Flowcharting--an aid to project management

Graphic displays of the objectives and plans for long-range research projects provide a means of logically ordering activities. They also can be used for monitoring progress and periodic status reporting.

Among the critical decisions which research managers must make are those related to allocating resources to research programs. These decisions should be based upon a clear concept of what could be expected from a given research program within a reasonable length of time. Research managers must understand their scientists. Scientists must be able to communicate their ideas, goals, and plans to management in a clear and relatively uncomplicated manner. Some of the concepts to be communicated include:

  1. What are the principle “go/no go” points in the plan?
  2. When might the scientist expect to have data on which to base his “go/no go” decision?
  3. What is the scientist doing to get this critical data?
  4. Based upon management’s comprehension of program status as compared to the plan, for how long must resources be allocated to achieve the hypothesized conclusion of the research?

This paper describes a currently-used uncomplicated project management technique we developed to meet the needs of scientist and manager in our laboratories. Its primary purpose is to strengthen the interpersonal communication necessary in the planning, monitoring, and status-reporting of a long-range research.

Creation of the Research Plan

Research Planning begins with the writing of a proposal which contains:

  1. Statements of the objectives of the research and a discussion of the rationale of the approach.
  2. Statements of the feasibility of the experimentation needed to achieve the objectives.

A statement of research objectives provides the starting point of the program management process. A research plan should provide the framework within which realistic targets for achieving the objectives can be established.

Rob Staples is Senior Planning Administrator in the Research and Development Division of Smith Kline and French Laboratories. He holds degrees from Rutgers and Syracuse Universities and prior to his present position was a research pharmacologist and teacher of biology and mathematics. He is an officer and member of the Board of Directors of Project Management Institute.

Objectives are accomplished through the activity of people working individually yet cooperatively as members of a project team. The first step in our planning process is to list these activities. Whai studies are to be done? What decisions are needed, and when? What supplies should be ordered? Obviously this activities list could become lengthy depending upon the level of detailed description chosen. Archibald and Villoria offer guidelines which help determine a suitable level of detail.2 Too little detail limits monitoring and control capabilities; too much swamps managers with detail that could obscure essential information and increase the cost of the planning effort. Experience gained during the planning process dictates the level of detail needed. Actually, the technique reported in this paper demands the description of relatively little detail.

But whatever the level of detailed description project objectives are realized only as people’s activities are accomplished. The team concept, individual specialized people working toward the common objectives of a unique project is viable, however, only if we take the activities list one step further. When completed, the activities list is analyzed for the sequence in which work will be performed. The order of activities may be determined by considering these two sets of questions:

  1. What activities must be finished before this activity may start? What activities may start when this activity is finished?
  2. What activities may be done in parallel? (That is, have no start/finish dependencies between them).

Diagraming Project Activities

To end research planning at this point is to stop short of the most useful step, a diagrammatic display of these activities. We are advocates of a network-based project management system. In fact, at the outset we considered networking long-range research but found the standard network approach to be unfeasible, especially with respect to estimating durations of activities. However, the strongest feature of networking, the diagram itself, had much to offer. We wanted visual display that could be readily understood in a few minutes of observation, a display that could be: referenced by each scientist and manager; adapted to an appropriate level of detail; easily maintained by a non-scientist; and utilized as a basis for monitoring progress and reporting. We adopted flowcharting because we felt it satisfied these criteria.

Flowcharts are more flexible than networks in that they may display conditional sequences of activity based upon predecessor activity outcomes. This more closely approximates the research environment than does classical networking. A network diagram, after all, represents only one plan to achieve a goal. Experimental results cannot be known beforehand. Sipper3 points out that a prior elimination of project options may result in presenting to management the one alternative which may or may not be the most desirable. A flowchart might not display all the alternatives either, but it at least indicates that progress in research is conditioned by the outcome of preceding activities. A flowchart of our hypothetical long-range research program (the study of the possible transfer of human leukemia to the boar) is shown in Figure 1.

