Anna has managed to persuade one of her colleagues to part with the handouts of a recently attended project management training course covering project planning. As he attended the workshop at Anna’s suggestion and it was paid for out of her budget, she felt within her rights to copy the few pages about planning and hand them out to her new project team. Anna, being very Anna-like, had read through the whole lot before so that she is, as ever, at least one step ahead of everyone else. She has arranged little piles of these notes on the table and hands out one to each attendee.
See Anna’s Files for the complete document: Network planning.
She first asks them to study the notes on project scheduling. They read the course notes which explain how to prepare a schedule using the precedence technique. The notes explain how to break the project down into activities each with a description of the work it represents and an estimate of the time it will take to carry out that work. It also explains how to indicate that certain activities cannot be started until others are complete or have at least begun. It shows how such a diagram can form the basis of a calculation that results in a bar chart showing when each activity can start and finish.
Jason has given Anna a short lecture on scheduling over one of their frequent lunchtime sandwiches.
He hasn’t bothered much with the techniques but has emphasised the importance of planning as a team.
‘If you prepare a plan on your own it will be your plan and that’s fine because for some people in the project you are the boss. However, for some people you are not the boss and in any case it’s loads better if everyone thinks of the plan as our plan. Ownership of the plan makes a big difference to the commitment and enthusiasm of the team.
‘On top of that, you have experts in a variety of specialist fields and the plan will be much better with their input.
‘And finally getting the team together to plan gives them time to think ahead and all kinds of issues and problems will be noticed and solved long before they become barriers.
‘Let them do the thinking while you do the planning. You pull the plan together while they explain the steps and processes and jobs that need doing.’
To Anna all this makes sense. In fact to Anna most of what she had so far learned about project and programme management is simple common sense. She was waiting for the parts that were as complex as rocket science but has had no hint of any yet. Common sense with nice sounding names and loads of acronyms each with at least one ‘P’ seemed enough so far. Her father once told her that common sense is in very short supply in the world of government and commerce.
When everyone has read through the notes on planning and drunk the coffee Anna has been pouring, she opens the meeting proper.
‘Our main objective now is to create an outline schedule for the e-Trolley pilot project and to think through the issues and problems we will need to face to achieve our objective.
‘You all know a great deal more about your specialisms than I do so forgive me if I ask stupid questions – it is just my way of trying to understand what needs to be done. I plan to act as a scribe or co-ordinator, guiding and helping the people who will do the work towards a workable plan. If we can end this meeting with an outline schedule we will be doing very well.’
She turns slightly towards Mike and says ‘Let me emphasise that we are today not trying to actually do the project but we are aiming to assemble a schedule, a specification and other documents that will go before the board in one month.’
Mike mistakenly thinks he is being asked to contribute. As you might expect he has not been hampered in his thought process by any great need to stay tuned in to Anna or the papers she has handed out. His mind has been elsewhere – probably thinking about the problems of weighing in zero gravity.
‘Great’, he says, ’I’ve been thinking about weighing the produce and I see all sorts of problems. Some items like bags of crisps are so light that they will require very sensitive weighing and yet other items are very heavy. And what happens if the shopper puts a child or handbag in the trolley – it will make the weighing impossible.’
Anna hides her exasperation (she is thinking: he’s off again) at yet another monologue about weighing and says: ‘Of course we do need to address these problems but I am sure there are solutions and we will need to find them but today is not the time for that, it’s time to work out by when we need to find a solution, not to actually find that solution – that’s why it is called planning. Now you all have a copy of the work breakdown structure – what I would like to do is to try and understand the sequence that these activities must follow. As Mike has raised it, let’s start with this weighing issue – is there anything you need before you start designing solutions?’
Mike is feeling slightly miffed: and says ‘I am not even sure there will be a satisfactory solution.’
Anna says: ‘But you can make a serious start on solving this and you have the best team anywhere to solve it. Do you need any input from anyone else on the team? Have you assigned anyone to look into it yet?’
