In 1910, Henry Gantt popularised the Gantt chart, a method of visualising a project schedule ahead of time and selling the promise of delivery on time and on budget. The problem is they are almost always wrong.
Save for the lucky break where a Gantt chart turns out accurate, the vast majority of Gantt charts will end up being nothing more than a means to win a bid. The colour coded and pretty charts are designed to convince a buyer that everything has been meticulously planned and the future has been set on this humble piece of paper, nothing can or will change this indisputable document.
The trouble is they are fabricated lies. Those creating Gantt charts for the first time will be optimistic and excited to present to a client what bright future lay ahead, the people who have created Gantt charts before know the truth however. They know that this is just another tool for winning the work, and after this has been done the chart should be discarded as quickly as possible with no mention of it again, and the hope that the client will never bring it up again.
Can You Be Here By 10?
We have all planned a journey of some sort in our lives, whether it is walking or cycling to school, hopping the train to London, or Driving 300 miles to meet a client in Kent. Although these journeys are more specific to me, you can appreciate the similar journeys you have had to plan and may even be planning as you read this.
With any journey you have a proposed departure time and matching arrival time between 2 (or more) points. Google Maps has a great feature that provides you with information about your journey and the methods you can choose from, you can say you need to be somewhere by a certain time and the tool will tell you when to leave.
Everything is very precise and confident. Except it’s not precise at all.
A short journey may be 20 minutes and you might make the actual journey in 21 minutes or 19 minutes on the day, this might not seem like a problem as it is only a small discrepancy. What about a typically 2 hour journey? You’ll notice Google Maps will give you a range of time from 2 hours up to 4 hours, what’s going on here?
Well the journey on average is expected to take 2 hours but outside factors encountered when the rubber hits the road can double this or more. What about if there is rush hour traffic conditions, or an accident, or difficult weather. What if your own vehicle breaks down or there is a tree across the train tracks?
This isn’t uncommon at all and Google Maps knows this, which is why they promise nothing and only act as an ideal case guide to your journey. The point here is that any good plan will not survive contact with the enemy for long, something will happen and you’ll have to adapt to try and make up time down the road bringing greater risk to the journey such as a speeding ticket or being pulled over adding more time to your journey.
Your Project Is A Journey
You plan and prep and plan some more before you begin the project. Day 1 arrives and everything is going as planned, by the end of the week you are bang on target and feeling good. The second week encounters a small problem but it is to be expected and is addressed and resolved quickly, no problem. The following week a worker falls ill, the rest of the team pick up the slack. The next month a supplier fails to provide and you have to scramble to find a new supplier, while referencing the Gantt chart to ensure the project timeline is maintained.
You spend most of your time looking at the Gantt chart and at your project progress, back and forth over and over. As long as the stage ends on time and the next stage starts on time you will be ok you tell yourself, only it’s not ok is it. Quality is suffering and workers are rushing to deliver something rather than deliver the thing that was promised during the bid process.
Deadline day arrives and the project is not well received, the quality is not up to standard and you’re out of time. The client isn’t happy with the product, they needed what they expected today but now they have to go back to their own stakeholders and ask for forgiveness and more time to allow you to catch up. Now you’re eating into your profit in an effort to deliver.
You focus on delivery of the product, just barely getting something over the line, it’s just good enough. Embarrassing. The client have lost confidence in you, your team, and your organisation. Your organisation has suffered as a result of this project, the finances aren’t good and the team morale is low, good people are thinking about leaving.
The forecast for the year is looking good though! We have another Gantt chart to show the team that everything is going to be great in the coming year, plenty of clients in the pipeline with some cool projects and enough work to fund the business and pay salaries.
It’s another lie. This time it’s from within, and sold to internal staff and teams. You’ve seen this all before, you tell yourself something has to change.
The bull headed ‘stick to the plan’ mentality of a Gantt chart led project is the same sort of mentality that saw the forces of WWI stall to a halt. Teams of demoralised men slowed their progress to a stall out with the enemy, digging in across no-man’s land within sight of each other but with no alternative or creative adaptation to consider the plan they had been fed on day 1 was not viable 2 months into the campaign.
Throwing more resource at the problem didn’t help either, the ‘over the top’ orders just led to more risk and waste. A campaign that was expected to last a couple of months ended up lasting for over 4 years, I’d posit we have all been involved in at least one project that has taken longer than planned but hopefully not at quite the scale of WWI.
Learn And Adapt
Gantt and Trench Warfare are one in the same, a mindset born of arrogance and a lack of honesty and integrity. These lessons of the past should be treated as such by the modern world, WWI cost the lives of 20 million people, an incredible waste nobody looks back on with fondness. A further 21 million were wounded, enough people to reflect first hand and begin asking the questions of how this happened at all.
In business you may not be working in a domain where lives are at stake but it is your responsibility to treat waste as if it could be a persons life at stake. When something goes wrong it should be assessed, if it happen again it should be investigated and owned to ensure it never happens again. Learn from past experiences, adapt future approaches to problems and give yourself a chance to over deliver.