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How we can solve the Late Project problem

Since the beginning of formal project management, projects have been suffering from time overruns, de-synchronization and lack of predictability. Even leaps in technology has not been able to counter this. What could be the reason for this inexplicable trend?

One of the usual external factors that almost every project has to deal with is “Resource Shortages” – mobilization gets delayed, required numbers are hardly ever available, scope additions and other delays increase requirement, Management and Expert capacities are unknown etc.

One of the obvious management reactions to shortages is prioritization. What was shown in the earlier article was that prioritizing when facing a shortage, has a wide range of unpredictable outcomes and in most of them, delays multiply and synchronization is lost – exactly the same symptoms that projects, as a whole, exhibit.

Only a very few of the prioritization decisions lead to vastly more efficient outcomes, but they follow no known rules and obeys no known logic that we can possibly deploy.

Critical Path method, as forewarned by its proponents 60 years back, is ineffective too. Even the best plans go astray, even the best project management teams cannot fire-fight enough.  

Without fixing this, how could we ever get projects under control, especially when resource shortages are so omnipresent in projects?

Why are we ignoring other uncertainties - some would argue? Uncertainties like estimation errors, day-to-day delays, changes in scope etc.?

Believe it or not, they are way simpler factors to deal with. They cannot hurt predictability. Because, every such event has only a single, definite outcome. We can always plan and recover from future tasks.

If we have unlimited resources, these can be countered through textbook planning and control or sheer experience. Have you ever heard of a late project that had resources (including money) poured into it?

But when resources are limited/ inadequate, these factors pile up on the chaos and amplify the impact.

The complexity of Resource Shortages

  1. It has no impact on individual tasks but generate invisible dependencies between tasks that are, otherwise, unrelated to each other in every conceivable way.
  2. Resource dependencies, unlike technical ones, can possibly run in any direction.
  3. Before prioritization has happened it has many possibilities. Till someone prioritizes we cannot know which one is going to be true.

These are the reasons why predictions tend to become so unreliable. Even the best planners cannot possibly model these possibilities in a plan – there are just too many. And they have no way of knowing how much shortage individual groups might be facing and how they are going to prioritize their work as a result of that.

Even if they did, remember, there are no known rules for good prioritization – it is not possible for anyone to know whether by prioritizing according to criticality, cash flow or risks etc., he or she is benefitting the projects or causing more harm.

Even if one could put accurate values in a scheduling or optimization software and run it, it is not possible to conclude whether the answer it churned out is a good answer or not.

These are important considerations to take note of before we castigate planners for ‘poor planning’ and explain away project delays.

Are we then facing a dead end?

Thankfully, NO. If we look at the nature of resource dependencies and how it affects projects, we can find a way to avoid most of the possible detrimental outcomes.

We cannot still claim that this is the best outcome for our projects, but we can definitely say with confidence that this is very near the best that can possibly happen.

And the quantum of improvement in terms of only timeline is a lot (> 20%). In addition, it ensures synchronization and makes predictions very reliable during execution.

The solution is also very simple – only requires a change in the way we conceptualize projects.

Sounds too good to be true? Let’s figure out how.

How are good and bad solutions generated?

Resource shortages are not harmful on their own. They only generate many options, but the impact is constant. E.g. If there are 3 tasks A, B and C and only 1 available resource to execute them, then they can be executed in ABC, ACB, BAC, BCA, CAB, CBA sequences but the time impact is constant – the sum of durations of A, B and C.

However, in projects there exists Integration Points and together, they act as partners in crime. Together, they produce many possible outcomes.

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Integration Points

Consider the picture above – the red circles show the Integration Points. These are the places in projects where synchronization is necessary. The project team has to coordinate drawings, supplies, civil and fabrication to make sure Piping can happen.

Now, if every stake-holder (Engineering, Supplier, Civil, Mechanical and Piping) has enough capacity to only support one of the 2 tasks, how could we execute this mini-project?

For example, if each of them consider what is critical for them individually, and postpones what seems to have time, this is what happens:

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Since each of the stakeholders can have 2 options, there are 16 possible solutions to this problem and the ones below are the 2 best outcomes:

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In fact, out of the 16, there are 14 bad solutions and only these 2 good ones.

The key to finding the solution to on-time projects

When we try to execute any project, we can expect to face resource shortages – we just do not know where we might face it, when it might strike and what will be the quantum of the shortfall.

How then could we plan our projects and what could be the mechanism for prioritization that would make them impervious to the bad possibilities, whenever we face the eventual reality? 

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