Mike replies ‘No and no. But I could give Timmy some time to look into it and I suppose he could start as soon as he is free. Let’s give him a month to look into it, but I think this might be a waste of time…..’
Anna picks up the point, ‘I was going to talk about risks later but I shall make a note that there is a real risk that we will not be able to find a suitable weighing system. I’ll make this strongly in the definition documentation.
Max has been sitting quietly soaking up this vexing issue of weighing. He has taken a quick look through the very brief project documentation and missed the implications of the weighing idea. He cautiously broaches the topic: ‘Am I right in saying that the idea of weighing is to provide the basis for a rough check that the trolley actually contains what the barcode reader indicates?’
Anna (who is still waiting to start planning and beginning to doubt Jason’s recommendation to plan as a team) says ‘Yes that’s right. It’s part of the honesty check. The trolley will communicate with the store IT systems to report a list of items and therefore we get an all up weight. The store system will then prepare a bill and check the total weight of all items against the communicated weight. If it falls within a range it will accept the load. If not it will select the load for a normal check out procedure.’
Max, thinking quickly and trying to decide if he should have known this or not, says ‘Right. That’s neat. However there is another issue here. Our store computer systems link barcodes to prices and stock levels so we know that, let’s say, an item might be 500g of beans but, and this is a big but, we hold no data about the weight of each item including its packaging. Actually that’s not quite true – there is an exception. A member of staff weighs purchases of loose products and the weighing device prints out a barcode containing the price, type of goods and weight. But we don’t know how much a can of beans should weigh including the can.’
Anna: ‘Yes – this came out of the evaluation process. I think it means we have to set up a system for weighing goods or otherwise finding out what they weigh and then storing that in the database. It was suggested that this information might have other spin-off benefits to do with loading lorries, forklifts and shelving systems.’
Max looks at Anna thoughtfully ‘I think that’s right. It would mean a whole new operation – a team finding out the packaged weight of hundreds of items and entering the data into the expanded database against their sort codes. Of course the weighing can be done centrally and distributed automatically to all the stores.
‘Oh, hang on, this is not a once for ever job, we will need to keep on doing it for new products, as manufacturers and suppliers change their packaging and so on and so on.’
Anna is grateful for the opportunity to get back to planning: ’I think that gives me some new activities to add some detail to the general IT headings. We will need to set up a group somewhere to add weight information to the database as well as make the changes to the store IT systems.
‘I don’t expect that we will do that in the pilot but we should have a clear understanding of the issues and budget and so on to form a part of the end of pilot report. That will mean discussing the topic with, err…. someone. We’ll have to find out who that should be.’
Max, who by now is trying his best to be cooperative and even harder to make an impression on Anna, says
‘Changes to the store systems might be a bit easier than you think. At the moment the checkout operator scans each item and the till sends a request to the central system asking for the current price. The central system returns a price, changes the stock level and allows for multi-buys’, you know, like 6 bottles of wine are often offered at a discount or BOGOF.
‘BOGOF yourself’, says Anna, ‘What does that mean?’
‘Buy One, Get One Free. BOGOF’, Chorus Max and Sue.
‘Now the barcode reader in the trolley can do the same as the till – once the barcode reader is plugged in it will send a list of items to the till and the process from there on to the payment stage is pretty standard. All we need there is a new module that is able to accept the incoming data and feed into the existing pricing system bypassing the normal system of reading the barcode of each item at the checkout by hand.’
Sue has been uncharacteristically quiet so far and wondering why exactly it is that every man tries so hard to impress women like Anna. ‘Hey, Max, you talked about plugging in the barcode reader. I thought we were thinking about a radio link of some kind?’
Max admits this ‘Oh. I must have missed that bit. You mean as the e-Trolley gets close to the till it sends its data. No wires, no plugs?’
Sue explains, ‘I think both the store managers and customers would much prefer that as any kind of physical connection leads to all sorts of reliability and fiddly problems. It is a radio link that we assumed from the beginning.’
Anna puts down her foot, ‘As I said before we are not here to solve the technical problems but we are here to think about the process of addressing them.
