Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Project management: free advice, a free tool, and two good books

My first real introduction to project management and network planning (PERT and Gantt charts, for example) came at Kienzle Apparate GmbH in my first real engineering job. Hr. D. Ulbricht, my manager, had me create a PERT chart for the design project assigned to me. I drew it using pen and paper and passed it to him for review. He lengthened a few of the tasks to match his expectation of a realistic schedule and approved it.

He then had me post a copy of the finished PERT chart on the wall next to my desk. Every Monday, he'd review my progress against that PERT chart with me. For the first few weeks, I was right at or a bit ahead of schedule.

Then, one day, it happened: I missed an intermediate task completion deadline. It looked as if I could complete it within the week. In my enthusiasm, I promised I could finish that task before the next Monday and catch up in the future so I could finish on time.

That's when Hr. Ulbricht taught me the lesson that has stuck with me ever since. He said I'd have to slip the entire schedule a week. I had given the best estimate I could, and the only data points he and I had so far was that I was right on or (one time) overly optimistic. Unless I could point to a specific spot later in the schedule and convince him that I had been overly pessimistic there, he had to conclude that the best guess was that each task from then on out would take the originally scheduled time, and so I'd finish one week late.

As a new engineer, eager to please, I was embarrassed, but I did as he said and annotated the PERT chart to show the one week slip. I then met each and every task deadline through the end and completed the project, as predicted, only one week late.

What I learned from that was the importance of each and every deadline in a project schedule. It's not good management to let all the early deadlines slip and hold people to the end date; good management calls for equal attention to early and late critical path deadlines.

That was the free advice. The free tool is Imendio Planner. I first found it on my Linux system and used it for a small project or two. I've now discovered it's also available on Windows and promptly put it to work planning a small project I was working on. It won't do everything, but you may find it useful. It's even got a beta feature that lets it import XML files created by Microsoft Project.

Finally, the books. Years ago, I got a copy of Franz-Josef Heeg's Projektmanagement. I rather like it, for it talks about the range of tasks involved in project management, not just how to create a work breakdown structure and a PERT chart. Of course, you may need to learn German first.

If you're past the basics, you may want to read Eliyahu M. Goldratt's Critical Chain. It's an innovative approach to finishing projects faster, with increased predictability, and without increasing the number of resources applied.

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