Critical path, missed deadlines, schedule compression, and working smarter

The critical path approach to project scheduling was developed at Dupont and Rand in the late 1950s. It involves defining project activities and their relative dependencies, and ascertaining what the sequence of critical tasks of longest duration is, and hence what the overall project timeline is which cannot be shortened — given that by definition there is no slack on the critical path. Note that there can be several near-critical paths.

Practical considerations about project management

Dependencies among activities may be 1) logical or causal, 2) due to resource constraints, or 3) discretionary (due to preferences). In other words, some tasks simply cannot be attempted before others have started or ended, some tasks have to be done at a certain pace because there are not enough skilled staff to speed up their completion, or one may simply choose to sequence tasks in various ways if not constrained by either causality or resources.

It should also be understood that a project may not be fast-tracked and a schedule compressed at will, unless of course one has grossly overestimated the time to begin with. Throwing additional resources at a project in a last-ditch effort to meet a deadline is likely to actually delay it due to the increased overhead in managing, coordinating, and bringing said resources up to speed. This is a common approach in non-profit healthcare, where labor — whether permanent or contracted — can be relatively inexpensive. For projects that fall behind schedule, the most viable option to meet a hard deadline is not to staff up but rather to take things off the table, i.e. to scope down and reduce the number of deliverables.

The point is that deadlines and milestones on the critical path must be managed with the utmost care throughout a project and not only as a deadline looms, without harboring the false hope that fast-tracking activities on the tail end will suffice to meet the overall deadline if earlier ones have already slipped. It pays to have carefully developed and granular enough Work Breakdown Structures (WBS) with short-term deliverables monitored — daily, if necessary — on a “done/not done” basis to keep a project continually on track. Progress expressed in percentages — also common in healthcare — can be deceiving if lacking detail, is of modest benefit in a fast-changing environment, and is not nearly as illuminating to management as the binary done/not done qualifier!

Not staffing up as a reflex response to additional work is a point that needs to be made to management in the broader, strategic sense as well. Too often, when faced with a new task or requirement and with staff already over-committed, the thought is that one cannot possibly do anything but rise to the challenge. Therefore, the typical response is to throw resources at the activity or, in the short term, induce burnout via excessive overtime.  There is a better way. Before staffing up, the questions that should be posed are, first, “are we engaging in the right activities to begin with?” and, second, “if we are doing what we should, then are we using existing resources to their full potential?” Note that “full potential” is not simply measured in hours worked but rather gauged by properly mapping skills to task requirements. With staff growth being bounded by a budgetary ceiling, one must first look at whether there is a way of rationalizing both current activities and planned ones by doing less, and then make better use of existing resources to work on what truly must be done.

As to doing less but achieving more, I want to draw an analogy to the introduction of the ABC method of managing surgical inventory, a project I once led for a client — ABC is used in retail and refers to classifying inventories in bands and ranking them according to the product of both item cost and frequency of usage (equaling dollar volume.)  Before going down the well-trodden path of simply assigning resources to tasks on that project, obsolete inventory was focused on, cataloged, boxed, and physically moved offsite. While this seems an obvious thing to do in hindsight, daily effort was being put into managing  it up to that point. With the physical and mental clutter of obsolete surgical inventory gotten rid of, storage space became available, wasteful moving about of items was eliminated, resources were free to focus on the inventory actually in use, confusion and frustration were reduced, and staffing up as a reflex action by managers became a non-issue. The importance of categorizing items — whether they be materials or expenses — into bins or bands according to a variety of criteria in order to gain insight into a situation cannot be overemphasized, and is a first step towards successful forecasting analytics in the workplace. Always know where you start from.

Just think, when trying to get a handle on a personal budget, if most expenses are left under “miscellaneous”, it is unlikely much progress will be made towards greater savings.  Work smarter, not (always) harder!



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