‘Max what do you need to know to investigate the radio link and IT side of the data collection and weighing issues?
Max thinks aloud, ‘I could start with a short list of communication methods – maybe Sue could help me put that together. I could move right on to checking what is available and draft an outline of two or three different ways. Is that what you want?’
Anna thinks that things are going better. ‘That’s fine. And if you could outline the IT changes for the weighing issues and Sue could outline the work that needs to be done for the stores, we should have a good idea of what needs to be done.’
Sue waves her planning tutorial in the air, ‘What do you have you in mind? I can imagine that we will need to set up a new group, a whole new department to work out the weight of each item against the barcode.’
Anna replies, ‘Hang on a moment. We already have a team in the company entering descriptions and barcodes for every product – it would be natural to start there. They know how many items we add or modify each week. I could ask them how they feel about adding a weighing group to the pricing team and what would be involved. That would be Stephanie Wong wouldn’t it?’
Sue smiles: ‘Sure, You’re right.’
‘OK’, says Anna, ‘I’ll check with Stephanie’
Sue and Max huddle in a corner of the table together for a little while as Anna tries to avoid another interminable discussion about weighing devices from Mike by getting him involved in his role as sponsor.
Anna has brought along a pad of sticky notes and uses these and a felt tip pen to draw some activities on the white board. To get things going she says:
‘As an example of how we need to think about sequencing the activities, let’s look at the setting up of a weighing team.’
Max says, ’I think I need to know the weighing team’s requirements before I can figure out the IT implications.
Your, err, the plan shows them being independent of each other. Can you show that please?’
Mike asks, ‘Don’t we also need to calculate the size of the team we will need to do this weighing work?’
After a little more discussion, some whiteboard rubbing and sticky note moving, the tiny network now looks like this.
Max is getting into this planning work, ‘You are drawing these lines between the boxes to show how they depend on each other. Does it matter where the lines and the boxes meet?’
Anna says, ‘a line coming from the right hand end of one box and going into the left hand end of another box is a finish-to-start link. That means that the second activity cannot start until the first is complete. This is the most common type of link. For example we are indicating on this diagram that we cannot estimate the cost of the operation until we have both defined the weighing team’s roles and responsibility and also estimated the IT component.
‘In truth these activities could probably overlap a bit but we will assume the normal finish-to-start for the moment. You can get very smart with complex link types and these are discussed in the notes I handed round.’
Max says, ‘The plan shows that we must know the size of the weighing team to know the on-going running costs of the new team. Is that right?’
Anna says ‘Correct’.
‘Well’, says Max, ‘surely we need to know what the weighing team should be doing before we decide how big the team will be? We have the first two activities wrong way round don’t we?’
Anna covers this, ‘True. Of course at this stage we should not start anything but we need to understand what we will do once the project gets the green light. I’ll swap those two around. Now can we take a similar approach to the weighing problems?’’
Mike feels it is time to make a comment: ‘OK. OK. We have three main options: We can fix a weighing device in the trolley, we can weigh the whole trolley and we can forget about the whole weighing idea.
‘I’ll give one of my team, probably Timmy, a month to look into these options and come up with a recommendation for what we will need at this stage?’
Anna is pleased, ‘Ideally we would have an outline of each of the systems and how each would work, how much it would cost throughout the stores to install and maintain and how long it would take to set up. Is that OK?’
Max has another thought. ‘If we take option three – drop the weighing idea – we won’t need Sue to instigate setting up the weighing team and I won’t need to add the weight data to the store databases. Therefore can we get a decision on the weighing issue first as it will avoid loads of wasted work?’
Anna, who, by now and for both professional and personal reasons, never wants to see a set of scales again, says
‘We should if we can but I think the project is based on some form of weight check. It will be a big thing to give up on weighing too early in the project.
’We are also talking about RFID. We don’t use this technology much but as time goes on, more and more items will come to use with RFID tags. It might be possible to list anything in the trolley that carries an RFID tag and make sure those items have been scanned.’
