Articles – How To Run Successful Projects In Web-Time
Why do projects take more rather than less time? Here are some of the primary reasons:
The goal of the project isn’t clear. As a result, new things to be done are constantly coming to light or being identified.
All the jobs needed to complete the project haven’t been identified.
There are delays between jobs.
No one person is responsible for moving the project forward.
There is a lack of understanding of who is needed at what time on the project. By extension, since people don’t know when they will be needed, they have arranged to do other things and so are unavailable when they are needed. (Also, even when people do know they will be needed, they inadvertently or otherwise overbook themselves, and so are unavailable.)
There is no clear understanding of the Critical Path in terms of delays, finishing jobs early, or even starting early.
Whether related to the above or not, let’s not forget the “Where did the week go?” syndrome. Did you ever have one of those weeks when, at the end of the week, you wonder where the days could have disappeared to, and what the hell you achieved? No? Lucky you!
What Can We Do about This?
One way would be that having identified the above ten issues, we would put in place a process improvement project. This is a fairly standard approach and has been demonstrated in areas such as total quality management and software process improvement.
Perhaps a less obvious – but no less effective – way to go would be to ask whether anyone else has cracked this problem of making projects as short as possible. If so, then we ought to be able to adapt their solutions, tools, and processes to our situation.
Happily, there is an industry that has cracked this problem: the movie business. There are ideas we can lift directly from the movie industry that will help us enormously. One of these ideas applies to single projects.
Movies are developed in three phases:
Production, i.e., shooting the movie
By far the most expensive of these is the production phase. Because shooting a movie is expensive, and the cost of a day’s shooting is prohibitive, every attempt is made to keep this phase as short as possible. Work on keeping this phase as short as possible is begun during the pre-production phase. A plan is developed whose principle aim is to keep the production phase as short as possible. This plan is then implemented during the production phase.
How Does It Work?
If you have ever looked at the screenplay of a movie, you will remember that it consists of anywhere from 200 to 300 scenes. Each scene is described in terms of its:
Whether the scene is an interior or exterior scene
The time of day at which it takes place
The people involved in the scene
What those people say and do.
Think of the script as the product to be built. Notice that, amongst many other things, the script gives us a feeling for “how much stuff there is” – how much work has to get done.
When the time comes to plan the making of the film, somebody goes through the script, scene by scene, and builds what are known as “breakdown sheets.” There is a breakdown sheet per scene. A breakdown sheet tells everything people need to know – whether the scene is interior/exterior, setting, time of day, cast members, extras, stunts, vehicles, props, special effects, costumes, makeup, set dressing, greenery, special equipment, security, additional labour, optical effects, mechanical effects, etc. – about shooting a scene. The information from each breakdown sheet is summarised onto a narrow piece of paper known as a strip. There is a strip for each scene in the movie. In the days before computers, the paper strips were laid out on a board (known as a “strip board”), then arranged and rearranged until the optimum sequence for shooting the movie had been identified.
In short, the key to a successful, hiccup-free shoot is knowing in advance who and what is needed on each day of shooting.
How Does This Relate to IT?
Now, it turns out – and I know this because I’ve done it – that these ideas can be applied very successfully to software or IT projects.
While there are now specialist software packages for developing movie schedules, the strip board can be developed quite happily in a spreadsheet package like Excel. You use the columns of the spreadsheet as the “cast members,” i.e., people working on your project. Each row represents a day on the project. Each cell represents the jobs being done by that person on that particular day. An example is given in Figure 1. The items in the cells were taken from an MS Project plan for a software product development.
Representing the plan on a strip board gives extraordinary clarity in terms of (a) who is doing what when, and (b) the Critical Path. It also makes monitoring and control mind-numbingly easy and eliminates completely the “Where did the week go?” syndrome. Building a strip board may seem like a time-consuming and boring exercise, but this is not the case. However, You can comfortably build a strip board of a 200-250 line item MS Project plan in a day. And boring? Well, sooner or later, you’re going to have to decide who’s going to do what on what day. Why not get it out of the way at the beginning of the project?
And finally, the most important question of all: Does it actually shorten the project?
Well, while this idea is old hat in the movie and TV industries, it’s radically new in software and IT. There isn’t much data to go on yet, but preliminary results are very encouraging. Planning and executing a project using a strip board has so far yielded shortenings of about 30% of the original, predicted elapsed time. These days, I wouldn’t run a project any other way.