Don’t Gantt. Strip!

The Gantt chart is one of the most popular tools that project management professionals use today, but would a strip board be better?   Gantt charts have been a robust method of graphically representing a project schedule and the relationships with other tasks in that schedule for a century.  The problem I have found though is they can be difficult to understand.  Unless the person observing it has prior experience with Gantt charts and knows what to look for, the first expression one gets is usually a blank stare, then a look at the beginning and end dates on the left that appears like a spreadsheet and then a question about what tasks are specific to them even if the resources have been entered and appear on the bar in the graph.  So what tool can a project manager use to better communicate a schedule?

One effective alternative to a Gantt chart for a graphical representation of a schedule is the strip board.  Also known as a production board and made popular by the film industry, it shows the sequential order of a film on strips of paper that can then be moved around by the director to make up the scenes in a movie.  For a project management application, instead of a director and scenes, you have a project manager and tasks.  The project strip board can be constructed with the name of each resource across the top and the time sequence along the left column.  Fergus O’Connell provides a brief description and example in his book ‘The Competitive Advantage of Common Sense‘ in chapter 4 on page 65.  By constructing a project strip board, the number of resources, the tasks and the duration of each task need to be identified for the board to be meaningful.  In addition, the board can be distributed to each team member where they can see what they need to do, when and how it relates to other people on the team.  Some other advantages are:

– Can add a column for cost and sum up to give you total.

– Drives the PM to put names to tasks from the beginning.

– Works well with portrait style paper.

As an experiment, I re-created the exercise that we did in class Saturday, ‘A Project Management Decision-Making Game’ using the project strip board method.  Though anything is better than pencil, paper, and losing about half of an eraser, I found the strip board method very easy to construct in Excel and easy to manipulate when changes were made.  The only disadvantage I found was the ease of tracking the relationships between tasks unless it was done by the same resource.  With some additional experimentation though, using different color backgrounds or some of the graphic arrows available in Excel may help.

Has anyone utilized a project strip board on a project?  Do you think it might be a tool that can be used for showing activities during the events that project teams are hosting?

Project Management in Construction: The Difference Between Profits and Losses

Project management tools like Gantt charts and precedence diagrams can mean the difference between high profits and painful losses for project-centric lines of business. During my time with a general contractor in the construction industry, these two tools played a central role in each project we undertook. From planning to ground breaking to final inspection, the documents were an anchor for organizing our activities. We referred to them daily to determine when to schedule sub-contractor (plumbers, electricians, HVAC installers, etc.) arrivals, as a reference tool for updating clients during site visits, and as guide for keeping track of the literally hundreds of activities that needed to happen in precise sequence to stay on schedule.

On Site

In construction, business is negotiated on a per-contract basis. Before groundbreaking, general contractors will examine a proposed project in concert with architects and engineers to develop a construction schedule, calculate expenses, and formulate a bid. The schedule is basically a detailed Gantt chart and precedence diagram. If the client likes the bid amount, they will award the contract and agree to make payment after certain milestones and upon completion. If everything goes to plan, the contractor can reap substantial profits. On the other hand, failure to meet deadlines on the contractor’s part will result in penalty fees and turn the project into a financial loss very quickly.

Once work begins, on-site superintendents use the finalized Gantt chart and precedence diagram to manage sub-contractors and schedule upcoming activities. As a superintendent it was my job to know when each task needed to be completed, to understand how each activity played into the overall project timing (were they on the critical path or was there slack time?), and to manage the site accordingly.

The Five Guys Project

I remember one day, while working on a Five Guys franchise project, when our company was in danger of missing a critical deadline. Even though the consequence of our delay wouldn’t become apparent for several weeks, we knew from our precedence diagram that some certain cement cutting was on the critical path and had to happen before going home that day. We stayed overnight to get it done because failure to do so threatened the whole job’s profitability. Our project management tools helped us see the problem, address it, and avoid a costly delay.

The point of saying this is to drive home the applicability and usefulness of the tools we’re learning about in class. Understanding how to develop and how to use them is absolutely critical in the construction industry.

In your experience, what are some projects, industries, or situations where project management tools have played a central role?