‘Max looks up, ‘the holy grail of supermarkets is a complete RFID system. That would mean adding RFID scanners to the cash points and extending the database even further to carry the RFID item number. That weighing team would be in a great place to add any RFID numbers to the database as well as the packaged weight data.’ This is going to be some system if it all works.
Anna says, ‘I know that the management team haven’t thought all this through, they have asked us to do that for them, but we cannot drop the idea at this stage and certainly before we get a clear case for doing so. Don’t forget this is the CEO’s pet project.
Anna’s network, after a little more work, looks like this:
Inspired by all this planning Max, fresh from his chat with Sue, takes his first tentative attempt at planning the IT work within the project. He adopts a flip chart, writes some activity descriptions on a few sticky notes and draws. Sue is slightly concerned at the way Mike sniffs the marker pen.
He uses the term Weight Control Systems to refer to the systems he envisages will be required to deal with the storage of product weights. He realises that there will not only be changes to the software dealing with prices and barcodes and also to the database itself.
Sue suggests that they change the system’s name, ‘I don’t think we will feel great when the acronym becomes common knowledge. WC systems going down the pan, anyone?’
They agree on Weight Data Function. Max is becoming quite enthusiastic about this project. He likes the idea of the e-Trolley, he likes the idea of the project and he like the idea of getting to know Anna better. A lot better. This is the sort of thing he always saw himself being involved with – high profile projects that make a difference working with people he could admire and respect.
He spreads his own hand drawn network on the table neatly spilling Anna’s coffee over her clean and ironed trouser suit. Max is mortified. He tries to help and apologise whilst being discreet all the time. He knows it is not done to start rubbing at a woman’s trousers with handkerchiefs and tissues whatever has happened.
He is really embarrassed, so much so that Anna, after a brief moment of annoyance starts to shrug off the whole thing.
‘At least it wasn’t too hot’, she says, ‘I won’t sue’.
As soon as she settles back down and spreads out the plans again, Max starts to focus on the work and stops apologising. He runs through the plan he has produced as they start again to concentrate with the job in hand.
Anna thinks to herself: Max is going to be a great help as long as I keep away from any coffee cups – he’s picked up the idea of project scheduling really well. Perhaps he knew something about the technique before. OK, so he draws his arrows in a different way and a different colour pen but, hey, that’s small stuff. She smiles at Max thinking that he may not be senior management but might well be one day. He is just the sort of guy you want on your team. He’s good looking in a rugged sort of way as well.
Max sees some of this in Anna’s face and glows slightly.
She speaks aloud, ‘That’s fine, thank you Max, and I think there should also be a connection from the Evaluate Weighing Systems activity on the previous sheet to your first activity as the weighing system might have a huge impact on what you do in IT.’
Max thinks to himself: I have been waiting to use that stuff I learned on the project management training workshop for months now. That’s the sort of little trick that gets you noticed. I may be junior now but I plan to be senior one day.
Sue chimes in, ‘What about this radio connection – who is supposed to be finding out about that? Is there any expertise in the company for that?’
Anna replies, ‘We have done very little on this so far so there are a number of questions. I propose two forms of attack. We need someone to seek out any other environment where this sort of thing is done and also someone to start checking through the supplier catalogues. That way we will have technological proposals and experience of such systems in use. I have seen some security systems where a gizmo reads an electronic badge at a distance and don’t some countries have systems for charging cars on motorways using some kind of tag? There must be something available.’
Max pipes up having spotted another opportunity to shine: ‘There are various radio networks around these days.
You probably have Bluetooth in your phone and we have Wi-Fi round parts of the office. ‘Wi’ means Wireless but the ‘Fi’ is a mystery to me – maybe Fidelity, maybe fiddly. Bluetooth was some sort of Norse deity or chief, it was invented in Scandinavia somewhere. They are both good at short distance communications and very cheap. I can check into those systems and see if they are suitable. Any good?’
