Increasing the output of the infrastructure sector by a quantum leap
Our previous blog concludes that the bottleneck lies in the infrastructure sector where it concerns the total of major societal challenges such as the energy transition, the replacement and renovation of infrastructure, and climate adaptation. We have asked for your feedback and are grateful for your responses. The concern about projects that need to be prepared and executed faster meets resonance. Time to sound the alarm? The professional media already do.
There is also a reason for optimism. New knowledge has become available that helps to increase the output of project organizations. Although this knowledge is not yet widely taught at universities, business schools and project management courses, it is already being applied in practice. Alos by us. By identifying the bottleneck in projects and making optimal use of the capacity of this limiting factor in project execution, the output of project organizations can be increased by a quantum leap.
A reader calls the bottleneck a strong concept and asks how one can practically apply it in projects and innovation. That is the subject of this and future blogs.
The bottleneck is a strong, but not a simple concept
A brief repetition of the foregoing. The concept of the bottleneck was introduced to management by Dr Eliyahu Goldratt. In the example of a bottle that you empty, the contents change into impetuous bubbling water that flows out and air that wants to go in. If you now insert a straw into the bottle almost to the bottom, the bottle will drain quietly and four times as fast. You have just taken a measure that makes the best possible use of the limiting factor, the bottleneck
The bottleneck seems like a simple concept, but discussions about it often get bogged down, and then it turns out not to be that simple at all. We regularly hear: ‘we have the following bottlenecks, followed by a long list. “Bottleneck” has been used here as a synonym for “problem” and the insight behind and power of the concept have perished in the discussion. We’re back to square one. We have a lot of problems and address them one by one, but somewhere we feel like we are running in circles.
Departments where the work makes the least progress, are often designated as bottlenecks. In the infra sector, it often concerns departments that prepare projects – conditioning or engineering – and departments for industrial automation. Their tasks are complex and the number of experts is limited. Many projects could accelerate if work would go through these departments faster. Entire programs depend on the speed in these departments. The only problem is that labelling these departments as a bottleneck does not give any clue for a solution that uses the strength of the bottleneck concept. We still can’t do much more than tackle the problems step by step. But steps are not quantum leaps.
The limiting factor in projects is the critical chain
Each system has just one limiting factor. In the system chain it is the weakest link, in the system bottle the bottleneck. The nature of the limiting factor and the solutions differ from system to system. It can be useful to reflect on this for a moment.
In a chain, the limiting factor is the weakest link. The solution is of course that we can strengthen it, after which we can strengthen the next weakest link, etc. In a bottle, the bottleneck is the limiting factor and the solution that with the help of a straw we can accelerate the FLOW from the bottle by a factor of 4. But before you know it, you’re mixing things up. Subconsciously, when we designate a department as a bottleneck, we actually have the analogy of the weakest link in our head. Accordingly, we will tackle the problems one by one, and then the problems will be dealt with in the next department. Well done? Or, are we running in circles?
If we find the real bottleneck and make maximum use of it, the output increases by a quantum leap, and most of the problems will disappear by themselves.
What about projects? At the beginning of a collaboration, we often ask clients the following questions. Do people in projects make avoidable mistakes? Are priorities always clear? Are dependencies between tasks clear? Are projects well prepared? The answers give an impression of the potential for improvement. Does it make sense to address these problems one by one or would you only be managing „bubbles in tumbling water“ then, to use the analogy of the bottle? In other words: is there a limiting factor in the system project that you can manage in a way that accelerates the execution by a quantum leap?
Goldratt’s insight is that the limiting factor in a project is the longest sequence of tasks that, due to interdependencies, must be performed one after the other from start to completion. The critical chain. There is no faster way to carry out the project. By focusing on an effective organisation of the tasks on the critical chain and the fastest possible execution, it is indeed possible to execute projects much faster. In our experience, two or more times as fast. The bottleneck in projects is therefore the critical chain, the equivalent of the bottleneck.
Modern FLOW project software indicates real-time priorities by colour codes (red, yellow, and green) so that people know in which order work needs to be done and where help and support are needed to carry out projects as fast as possible. If you use these priorities in project execution, synchronize and prepare tasks well, and solve problems that hinder projects on the critical chain, the execution of projects will accelerate significantly. Just as water flows without bubbles from the bottle by using a straw, the measures mentioned above also eliminate the problems that cause stress in project organizations. “Bubbles” in your project organization as avoidable mistakes, iterations, and unclear priorities will be a thing of the past then.
Of course ur description cannot be complete in the context of this blog. Below, we invite you to share questions and practical situations with us. We will discuss these in future blogs then.
Spreading the knowledge and experience about FLOW in dialogue with you
Given the major challenges facing us as a society, the energy transition, the replacement of outdated infrastructure, and climate adaptation, we aim to spread and help apply the knowledge and experience about Project Portfolio FLOW.
Managing flow in a project organization is not easy. FLOW solutions with a focus on the critical chain are nothing less than a system intervention. It is also a paradigm shift. With practical examples, workshops, and training courses, we can contribute to getting this done in your project organisation.
We like to keep it practical to come to solutions for the challenges we face. You can respond to this email again with your opinions, questions, and ideas. We look forward to this and will treat your responses confidentially.
Our next blog is about project portfolios, because we not only want to do one project very quickly but also many more projects.
Willem de Wit, Menno Graaf and Emmo Meijer
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