One final comment about networking is in order specifically related to the pharmaceutical industry. PERT/CPM is not foreign to this industry4,5,6 and is particularly useful for those applications for which activity durations might be readily estimated, such as preparing a chemical batch for which synthesis directions are worked out, conducting a biological test for which procedure and dose levels have been determined, and making a dosage form by means of a specific technique. It is useful also for determining the parameters within which a service group, like data processing, should function in support of a project; and for estimating the likelihood of their ability to satisfy those timing requirements. Network-based techniques which include uncertainties are currently being developed3,7 and, no doubt, like PERT/CPM will utlimately be tried in the pharmaceutical industry. But, no matter what the tool used or how it is described, the heart of project management is to be found in the original planning.

Developing a Flowchart

We identified the primary objective(s) of our hypothetical research and structured them into the most desirable order of accomplishment. The first objectives to be attached were identified as Level A; the second, Level B; and the third, Level C.

  1. Obtain enough blood from suitable donors to fulfill the requirements of Level B. Demonstrate the in vitro transfer of active transfer factor from human to boar cells.
  2. Prepare leukemia transfer factor from human material and demonstrate its transfer, in vitro, to cells from the boar.
  3. Demonstrate the induction of leukemia in boar via the in vivo transfer of leukemia transfer factor.

As can be seen in Figure 1, we prepared the objectives as questions within a diamond symbol, which represents a decision so that a yes answer to the diamond represents the successful accomplishment of the objective. Any other conclusion (no or maybe) leads to a branch to which additional studies may be added, or to a loop back to a study or activity which must be repeated. Experiments or specific activities are contained in the box symbol. Directional arrows indicate the input/output relationships between the experiments and the decisions. Decisions are identified by letters corresponding to the research level in which they are found. Activities are numbered. Letter codes over the upper right corner of the box indicate the person primarily responsible for the activity.

Each research level contains at least one loop or branch which indicates that under a conceivable set of circumstances most of the work in that level might be repeated or augmented. To repeat, the looping and branching capability provides the flexibility needed to portray uncertainty of research.


Figure 1

Special note should be made concerning the level of detail of the activities in the flowchart. A box may represent a specific, relatively straightforward activity to be done. Other boxes may represent several activities or a group of experiments. The latter type of box may be thought of as a module. Modules simplify construction of a flowchart, but may sacrifice precision. If the sacrifice is great, modules should be added to describe in greater detail the scope and sequence of their previously undefined parts. We find a module useful if the degree of uncertainty within a set of studies is high or if the cost of obtaining and maintaining the added detail is to high to justify its use.

Use of the Plan to Monitor Progress

The plan is a baseline. It states that, based upon our present knowledge, it is logical to see the future occuring as shown in the diagram. Research is too costly to permit waste of time and money because someone assumed work was proceeding according to the plan, however, and we must frequently compare our present accomplishment to the point we had hoped to be at this time in the plan.

Research planning and progress measurements both depend on human judgement. This is why activities in our plan are assigned to specific people. They provide the estimates of how far away we are from our objectives. In the initial plan, their estimates are based upon an increasing amount of experience in this research. The most recent estimate, therefore, is assumed to be the best estimate.

In our technique, we ask people to estimate when we might expect to reach our next objective. This is in contrast to PERT/CPM in which people are asked to estimate how long it will take to do a specific activity. The critical path is the chain of activities leading to the most distant objective. The duration of a level may be shortened only by shortening the most distant target as a result of one or more of the following:

  1. A breakthrough or scientific discovery
  2. A change in the logical requirements to go to the next level
  3. Application of additional resources to key activities
  4. Completion of critical activities earlier than estimated.

The only certainty in a long-range research plan is that it will change. Activity logic and target estimates should be modified to account for the changes imposed by the real world. We find that plans should be updated regularly with frequency dictated by:

  1. The rapidity of discovery
  2. The frequency of changes in objectives
  3. Changes in resource availability or demand
  4. Other factors peculiar to the research environment.

A disciplined approach of monthly updates, with resultant reporting, is adequate to monitor our long-range research project and provide the kind of communications which keeps project participants involved. Less frequent updating may be appropriate in some longer-term cases, whereas more frequent updating is recommended as a project approaches completion. Regular updating and progress estimates are the keys to project control.

