Schedule gap

There’s usually a gap between when something is wanted and when something can be delivered. Sometimes it is known, often times it is “felt” — yet teams lack data to prove it. Sometimes when its known, attempts are made to ignore the gap for fear that the gap will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yet “knowing the gap” can be a powerful tool to create a sense of urgency, well before-the-fact. This is a key element of why fast teams are fast to market. Sometimes called an “early schedule” mindset, its counter intuitive, and hard to do, which is why it is not common practice. Lets explore the concept further.

To make it work, teams must first build a realistic schedule of the work in order to be able to identify the gap between when it is wanted and when it can be delivered. We call the expected delivery date the “Target.” The target and reality are often confused, the target becomes reality for many since this is when things HAVE to be delivered and therefore they will be, the thinking goes.

In a majority of projects there is a gap, sometimes large and sometimes small, but there usually is a gap. Frequently, this gap, if known at all, is quickly corrected by “aligning” the schedule with the expected delivery date, by reducing durations and/or forcing things work in parallel. This is called “fixing” the schedule. And this is the first phase of team-de-commitment and disempowerment. It is virtually impossible to get teams to play this game.

Alternatively, the best practice is to use this gap to create a sense of urgency today, well in advance of the target date, while there is still have enough time to take actions to close the gap. They pull-the-pain-forward instead of ignoring the reality. However, it is very hard to get this mindset changed in executive cultures where the “aggressive schedule” was their only tool to drive teams. However, when teams have a system to refresh their schedule each week and pull it in, they realize that there is a mechanism to accelerate other than the “raise the bar” system which is the norm.

The refresh planning process is used to close the gap by engaging the team in collective solutioning to find ways to accelerate. Updating the schedule, breaking down near term tasks, and then getting the team to find ways to eliminate or do the work differently is how teams manage innovation.

The idea behind the thinking is to use the schedule and the gap to create acceleration actions, and not to justify lateness. It is a fine line that is often misunderstood. Further, the complete management hierarchy must be involved, as this is not a bottom’s up process.

Let’s compare behavior between the “normal” environment and the “best practiced teams” when a large schedule gap had become known…. Take a minute and review the “normal” responses….

A natural executive impulse is to override the team and “fix” the schedule. They jam a 10lbs of flour into a 5lbs sack and sweep the overflow under the rug. This new aggressive schedule becomes the “motivation” the team needs to achieve great things, so the belief goes. In reality, the technical people that really determine if a project succeeds or not know that it can’t be done and are less inclined to find solutions since they have no say in the plan. The plan remains static, does not change, until people realize there is a major slip, usually found out after it already happened. Then there is a major effort to re-plan and the cycle repeats over again. The team is blamed for the failure or a technical issue is used as the excuse for poor performance.

Lets look at the how fast teams do it, take a minute to review some of the characteristics of these best practices….

The gap is acknowledged as real. The team is engaged to find a way to close it. The team studies the critical path for ways of doing that work differently. Often strategic opportunities are found to accelerate that involves redefining the completion criteria or the way in which the final outcome is achieved. Finally, the schedule is always dynamic and changes every week. They use the refresh process to continually pull-in the schedule — it is a never ending fight to pull-in the schedule since they know, if left alone, it will rapidly move to the right.

The result of this mindset and behavior change has been hundreds of projects that have finished on or before the targets. We’ve done it and we’ve taught our clients to do it.