Anna says: ‘Please do, Max. That would be great. Now does anyone know anyone with a hobby of flying model airplanes – they use radio communications? How about cordless phones and baby alarms? We only need a very short operating radius and it is all indoors. On the other hand if we used Wi-Fi we could offer a Wi-Fi service to our customers as well. Most people don’t take their laptops when they go shopping but they do take their smart phones ’
To Anna’s great surprise Mike steps in: ‘Actually I do know something about radio controlled model helicopters so I can do a little checking.’
Mike has just found the best excuse possible to plough through model aeroplane books and other boy’s toy catalogues in the firm’s time.
Anna: ‘Once we have some ideas I guess we will do a serious market study and perhaps some tests before handing over to the Purchasing Group. So the activities here are:
- Study technical market for radio systems
- Study similar environments for radio systems
- Consider alternatives
- Finalise specification
- Procure and deliver to test environment.’
Sue has a thought: ‘You haven’t got anyone from the purchasing department here?’
Anna had thought this through ‘No I decided it was too early to involve them but we will need to think about delivery periods for quite a large number of radio/WiFi/Bluetooth/whatever links. Oh and another important factor is that the board anticipated a test installation in around five stores before a nationwide roll out.’
Sue is now on a roll, ‘I see all sorts of marketing mileage in this. We should be doing press releases and PR stories and maybe changing the adverts a bit. What activities do we want for all that work?’
Anna says, ‘No, wait until the pilot is a success before publicising anything?’ I mean the end of the pilot project comes when we submit our report to the board and they make a decision whether to go ahead or not. That decision will trigger the PR and a whole host of other activities. By the end of the pilot project we must have a pretty detailed plan for the roll out but no commitments at all.’
Sue replies ‘yes, that makes sense but during the pilot we can and must think about publicity and be ready to launch a campaign just after the tests have been considered a success. How do you show a relationship like this: If this happens – that happens; if not, something else?’
Anna’s brows cross, ‘I don’t think you can. You just have to keep the plan up to date with the latest thinking. I haven’t seen that kind of thing in any project management books. In any case, if the pilot fails we will have a major rethink and need to revise the plan again at that stage.’
‘OK’, says Sue, ‘either which way we will need to, err, recruit a group of our stores to take part in the pilot. Do we need to spread these round the country? Should they be small or large? I can do a little scouting around on this. It will be much easier if someone senior sends out a request to the store managers explaining what this is all about’.
‘That’s right’, says Anna, ‘I hadn’t thought of that at all. It’s great the way planning makes you think the whole process through. Can you draft something please Sue?’
‘Sure thing, honey’
Anna has, by this stage, assembled a diagram showing the major steps in the project and their relationship to each other. This is a high level plan and it will no doubt become more detailed later on but it does serve to highlight the major steps that need to be undertaken to achieve Anna’s first objective – the pilot in five stores.
She will soon have to face the challenge of asking each person to estimate how long each activity will take. Anna closes the meeting and thanks everyone, and especially Max, for their attendance. She suggests a process:
‘Thank you everyone – that’s a very good start and I feel that we can work together to do this. I will draw the network diagram showing the activities and their relationships to each other.
‘Could each of you please estimate how long each job will take you and your colleagues to carry out. An estimate in terms of weeks will do fine at this stage.
‘Then I’ll build a plan in our project management software and I’ll circulate the bar chart for comment. Is that OK?’
Everyone murmurs assent, there is a general gathering of papers and pushing back of chairs as the team start to rise to leave.
Anna has not quite finished, ‘Can we just summarise everything before we go our separate ways and can we arrange to meet again?’
They all sit back down. Anna summarises the meeting actions on the white board and later types it up and mails it round. It looks like this.
|Write up notes and prepare schedule
|Discuss weighing team with Stephanie Wong
|Estimate durations for activities and send them to Anna
|Initial look at IT based communications options
|Initial look at weighing options and radio control based communications methods
|Outline of PR campaign
|Get list of stores and managers and draft approach to find volunteer stores for the pilot
|Keep away from coffee cups
|Next meeting 17th October
Max takes a little extra time to collect his papers together and to enter some notes in his personal organiser hoping to speak to Anna separately but she leaves with a little wave and a larger smile.
