Can you have your cake and eat it too? Integrative planning method from concept to execution



Since 1999, a Project Management Office (PMO) has been operating at Freescale Semiconductor Israel (FIL). To support project managers and teams the PMO implemented standard project management processes and tools. To date, one of the challenges faced by the PMO has been how to provide appropriate scheduling solutions for different project phases.

Different planning techniques (methodology and tools) are required at different project phases; while the Concept/Definition phase involves a high-level trade-off analysis between scope, resources and schedule, the Planning phase should yield an operative detailed plan. Standard planning methods do not necessarily address planning requirements at the Concept/Definition phase as effectively as they support detailed scheduling at the Planning phase.

Moreover, building detailed schedules for large projects is a tough task that requires significant effort from the project managers at the same time that they are launching the project. This might create a ‘managerial bottle neck’ that needs to be addressed efficiently.

The paper discusses the issues arisen in the different planning phases. Later, the paper addresses the issues, a practical method for planning during the Concept/Definition phase is proposed; another method for smooth transfer from Concept/Definition phase to Planning phase is discussed. Summary and conclusions follow. The methods discussed herein were successfully implemented in FIL.

Planning during Product Development Cycle

The development cycle of a new product is commonly described by three sequential phases: Concept/Definition, Planning and Execution (Exhibit 1).

Phases in Product Development Cycle

Exhibit 1: Phases in Product Development Cycle

In the Concept/Definition phase marketing analysis is done and various product alternatives are proposed and compared. An optimal alternative is selected. Further market and system analysis is carried out in order to fully define the selected alternative (product) details. A major output of the Concept/Definition phase would be product specification.

In Planning phase a plan/schedule for Execution phase is constructed based on the following inputs: project scope, workflow methodology and available resources. Tradeoff analysis between these inputs and the project target date is carried out. The major outputs of this phase are: a valid schedule/work plan for the Execution phase, resource requirements and, of course, a commitment for delivery date.

Planning techniques in the Planning phase gained a lot of attention in the industry (both practical implementation and project management software tools) and is a matured process. However, only a small amount of attention was drawn to planning techniques during Concept/Definition phase.

The following section discusses the issues that arise during the Concept/Definition phase and Planning phase.

Issues in the Planning Process

The major objective of the Concept/Definition phase is to analyze several alternatives, choose the best option and define it. The analysis of alternatives cannot rely solely on product scope. It should also consider cost/resource and schedule aspects. Hence, planning is instrumental during this phase. Since Concept/Definition phase is different in nature from Planning phase, several difficulties may arise:

  1. Looking at the big picture without overlooking the details: The Concept/Definition phase should include trade-off analyses between scope, resources and schedule to propose the optimal combination. Different scenarios should be examined, and a fast, but quantitative method, is required to compare them. At this point the product scope is not finalized yet, and not all details are available. In addition, details that are already known keep changing because of the dynamic nature of this preliminary stage. There is a need for a high level perspective without bothering with all the details on one hand, but as accurate as possible on the other hand.
  2. Traditional planning methods are cumbersome in preliminary stages: Regular planning methods are inadequate at this point since they are time consuming and rely on details that are usually unavailable at this point. An efficient method to generate quick scenarios with resources and schedule estimates is required.

The transition from Concept/Definition to Execution, i.e. the Planning phase, is characterized by a great deal of pressure from various directions. Customers require commitment for delivery dates; team leaders are seeking project priorities and team members need a work plan. Top management would like it all, on-time delivery within resource limits, with highest quality, and a detailed plan to achieve this. This situation might create a ‘managerial bottle neck’ as discussed below. The Project Manager is expected to rapidly generate a detailed plan for the selected alternative. The project performance will then be measured against this plan.

But then more issues arise:

  1. 3.    Work on project while planning still on-going: Planning large and complex projects can take several weeks or even months, but staffing occurs concurrently, with new team members joining the project and needing to be guided and engaged with project activities. Team members cannot wait until planning ends. Valuable time might be wasted if they are not focused from day one on the project objectives and priorities.
  2. 4.    A detailed plan must be developed quickly: Planning large and complex projects requires great effort from the project manager and team leaders. The problem is how to efficiently materialize the vast amount of data collected during Concept/Definition phase into a detailed plan quickly and still preserve the scope - resource - schedule framework.

The following sections address these issues.

Plan Effectively from the Very Beginning

A High Level (HL) planning technique is required to address the planning issues during the Concept/Definition phase (issues 1 & 2). This method should effectively organize the project and establish a solid foundation for the Planning phase. Combined with the “first step plan” method described later, it must ensure that initial work is done in the right direction as well.

FIL has accomplished this as follows: First, a highest level of Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is created. It is a list of high-level activities. A generic HL Template that includes effort estimates is generated for each WBS (Exhibit 2). The templates, which are based on actual historic data and real workflows, reflect realistically the effort distribution across the project life cycle. Several quick scenarios can be drawn using a simple spreadsheet incorporating these templates.

