On the right track
BY PETER FRETTY
fast-tracking the superhighway of project delivery.
From construction to IT, fast-tracking—running project steps concurrently or overlapping to save time—is a tempting choice when a project swerves off schedule, a sponsor moves the delivery date or an organization wants to beat a competitor to market.
Speed in project delivery can be highly valuable: The Boston Consulting Group's 2012 Speed to Win study found that for standard new-product development, a seven-month time-to-market gap separates best-in-class from average companies. A longer sales life can add as much as 60 percent to the average product's first-year sales.
“Fast-tracking is attractive when the time originally scheduled is too long to meet contractual objectives, or a project team needs to recover time lost as a result of a delay or schedule slippage,” says Patrick Weaver, PMI-SP, PMP, principal of project management firm Mosaic Project Services pty Ltd., Melbourne, Australia. “By overlapping activities, project teams can finish the project in the shortest possible time.” That may mean starting development before the design is complete, he says, or starting the finishing work before the roof is watertight.
But while crashing a project schedule can potentially save major time, it can also backfire—sometimes catastrophically. “Fast-tracking almost always results in increased risk, and may result in rework that can counteract some of the initial gains and reduce the potential savings,” Mr. Weaver warns.
So how can project managers decide whether to move their projects to the fast lane—or tap the brakes? These four questions should be asked of any project being considered for fast-track status:
IS IT FEASIBLE?
Fast-tracking should apply only when there is a high probability of producing expected benefits. When the project team on the Electric Power Board (EPB) smart grid project in Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA, decided to speed things up, it carefully chose only a stage that could realistically be fast-tracked.
Because the entire project hinged on putting up fiber optic cable, EPB fast-tracked that step by contracting 90 crews to install up to 75 miles (121 kilometers) of cable per week. That enabled the organization to bring a key component of the project to completion almost immediately after receiving a US$111 million U.S. Department of Energy grant in 2010.
“Fast-tracking this component was possible because we could follow the Gantt charts tracking everything taking place in the field. It was business as usual: plan, apply resources, build out and move on,” says Bobby Hutcherson, senior manager, electric system for EPB.
But for another critical step—field deployment of automation switches—fast-tracking was not feasible. Simply placing switches in the field would not make them work; instead, each switch deployment required individualized testing, calibration and coordination with the substation. Fast-tracking would have meant compromising quality-control standards while potentially creating extensive rework requirements.
Max Dufour, PMP, principal at software and IT provider SunGard Global Services, Boston, Massachusetts, USA, suggests making the fast-tracking decision on a case-by-case basis. “Any tasks without precedents or dependents are the first candidates for fast-tracking, but project managers need to make sure the steps can actually be moved earlier in the timeline without creating any issues,” he says.
Gateway tasks that significantly affect other tasks may not be candidates for time-saving measures. “For example, decreasing the time to evaluate IT architectures can lead to worse outcomes—and eventually impact project success—even if deliverables could be produced on time under the new schedule,” Mr. Dufour says. “Increasing the speed of delivery can put quality at risk and can also force rushed decisions on critical items.”
ARE THERE SUFFICIENT RESOURCES AVAILABLE?
As in the case of the EPB smart grid, fast-tracking often involves bringing in additional personnel to handle the shortened timeline. Project managers need to account for the amplified complexity of design freezes, handovers and quality control that a larger team brings.
“Before fast-tracking, the organization needs to consider whether it can mobilize project teams to deal with each of the simultaneous activities without slicing them between tasks,” says Kik Piney, PMP, PgMP, a Valbonne, France-based instructor with training firm ESI International.
It's only feasible to overlap work done by different teams, Mr. Weaver points out; having one team overlap multiple steps simultaneously only further strains them.
“Before fast-tracking, the organization needs to consider whether it can mobilize project teams to deal with each of the simultaneous activities without slicing them between tasks. “
—Kik Piney, PMP, PgMP, ESI International, Valbonne, France
“[Sponsors] will need to agree up front to changes in resources, cost and quality to allow for a fast-tracked approach without surprises halfway through. “
—Max Dufour, PMP, SunGard Global Services, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
IS EVERYONE ON BOARD?
Getting buy-in at all levels, from team members to sponsors, is a key consideration when fast-tracking any part of a project.