Anna’s plan is a bit messy but it’s only there until the whole thing gets entered into the scheduling software.
During the next stage some of the team do in fact gird their loins and estimate some durations.
They learn that estimating durations involves quite a lot of guess work and worry that they might easily be wrong but Anna is reassuring.
‘We can do the best we can for now but we will keep going back to look at these estimates from time and time and we will get closer to the truth. For the moment it is probably wise to play safe and be slightly generous with our time estimates.’
It comes as no surprise when Max comes back with a few little additional suggestions and a neat table of duration estimates. Mike takes a lot of chasing before he becomes willing to make these stabs in the dark, something he finds alien to his normal engineering approach to life.
Sue also finds it hard to estimate the durations of activities where she really had very little idea of what is going to be involved.
After some discussion and bit of chasing Anna is able to enter the details into her scheduling system and by the time of the next meeting she has circulated a bar chart and a product and work breakdown structure combined in one neat page that looks like this.
Anna reads a few things about scheduling in the notes from the training course. They make sense to her.
Activities are usually grouped into headings that could not be sensibly displayed on the network diagram. (Anna has introduced headings to make the meaning and display clearer.)
Use a column titled ‘Code’ or ‘Group’ to show the general grouping of each activity. Use the description to indicate the type of work in headings and the work to be done in each activity. Use verbs on all activities.
Use logical links between the activities. These show the way in which certain activities depend on each other. (For example, a link shows that Procurement of the radio link depends on having a final specification for it.)
Link the headings of certain groups of activities to activities in other groups. None of these links show on the bar chart but they are used by the planning software to calculate when each activity can start and finish.
Headings in any self-respecting planning system will always be automatically scheduled to span the schedule of all of their sub-ordinates. (For example the schedule for Marketing covers the period from the start of the ‘Marketing Planning’ activity to the end of the ‘Run Marketing Campaign’ activity.)
As the plan grows and changes, as activities get added and amended, these headings should always be automatically scheduled correctly (Anna is confident that there will always be a link from the last item in the Radio Link, Weighing Systems Operation Changes and the whole IT Contribution to the start of the pilot activity. All she has to remember to do is to add new activities under the right headings and the logic of the plan will take care of itself.)
You can add links from headings to activities and from activities to headings all of which is quite correct. You will not find a link from an activity to its own heading nor from a heading to one of its own activities as this would make less sense than politics, soap operas and quantum theory.
A word about durations: There are few areas where misunderstandings are so common so let’s compare for a moment the misunderstanding you might expect to find after a peak into the questioner’s and respondent’s minds.
Make sure everyone is talking in the same units. Many projects have run aground on this particular set of rocks. Days and weeks are obviously different but man days, also known as Full Time Equivalent (FTE) and simply ‘days’ may also be different.
Your team, with every good intentions, will often imagine they can work full time on your assignment. At this stage you do not know even when they will be doing the work but you can be confident they will have other jobs to finish off, their normal daily duties and, if you are very unlucky, they will be holidaying on a beach in Spain at the time anyway.
An FTE is the amount of work that could be done if there were no distractions and the person worked full time on the activity. You must make reasonable assumptions about the amount of time they will be able to give you and your project. Two weeks of work or effort, measured in man days or Full Time Equivalents often takes 4, 8 or more weeks in elapsed time.
It does help a great deal to prepare realistic plans to try your best to make sure everyone has a clear idea of what the activity is about – what they will start with and what they will have at the finish. This is very hard when the activity is to prepare a report which might be assumed to be a one page summary or the equivalent of a PhD thesis.
Finally set up a system where the only blame is for not raising problems. If it is going to take longer for a good reason, live with it as long as the problem is raised early enough. By all means get cross with someone who fails to deliver and fails to warn you that they will be unable to deliver. The last but one thing you need is a surprise. The last thing you need is an unpleasant surprise.
Anna is going to get a few surprises quite soon.
Thanks to Geoff Reiss for contributing this book