To do things better, sometimes we have to do less.
The argument for doing less and doing it better is well-known. To what extent you agree with the idea will probably depend on your business strategy and product positioning.
But how about doing less so we can do everything faster?
The Theory of Constraints (TOC) teaches us that by cutting work in progress in half, we can also cut lead times by a similar amount. When we apply TOC logic, using Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM) to the field of project management, we experience a similar phenomenon.
CCPM teaches us the need to focus, both in terms of project control mechanisms and in terms of reducing multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is the biggest enemy of good project management.
When our team goes into a business for the first time, we often find that teams are running more projects than they can realistically hope to achieve at any one time. As a result, team members flit between projects, completing none of them.
Task completion dates are delayed across all projects and teams upstream from a constrained resource are sitting around twiddling their thumbs waiting for work – any work – to be completed. To avoid thumb-twiddling, the upstream teams will often begin other (non-critical) work. Of course, this further delays the progress of critical work when it does reach the upstream teams.
This is why multi-tasking doesn’t work. It serves only to push the completion dates of all projects further out, so that the payback period on every project is pushed further out as well.
It’s a phenomenon we encounter frequently.
For example, the sales team in a major engineering business we worked with recently displayed exactly the same impulse. Its sales pipelines were huge.
Great news, right? The business has a huge potential customer base.
Well, in some ways this is right: on the surface there appeared to be great market potential for their products. But the sales team was still not hitting targets. In reality, there was no way each sales person could successfully juggle all the leads in his funnel.
It was vital for each sales person to reduce the number of sales leads that he was responsible for, in order that he be able to manage them properly. When we looked more closely, it became apparent that the leads varied in quality: each had its own timescale, value, prestige and likelihood of closing.
The solution was to allow the sales manager to weed out the projects of lesser value or with lesser probability of success. The team had to focus on the sales leads they had a realistic chance of winning, and that were financially worth pursuing.
In sales it’s easy to achieve focus by stripping out all leads below a certain quality threshold. Of course, in projects we don’t have this luxury. Each of the projects has to be completed. We can’t simply cherry pick the ones we can win.
However, we do need to apply some of this logic. Because, only by focusing resources and finishing projects can we improve the performance against project schedule across the board. Not only are all project timelines shorter, since multi-tasking is reduced, but each project will start to generate revenue earlier – improving cash flow and revenue streams.
The solution here is to freeze some projects so active projects are managed better, completed faster and start to earn money sooner.
When we go onto a customer site and see an unmanageable amount of projects being run at the same time, one of the techniques we can deploy is to freeze some of the projects and concentrate activity on a more realistic number. We generally cut the number of active projects by 25% – 50%, depending on the severity of the multi-tasking problem.
It should be possible to keep reducing the number of projects until it’s possible to manage the active projects more effectively. There’s quite a broad spectrum for the effective management of projects. Our cut has to hit somewhere on this broad plateau; where exactly does not matter. It doesn’t have to be an exact science! Essentially, we need to cut enough to create flow, but not so much that key resources are starved of work.
As in our sales example, the business has to prioritise which projects should be focused on first. Then the remaining projects go into a queue. Usually, we find that project teams are surprised by the extent to which we can cut the number of active projects while still increasing productivity.
Now the projects are operating optimally without problematic multi-tasking. The project team is able to complete all active projects much more quickly. Projects become profitable sooner, as they start generating revenue earlier.
When completed projects drop out of the active project schedule, then frozen projects from the queue are unfrozen or activated.
Perhaps the hardest discipline of all to be learnt is that of maintaining the reduced number of active projects. You might be surprised by the number of businesses that revert to expediting projects in times of stress. If this happens, discipline needs to be restored by again freezing a percentage of active projects.