At the ground level, project managers should be aware of overly optimistic team members with a tendency to always agree to new deadlines, Mr. Dufour says. He urges project managers to challenge eager team members to explain their plan for fast-track success and what must change in order to deliver in less time.
At the other end of the organizational chart, ambitious sponsors may push for aggressive deadlines without considering the day-to-day impact. “They will need to agree up front to changes in resources, cost and quality to allow for a fast-tracked approach without surprises halfway through,” Mr. Dufour says.
On a recent large divestiture project, he fast-tracked work streams by renegotiating scope with all stakeholders. He gained their buy-in by reminding them that the common project goal for all stakeholders was to wrap up the transaction as early as possible—even if it meant redefining milestones and deliverables.
“While it can be tempting to deliver against a baseline and cross items off the list, sometimes the priority of the sponsor is more time-sensitive than scope-sensitive or cost-conscious,” he says. ‘Fortunately, well-planned and communicated fast-tracking allows for addressing that priority by redesigning the project for speed and early wins.”
It also helps to analyze any management and stakeholder issues—poor communication, failure to coordinate tasks or a team's lack of motivation—that created the need to tighten the schedule in the first place, Mr. Weaver says.
WHAT IS THE RIGHT LEVEL OF CONTROL?
“Fast-tracking always complicates the project manager's job, while raising the risk exposure of the project resources,” Mr. Piney says. Therefore, project managers looking to fast-track should assess whether they have the tools and capacity to manage all simultaneous activities.
For example, fast-tracking requires a strong understanding of the logical relationships between activities and the availability of resources—both human and financial, says Sergio Ricardo do Nascimento, PMP, services and quality director at Compass International, an outsourcing and technology firm in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Therefore, developing an exhaustive project plan is paramount, Mr. Dufour says. “The project plan must be checked for accuracy and contain all dependencies and all timing constraints, including an earlier possible start date for each task, when applicable,” he says.
Project management software can help filter tasks to show the critical path and then check durations to find opportunities for fast-tracking. But Mr. Dufour warns, “It creates a new risk to use tools to automatically compress the timelines, as some tasks could end up with unreachable completion dates if variables have been overlooked.”
Mr. Piney also recommends project professionals managing fast-tracked projects take a big-picture approach by embracing program management tools. “Treat the project as a program, and each potential parallel path as a component project,” he says. “With this perspective, it's easier to determine the interdependencies between components, control the pipeline, and devote necessary resources to properly sequence and schedule each fast-tracked component.”
TAP THE BRAKES
Understandably, fast-tracking does not apply in all situations. For instance, testing, commissioning and other key quality processes should never go through the overlapping process because those steps require all work to be completed first, says Patrick Weaver, PMI-SP, PMP, Mosaic Project Services pty Ltd., Melbourne, Australia.
The same is true when an organization has multiple small projects running behind schedule. That often indicates that team leadership is not coping with the management of the work. “It's often a mistake to fast-track these projects. Simply doubling the number of people only doubles the problems and produces little in terms of results,” Mr. Weaver says.
Max Dufour, PMP, SunGard Global Services, Boston, Massachusetts, USA, says industries with intangible deliverables, such as technology deployments or document-related work, allow for more compression than typical brick-and-mortar projects. There are usually fewer dependencies and constraints involved with intangible deliverables. On the other hand, tangible deliverables typically are not possible without external inputs, which limits the possibilities for crashing the schedule.
“In addition, projects where lives are at stake or whose impact is very broad may be too sensitive to be fast-tracked,” Mr. Dufour says.
Fast-tracking projects can make them less efficient, at least temporarily. “Adding resources generates costs and impacts the workload,” he says. “It can become more challenging to keep everybody 100 percent busy as team members are added. And introducing changes while the project is in progress can temporarily slow down the project as some tasks are interrupted and new ones started.”
FULL SPEED AHEAD
When it comes to the decision to fast-track a project, project managers can't lose sight of one all-important factor: reality. “It is very easy to draw overlapping lines on a bar chart, yet translating the accelerated work into real performance on the project makes managing the work more difficult,” Mr. Weaver says.
The fast lane can be tempting; project managers have to decide whether it really is the best route.PM
PM NETWORK SEPTEMBER 2012 WWW.PMI.ORG
SEPTEMBER 2012 PM NETWORK