Flow in project programs
Since the beginning of this year, we have been writing about flow in innovation management and project programs. These are specialist texts *[i]. To achieve more project flow or more successful innovation projects, decisions at the top-management level are needed. This management summary is intended for top managers who do not need to know all the details, but who do need a good picture and overview.
This summary is about Project portfolio FLOW. In many organizations, project delivery dates are chronically unreliable. To ensure on-time delivery, project managers put implicit buffers in their schedules – often without even realising it. They can achieve milestones in this way, but the effectiveness diminishes. Project Portfolio FLOW is a combination of existing project management methods and process innovations that often increase output by >20%, combined with high delivery reliability (> 95%) and less chaos and stress.
If experiences with consultants have made you sceptical, please read this newspaper article. The people of Mobilé are not consultants but experts in flow methods. The CEO of Endress + Hauser tells that with Critical Chain, which is part of our Project Portfolio FLOW approach, he has more than doubled project output. He says that this has led to Endress + Hauser reaching a place in the top 100 innovative German family businesses. Three of our people were involved in this implementation. The newspaper article is not sponsored, but an objective editorial.
Coherence in flow methods
Project Portfolio FLOW is largely based on Critical Chain, Eli Goldratt’s breakthrough innovation in project management. You can use the approach within a project or a portfolio or program of projects. The latter is recommended. Critical Chain comes up with solutions at the strategic program level for Issues that you cannot solve within individual projects. The scarcity of industrial automation experts, for example.
If you hear the discussions sometimes you might get the impression that project management methods such as Agile, Critical Chain, Kanban and Scrum are not compatible. Adherents to these methods sometimes wage true wars of religion. Most project managers remain faithful to the method they encountered more or less by chance at the beginning of their careers. It feels insecure to let go of familiar routines. Project Portfolio FLOW brings cohesion to the methods and peace between their supporters. All methods can create flow if you apply them in the right context. Agile, Kanban and Scrum increase the flow of projects at the team level. Critical Chain ensures synchronisation at the program or portfolio level. Project Portfolio FLOW brings everything together.
Project organizations are a bit like motorways with cars or projects that get stuck in traffic jams or flow well. This image came to our minds when we attended a meeting on serial work in infrastructure. Participants discussed solutions to increase the flow of projects. One of those solutions was about how if a project comes to a standstill, you can let people work on another project. That sounds good: this way the flow continues. But, is that really the case?
Images speak louder than words. The above solution in the context of a motorway would mean that a driver of a car that got stuck due to a breakdown, for example, leaves his car, takes another and continues driving with the other car. This comes down to symptom management. In a flow approach, this solution is not allowed. If you allow projects to stand still, the flow decreases. This is very clear on the motorway: behind a stranded car, a traffic jam develops. The same happens in project organisations. Projects that got stuck require a lot of time and attention from management and experts, who are then no longer available for other projects, which in turn also slow down.
Problems need to be tackled at the root.
A first rule that prevents projects from standing still is to prevent more projects from being active than the capacity of the project organisation allows for.
Flow rule 1: Determine the optimal load on the project organisation and reduce the number of active projects or sub-projects to this number. When a project has been completed, a new project can start.
This rule is also applied to motorways. At the traffic lights on some driveways, you can continue if the road capacity allows. This does not work well on motorways because there are more driveways than can be managed coherently. How does that work in your project organisation?
Just as stationary cars on motorways impede the flow, so also in project organisations the flow decreases when projects come to a standstill. Rule 2 therefore reads:
Flow rule 2: projects are allowed to start if they are well prepared.
Timely and good information from suppliers is part of good preparation. When projects start with false information, mistakes creep into projects that take a disproportionate amount of time to fix. First time right is good for quality and speed.
Many project organisations lose a lot of time on planning. Planners try to guarantee delivery dates with fine-grained schedules and tools such as Monte Carlo analyses. With this, they say they can predict better and better when tasks will be finished and new ones can start. However, it is the order of the day that schedules have to be adapted to execution delays. That’s the world upside-down. Good planning enables faster execution. Adjusting schedules to execution delays is exactly the opposite.
Most schedules are too fine-grained. The largest planning software vendors encourage this. Their revenue models are not about fast execution but about people who are busy with planning.
Flow rule 3: Good planning takes place on two levels. A tier 1 network planning reflects all tasks and dependencies. Just before project execution, a more detailed tier 2 execution planning is made.
When you go on vacation, you probably won´t make an itinerary with which you try to predict all eventualities. You also don’t try to calculate exactly when you’ll arrive somewhere and when you’ll leave. Your route planner doesn’t do that either. A route planner contains a network of roads and information about blockages due to road works. While you travel, this system is fed with up-to-date information about your position and congestions and always calculates the fastest route to your final goal. Good flow-planning software does that too. It makes schedules on two levels. Level 1 (tier 1) is a network plan of task packages with dependencies and only at level 2 (tier 2) do teams make detailed schedules of work for the coming days, for example using Agile-Kanban. Schedules never have to be adjusted in this way. That would be the world upsidedown. Good planning on two levels contributes to fast flow.
The fourth flow rule is like first aid in the event of an accident. When things go wrong, we do not just leave things behind, like the driver of the car that got stuck who just gets another car. Instead, we make sure that we solve the problems. In regular stand-ups, teams discuss the tasks that got stuck and will be able to find solutions to most problems. Synchronized with these stand-ups, for example in departmental-level stand-ups, the remaining problems can be solved quickly. Problems requiring top management attention are resolved in stand-ups at that level.
Flow rule 4: Problems that hinder the flow of projects are quickly identified and quickly resolved.
I recently spoke with a leader about the lack of trust in top management. Many professionals believe that management is no longer able to resolve problems and that this is at the expense of trust in management. In addition to the acceleration you achieve with the flow approach, the confidence that you gain by solving problems that get in the way of flow is a nice bonus.
Focus and finish
Eli Goldratt once summed up his vision in one word: focus. Sanjeev Gupta, a renowned flow expert, added the word “finish”. This results in a nice slogan: focus and finish.
Together with my colleagues, I designed the introduction in such a way that you will know in two conversations with us whether a flow approach can help your organisation to solve its project management issues and achieve a higher project output with less stress. In the first interview, we mainly ask questions. In the second interview, we indicate what the flow approach will bring you and an idea of how that works.
Willem de Wit, Menno Graaf, Ian Heptinstall, Emmo Meijer, Kerstin Zulechner
June 30th 2022
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