Periodic Status Reporting

Status reports on research project planning should be accurate, concise, and timely. They should be issued immediately following an update and should focus attention on significant changes since the previous report. If the planning diagram is relatively simple, then the entire plan might be distributed each time, with some indication as to where activity is currently taking place. If the diagram is too large or detailed, then a summary or highlight diagram would be appropriate. A brief narrative should accompany the first reports to review the format of the planning and reporting procedures. An example is shown in Figure 2.

At update time, project participants need only receive a brief narrative highlighting status relative to work in the current research level and a comment indicating timing of the overall target dates for the entire project. This report might also be used to alert the reader to potential conditions which could arise before the next update to affect timing. Of course, if any changes are required in the diagram, a new diagram should be sent out with the narrative.

Finally, project planning status reports are not scientific documents to be used to report the results of experiments. Should they be used as such they would probably be delayed in issuing and could become so lengthy that their value would be decreased.


1. R.P. Olsen, “What Is Project Management”, Project Management Quarterly, Project Management Institute. Drexel Hill, Pa., Vol. II. No. 1, March, 1971.

2. R.D. Archibald and R.L. Villoria. “Network-Based Management Systems, (PERT/CPM)”, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 1967. p. 69.

3. D. Sipper, “Planning with Project Decision Networks”, Proceedings of the Second Annual Seminar/Symposium of Project Management Institute, Drexel Hill, Pa., October. 1970. p. 3

4. R.M. Walsh, R.H. Ayers, R.L Hayne, and R.G. Staples, “Project Management by the Critical Path Method”, Research Management, July, 1970, pp. 291-300.

5. H.E. Stavely, “The Critical Path Method in Pharmaceutical Product Development”, Research Management, March, 1967. pp. 91-105

6. A.S. Abrams and W.H. Shadek, “Drug Manufacturer PERTs New Product Development Programs”, Data System News, June, 1968, pp. 8-9.

7. A.A.B. Pritsker, “System Developments in GERT”, Proceedings of the Second Annual Seminar/Symposium of Project Management Institute, Drexel Hill, Pa., October, 1970. p. 1.

Date ______

cc:     Project

Management List

To: Project

FROM:            R. Staples

SUBJECT:       Long-Range Research Program Status Report

The attached flowcharts represent our research plan. The broad plan is divided into three basic “levels”, each representing a series of experiments designed to accomplish a specific goal. The time to achieve these goals is estimated and completion dates are designated as targets. On a monthly basis, we shall monitor progress through each level by estimating our position relative to these target dates. The time-line below shows our current estimates.

Each numbered box on the flowchart represents a task; each diamond, a question. The initials of the individual(s) responsible for the task are shown above the box. That person will be called to estimate his progress within the “level”.

The flowcharts are designed to be informative communicating devices to monitor our progress in this long-range research effort. They will be changed as plans change.


Information ranging from design to construction provides the engineer with many useful guidelines, so that he can successfully initiate and complete a project within the allocated funds and time estimates.

IRVING M. FOGEL, Fogel & Associates, Inc.

Occasionally, the engineer or technical manager for whom project management has not been a fulltime pursuit will nevertheless find himself in charge of such a project. Generally, the projects most frequently assigned this person are in the small to medium range—i.e., involving a few thousand dollars to perhaps a million. Managing such a project can be made easier for the project manager, or someone specifically assigned the job, if he takes advantage of organized management techniques.

The term “Project Manager” is used to describe many functions, but for our purpose he does exactly what the words say: he manages the project. He does not do all the work. Although he may take care of some of the detail, his prime function is to see that it gets done. He does not make all the decisions but sees to it that the right questions are asked and that the required information is available. The project manager may have all the answers and may, in some cases, be in a position to make all the decisions, but such cases are very rare.

The term “project” includes everything from the addition of a storage lean-to to an existing facility, to the construction of a new multimillion-dollar facility where nothing existed before. The same rules of project management are applied to both projects, and to all that fall between them—whether for construction of a structure or the addition of equipment alone.

Every project goes through certain phases; some in more detail than others. Although shortcuts are taken and certain steps exist in someone’s mind, the development of any project includes all or most of the steps listed in Table I.

It is important to note that these steps do not include the actual engineering or design, nor do they include the actual construction work, whether by in-house staff or outside contractor. In cases where the project manager is also responsible for the engineering or architectural design, he will of course be wearing two hats. When this is so, he must strive to maintain absolute objectivity as it relates to



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