PERT--the hoax of the century
Ed. note: In the last issue of PMQ we made light of PERT in Krakowski's “PERT and Parkinson's Law. " It was brought to our attention that a previously published PMQ article should be reprinted to provide some perspective on the subject. This article first appeared in the December, 1971 issue of PMQ.
PERT was born — out of wedlock — on September 11, 1959, fathered by two minor civil service employees, Ralph Twisp and Paul Epstein. The following account of the incident is reconstructed from information obtained from Messrs. Twisp and Epstein, who have left the Government service for private enterprise.
It was a slow day — even for civil service — and Twisp and Epstein were preparing to while away the time with a game of “Battleship.” They had drawn their grids.
cunningly arranged their battleships.
and provided a space for scorekeeping above the grid.
They were poised to number the squares and begin in earnest when a voice — chill even for September — caught them with their pens down: “Vot's gung on here?”
It was Hans Hoffderviener, their supervisor, a clever administrator and ruthless taskmaster.1
Ralph Twisp did some fast thinking. The bleak prospect of being drummed out of the civil service to attempt survival in the outside world spurred him on.
“Sir,” he faltered, “we — we’re developing a new technique.”
Hoffderviener considered Twisp's words with teutonic thoroughness.
“Honestly, sir,” said Epstein, quickly drawing a series of lines on the grid,
“you see — what we have here is a — a diagramatic representation of — uh — the sequential relationships of some — uh — events and activities which must be performed in support of a single objective.”
Hoffderviener's eyes began to glaze.2 “Yah?” he said uncertainly.
“Yah — er — yes,” said Twisp. “It's an entirely new concept.”
“Vot's dis?” asked Hofferdviener, thrusting a sausagelike finger at one of Twisp's “battleships.”
“Why that's a b—,” began Twisp. “A — uh — blip.”
“Yes, a blip. Sir, if you’d wait until we've fully developed our presentation we could explain it in its entirety.”
“Yah,” said Hoffderviener weakly. “You do dot.” He turned to go, then swung about. “Vot's called dis technique?”
“Veil — er — well,” said Epstein, thinking frantically, “we really haven't —.” Then his eye fell on the scoring column:
Epstein looked Hoffderviener square in the eye. His voice was steady. “We call it PERT,” he said. “Performance Evaluation and Review Technique.”
Hoffderviener tottered away, a broken man. The rest is history.
It took Epstein and Twisp six nights (from 8:00 until 1:00 A.M., in the corner booth at Paddy Flynn's Bar and Grill) to complete their system. They accomplished the almost impossible task of creating a system so diabolically clever that it could graphically render the simplest task absolutely incomprehensible. They invented a complete vocabulary of terms and symbols (e.g., “Critical Path,” “Negative Slack,” “Earliest Event Time —‘TE,” “Earliest Completion Time — Tec,” “Latest Start Time — Tls”). They put it all together. It spelled Mother.
Hoffderviener approved it at once. It appealed to his Germanic love of detail, order, and regimentation. Too, he didn't have the foggiest idea of what they were talking about. They fielded all questions with statements similar to:
“I’m glad you asked that. Just let me say this — if TE does not equal TL, then we have veered from the Critical Path of zero and are faced with the alternates of systems slack and activity slack, based upon project duration and prime and/or sub-critical paths and like that.”
They got the system started — Hoffderviener, Epstein and Twisp — but none of them lasted long. They were the first PERT casualties.
Hoffderviener developed a curious tic in his left cheek which appeared whenever he heard the word “blip.” The “blips” finally became so numerous that he took an extended medical leave, and did not return.
Epstein was discharged when it was discovered that he was PERTing the seduction of the Program Manager's secretary.
But the seeds of PERT had been sown. Like a malignant growth, it continued to spread.
However, if the present situation disturbs you — consider this dismal conjecture:
The positions vacated by Epstein and Twisp are no longer vacant. Two replacements now while away their time at tic-tac-toe. Their names are Charles Riffle and Abe Pratt. God knows what they’ll call their system.
2This condition, now a common occurrence whenever PERT is discussed, is known as the “Hoffderviener Reaction.”