FTTM is fast-time-to-market. In this screencast I’ll discuss a project planning and tracking process that has evolved over the past 20 years on thousands of client projects.
The foundation of this process is based on the best practices of fast teams, who we’ve been studying since the early 1990’s.
The guiding principle is that “it is better to roughly right, than exactly wrong.” Roughly right is the philosophy of fast teams, since they know that things can be continuous improved over time. The same idea applies to their schedules which are “a common base for change.” They are dynamic living tools that must reflect what is actually going on in the project in order to be of predictive value.
We do this through continuous and frequent “low-overhead” cycles of refreshes, more on that idea later.
Here are 9 elements of this counter intuitive thinking that we have learned contributes to accurate schedules and schedules that can be used to drive projects, not just report progress.
Start with the end in mind--Covey’s concept of working backwards from what you want to achieve, rather than from where you are to where you are going.
Ignore constraints--during initial planning in order to find the optimal path, then apply constraints later to see the gap, then make trade-offs. Planning inside constraints limits innovation and possibilities.
Make a realistic plan--seems obvious, but most of the new product plans we see were manufactured for executive or external consumption, they don’t want people to really know that what is expected can’t be done. Realistic planning pushes the threshold of pain to the front, where before-the-fact decisions can be made to avoid problems and possibly to achieve success.
Plan macro to micro--in order to see the forest for the trees. It sets the high-level architecture for the plan and provides the structure on which to hang the detailed information. More detail does not equal better quality, this is only true in school!
Know the gap--between what is expected and what can be delivered. This is essential for making trade-offs when you have to respond, rather than just react.
Short interval planning--focuses the team on the near term, which in our world is 2-3 weeks out. The schedule can be very accurate with these near sighted glasses on. The macro plan provides the distance vision.
Engage the team to accelerate--the schedule. Schedules done by individuals are of no value. Teams, when engaged in problem solving, will find the solution--individuals “selling” plans are just more noise for the people in the trenches trying to get the job done.
Refreshing the schedule--is the rhythm of accountability that keeps the schedule data current and keeps the cost of delay per day--front and center in everyone’s mind. Refresh planning is the system for getting continuous pull-ins in the schedule.
Manage trends--in the schedule. Who cares if you’re late, rather what I want to know is are you getting later or are you catching up? Schedule trending tells me this critical information and is the basis of the actions I take each day on the project.
The assumption in all of these process steps is that this is participatory and should involve the core team and as many individual contributors that can spare the time. Further, it is designed to require a low overhead of time for team member.
Build is the first step in the process. The work-breakdown-structure or WBS is the top-down approach to planning. This is the most important step in that it defines the basic architecture of the project and sets the boundaries or scope of what is in and what is not in. We specifically don’t consider time at this point, since we don’t want to compromise the work that is really needed to achieve the project goal. We’ll deal with the time constraint later.
Model is where we create the schedule by linking depended work in order to get a critical path, or longest path to the end. At this point we see the gaps between when it is expected to be delivered and when you can get it done. Typically this is 50-75% longer than expected. Strategic pull-in is a process to close that gap, through various thinking techniques such as “lateral” and “challenge” and through a systematic process of compressing the critical path.
Refresh is where we update the schedule with what has happened. Not having a accurate project update as to where you are, is like being lost with a map, but not knowing where your position is on the map. We never ask “why” when doing updates, in order to get accurate information from the task owners, we just want to know “what.” Our focus is forward looking, not looking back to find fault.
Breakdown is the process of decomposing long duration activities into detail tasks with 1-5 day durations. Breaking down is the only way to discover the near term opportunities to pull-in the schedule. We breakdown to enable the team to get control, but never to micro manage them.
In the same refresh session we look forward 1-2 weeks with the team and try and pull-in the schedule. We try and get 1-2 day pull-ins every session. They add up. This is really a team innovation event that we do with teams 1-5 times a week for less than 20 minutes each session.
Tracking trends is the final part of schedule refresh. This is where we plot the movement of the schedule towards our targets or away from them. Three slips is a trend and requires intervention. Done early these can cause schedule acceleration.
We start with the mission statement. Seems simple again, but rarely do we get quick consensus when we ask this question. It tells the team why, how much, for who (i.e. customer), and when something is going to be delivered. The doneness criteria is an exit check list to measure if the team has achieved the mission. This discussion delimits the boundaries for the plan to come.
Then we define customer focused or critical integration milestones starting with the end deliverable. These also have doneness criteria. That criteria informs the clusters of activities what are required. The first level of the WBS is created at this point, no schedule elements are discussed yet. We just want to know what is needed to be done. Each macro task gets owners assigned and overall duration estimates.
This is where the team, using a projector and online meeting software for remote groups, “wires” the schedule with dependencies between tasks.
This generates the critical path and shows us the gap between when they want it and when the team can actually get it done.
The pull-in process walks down this critical path looking for opportunities to eliminate, reduce, or change. As schedules accelerate, risks go up. The risk/reward calculus determines what and where trade-offs need to be made. This is an essential part of the team taking ownership of the schedule and the outcome. In this example, I changed a link to make a group of tasks happen concurrently, in order to cause a pull-in.
Refreshing the schedule starts with updating it with actuals, not just changing estimates, these are real updates. This is again a group process that takes about 10 minutes a day for most projects, even the big ones. It is fast and not judgmental. In this example, I have estimated a new remaining duration for my second task, making it longer than the original duration. Since it is on the critical path, my example project slips.
So now I’ll breakdown the macro task into three smaller tasks where I can see the overlap and where I can make better duration estimates. When I do this I have found a way to make the project go faster.
The process is continuous. Fast teams do this daily, or at least three times a week. Since it takes just 20 minutes or less, teams are willing to invest the time to do it since they get so much value out of it in terms of knowing where they are--and because of the predictive, before-the-fact psychology that becomes the new team norm.
So try it, we have for more than 20 years of successful projects, from the Sony Playstation to advanced semiconductor fabs that have all come in way ahead of schedule using the FTTM Method.