Project Management…. A phrase that brings fear and dis-satisfaction to many. Project management has been a part of business as long as there has been business. It is just another process to master; a series of steps to get from a set of initial conditions to some future desired outcome. Yet so many folks shudder when the idea of running a project is raised. Mention a Gantt chart (or “waterfall chart” as some prefer) and the groans begin.

Go back to the Pyramids. Did they just happen? No, there were architects and an army of organized management that planned and implemented the construction of those ancient edifices (albeit with slave labor and all its horrors). Go back to Roman days. Did the aqueducts just happen? No, again there were careful plans and amazing acts of precision engineering coordinated in a time before any computer or advanced technology. Just men and a plan.

Perhaps the origins of the current distaste for formal project management began with early days of the 20th century and the scientific management era. Henry Gantt, and his contemporaries like Fredrick Taylor and the Galbreth’s spent their time trying to understand workflows and develop systematic means of control. The Gantt chart was one outcome of that period; a way of identifying process steps in a progression of work and a means of tracking progress along that workflow. As with many of the tools developed in that period, it was effective, but tended to be used as a blunt instrument by management to turn men into cogs in the machine of progress.

I believe the way that these productivity tools were used were a double edge sword. On the positive side, these tools help organize modern industry and ultimately lead to the success of the “Arsenal of Democracy” that facilitated the Allied victory in World War II. On the down side, the use of tools that tried to impose “scientific” schedules, sometimes forced workers to operate in unfair and difficult conditions. These conditions were a factor in the rise of unions in the first half of the 20th century. Today, many still see project management tools in a negative light in part, I feel because of misconceptions of how to use the techniques in a positive way.

“Modern” project management reached a new zenith in the mid 1950’s, a result of the Cold War and the US Navy’s Polaris Missile submarine program. The program was highly complex, with many suppliers and many sources of delay.

Under the leadership of Vice Admiral William Rayborn, a team of Navy managers developed the Program Evaluation Review Technique or PERT. Using network diagrams to highlight the relationships between tasks, it was a way of exposing work relationships that the traditional Gantt chart could not on its own. A key element of PERT was a mathematical estimation of the critical path. As defined in PERT, the critical path represents the longest sequence of events that must be accomplished to achieve the project completion. Another way of the thinking about it is as the minimum time necessary to complete a project. Note this methodology does not necessarily relate to lowest cost; in fact, it tends to lead in the opposite direction.

Tied to this methodology is the concept of a work breakdown structure or WBS. The WBS is an organizational tool that subdivides elements of the project into easy-to-define collections of tasks to be performed by various project suppliers or workers. The work packages contained in the WBS are often the smallest unit of work in a project.

As advanced as PERT was, it suffered three significant flaws. data quality, scope change, and assumptions of infinite resources. We’ll take more about this in the next Post.


Have a great day!

Article by Chris Redgrave

Chief Improvement Officer (and owner) of IMPROVE!