area of the chart and, at current performance levels, will not now be completed by the project due date). We think this is because the situation seems hopeless; it’s a huge demotivator. Team members do not feel empowered to make positive changes whichmight result in improved performance. In these situations, management intervention is necessary.
We recently worked with a business where the design engineers were the most heavily constrained resource; our constraint. We took a number of actions to get them out of the red and back into the yellow and green areas of their projects’ Fever Charts.
First, we instituted small teams responsible for projects. Each of these small teams were effectively made up of two people working alongside each other. We enforced a dedication to project work for at least one person in every pair over a three-hour time period. During these three hour blocks, one team member would be completely removed from the distractions of phone of email so they could concentrate solely on design work. The other person in the pair would field all calls and email enquiries during this period and attempt to complete some design work around these calls and emails.
Just before lunch, they would convene and decide between them how to address any difficult queries fielded by the team second. After lunch, the first team member would continue to focus solely on design work, as before. The pair would switch roles only after each design completion. This arrangement was a great boost to productivity; underlining how easy it is to underestimate the effect that regular disruptions can have on performance.
In order to enhance the positive effects that focus was having on performance, we introduced the role of ‘gatekeeper’ for all projects. Only urgent calls, which required an immediate response, would be put through to team at all. This protected them from non-essential interruptions and it also enabled greater task focus on their part.
Non-essential enquiries are forwarded on to the team member tasked with fielding calls only at the end of each three-hour focus period. At this point, we usually see the number of enquiries that the team deal with reduce, since the people making the enquiries can usually work out the answer to their questions on their own. This may take them some time, but it’s usually quicker than waiting.
For greater focus across the board, the next step was to introduce a professional project manager role. This allows the senior designers, who were effectively the project managers, to focus on design work, rather than fielding client-facing enquiries and fulfilling internal management requirements. Separating out some of the project management tasks from the role of senior designer not only enables the senior designers to have greater focus, and relieves pressure on the constraint, it also creates a new control mechanism: the dedicated project manager.