This Critical Chain Project Management basics workshop is intended to provide a practical, easy to understand, and actionable introduction to the foundational concepts and principles of Critical Chain. The format is engaging for audiences as I frequently look for their inputs into their everyday experiences on projects as well as the concepts being discussed. In addition to the key concepts of Critical Chain, I also emphasize the importance of fostering a high-trust workplace which accelerates and maximizes the expected results. Three key areas covered: Focus, 50/50 estimates, and buffers.
Focus Versus Multitasking on Projects
How much more successful could projects be if nonproductive multitasking could be minimized? A McKinsey Quarterly article indicates that multitasking damages productivity, slows people down, hampers creativity, makes employees anxious, and is addictive. Supporting these findings, a recent multitasking study states, “multitasking makes people less productive, less creative, and more likely to get thrown off by distractions”. Multitasking can also be a significant cause of extended project durations as illustrated in Exhibit 1. If a project team member has three project tasks to complete, A, B, and C, each task takes much longer to complete when multitasking. Context switching between tasks increases the completion times even further and causes the project team members to have to stop frequently to remember where they were each time they switch to a different task.
Multitasking also causes additional stress on team members as they try to keep all the plates spinning simultaneously. The prolonged task durations diminish the sense of accomplishment team members feel when they drive a task to completion. Once the tasks are eventually completed, any sense of accomplishment is replaced by feelings of relief that the stressful multitasking of activities is finally over. The result is decreased morale and a team member who feels more exhausted than excited to have completed their tasks. Additionally, if a problem arises on one of the juggled tasks, delays can propagate among all of the tasks which can impact the on-time performance of multiple projects. Therefore, all three project problems – low team morale, missed due dates, and excessive project durations – can be caused by multitasking.
During the discussion of focus, I also get the audience engaged in a “multitasking game” illustrated above. I solicit a volunteer to come to the front of the room and play the game. I ask them first to recreate the table of information by row as I keep track of the elapsed time. I emphasize the importance of speed and quality. Then, I ask them to recreate the same table of information, but this time, by column. The results are illustrated in this abstract. After the volunteer completes the game in front of the room, I ask the audience to pair up and complete on their own to reinforce the game elements so they can utilize this great learning tool at their organizations. I then discuss a visual summary (left) of how this example can be analogous to project work.
Which task estimate would you give? One with 50% or 95% probability?
How much shorter could project schedules be if team members were not fearful of using most likely estimates? If team members are asked to provide a task estimate, are they inclined to provide one that is 50% likely or one that is 95% likely? Most project team members would provide the 95% likely estimate. Exhibit 2 illustrates two probability curves. The bell- shaped curve with a long tail represents the probability density of task duration. The “s” shaped curve is the cumulative probability. A project task that is 95% likely is typically two or more times the duration estimate of the 50% likely estimate.
In the discussion of 50/50 task estimates, I cover the behaviors associated with “student syndrome” (left) and “parkinson’s law”.
Protecting the Project Commitment With Buffers
With the project planned using 50/50 task estimates, a decrease of approximately 50% of the overall project duration is expected. This padding was removed from the individual tasks in order to prevent it from being wasted by behaviors associated with student syndrome and Parkinson’s Law. However, there is still a need to have some amount of contingency to protect the project delivery from uncertainty. A portion of the contingency removed from critical chain tasks, approximately 50%, is added back to the project schedule as a pooled contingency, which acts like a shock absorber to protect the project delivery commitment. Projects are typically planned to complete 25% faster while protected by a buffer that absorbs project task variations.
A buffer consumption chart (left) is an objective, leading indicator of project health and is kept visible for all to see. The number of days of work left on the project compared with the number of days of buffer remaining provides an indication of how likely a team is to complete their project on time. If the buffer is in the green territory, a team will continue as planned and managers are not required to interrupt team members to search for issues. If the project buffer reaches yellow, buffer recovery plans are made just in case it becomes necessary. If the buffer penetrates the red area, buffer recovery plans are executed. Recovery can include any techniques associated with crashing a project network.
With a buffer consumption chart, all team members, sponsors, and other stakeholders are informed of the health of the project at all times. Additionally, reasons for buffer consumption are documented so that continuous improvements can be made to the project execution and delivery system.
- Through practical examples, understand the significant benefits of focus over multitasking on projects.
- Improve morale and harmony on project teams by using more effective 50/50 estimating techniques.
- Improve the reliability of our delivery commitments through effective use of project buffers.
3 Follow-up Questions:
- Is 100% focus always necessary, even with tasks that require task owners to take a break in order to avoid burning out?
- What are practical ways I can help my teams to discontinue the practice of heavily padding their task estimates?
- How can I help my project sponsor, or senior executive, understand that a project buffer is healthy and not something to be eliminated or reduced?