HL Template Example

Exhibit 1 - HL Template Example

In addition, a detailed workflow template is generated for every HL template. These templates are built in a Gantt/Pert form (Exhibit 3), and will be later used to create the detailed plan.

Detailing HL WBS's using workflow templates

Exhibit 3: Detailing HL WBS's using workflow templates

Charts describing HL resource requirements against time are the basis for tradeoff analysis and preliminary resource demand. They can be used until a detailed plan is formed. The following example explains how quick scenarios can be drawn and analyzed easily.

Exhibit 4 represents effort accumulation for scenario ‘A’. Each series in this chart represents a HL WBS, for which a HL template was created. In this scenario, one can see that the project lasts 9 months and reaches 25 full-time equivalent headcount at its peak.

Scenario ‘A’ Plan – No headcount limit

Exhibit 4: Scenario ‘A’ Plan – No headcount limit

A second scenario - ‘B’ (Exhibit 5) demonstrates how the plan was stretched to last a full year in order to meet a 21 headcount limit. For example, modules 3 and 6 start a month later.

Scenario ‘B’ Plan - 21 Max headcount

Exhibit 5: Scenario ‘B’ Plan - 21 Max headcount

Scenario ‘B’ is than analyzed in a different way (Exhibit 6). In this view each series represents the summed effort of a different skill throughout the project lifecycle.

Scenario ‘B’ Plan - Focusing on effort applied per skill

Exhibit 6: Scenario ‘B’ Plan - Focusing on effort applied per skill

Work on Project while Planning Still On-Going – First Step Plan Technique

In order to enable focusing of the team from day one on the project objectives (issue 3), the first step plan technique was put in place. The steps of the first step plan are:

  • The project manager and team leaders identify the nearest high-level project milestone, derived from the project deliverables.
  • A detailed short-term work plan is generated for all the present team members.
  • A project control process starts.

This process, that takes no more than one to two days, enables the project core team to concentrate on building the overall project plan while the rest of the team starts executing their part of the overall project plan. When an HL plan, approved resources, and detailed workflow templates are in place, detailed planning can start.

Generate a Detailed Plan Rapidly

Once the first step plan has been put in place and team members have started to work on their first tasks, the core team is available to further detail the plan. This task must be carried out efficiently to free up the project managers to drive the project execution (issue 4).

At this point, a budget, namely resource headcount, should be approved and assigned. A detailed plan is now defined. Each HL WBS is detailed using the predefined workflow templates (Exhibit 3). This stage can be done rapidly by duplicating predefined templates as modular ‘building blocks’ – it saves the redundant effort of creating thousands of lines from scratch. The detailed plan is reviewed by the Project core team. At this point an iterative trade-off analysis to reach an agreed combination of scope, resources and schedule is performed.

Summary and Conclusions

Generating effective and tight schedules for dynamic and complex projects is sometimes viewed as an impossible mission. In the Concept/Definition phase the product scope is preliminary and many details are not available. Yet, different scenarios must be examined as well as Scope-Resources-Schedule tradeoffs.

Different planning techniques are used in the Planning phase. Still, they must rely on the information gathered during early stages, to create a reliable project plan. The pressure that characterizes this phase is intensified by the expectation for actual work and demonstrable progress. By using the practical methods presented above to help overcome the aforementioned issues, FIL has had success in many projects.

Following are lessons learned and recommendations:

  • Planning must take place during the Concept/Definition phase in order to effectively analyze alternatives against scope-resources-schedule quantitative aspects. Planning in this stage differs from planning at later stages, hence it requires different techniques.
  • Using the HL Planning approach during the Concept/Definition phase effectively organizes the project and establishes solid foundations for the Planning phase.
  • Using generic HL Templates with realistic effort estimates accelerates the creation of plan scenarios in the Concept/Definition phase. The historic data embodied in the HL templates ensures that the plan is realistic and thereby saves the overhead of detailed planning at this stage.
  • An effective planning process is very long and usually overlaps actual project work. Therefore a first step plan approach should be implemented parallel to the Planning phase to monitor the project work already in progress and prioritize it accordingly. It also frees up the project core team to concentrate on building the overall project plan while the rest of the team starts working.
  • Workflow templates should be reviewed and accepted by all project team members. This ensures that uniform workflow and terminology are used, and helps an effective control process.
  • Generating a detailed plan quickly is done efficiently using the predefined workflow templates. The templates are used as modular ‘building blocks’, hence saving the redundant effort of creating thousands activities in the Gantt chart from scratch.

© 2006, Yaniv Brokman, Yuval Kfir, Yuval Pilovsky
Originally published as a part of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Madrid, Spain



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