Project planning-- must it be a Sisyphean task?

Freescale Semiconductor Israel, Ltd.


A typical technology development project is comprised of, over the course of more than a year, thousands of activities, including the work of dozens of engineers from a variety of disciplines. Moreover, these projects are characterized by frequent changes in scope, budget, and schedule. Deploying a project management process in such a complex and dynamic environment is a true managerial challenge.

This paper describes the integrative project management process successfully implemented at Freescale Semiconductor Israel, Ltd. Two planning process phases, as well as practical methods, are discussed. Two control cycles, especially designated to address the dynamic nature of development projects, are also reviewed.

Planning Process Basics

The dynamics of complex development projects evoke several project management challenges. One challenge is addressing the frequent changes to project scope, resources, and work flow; as such, it is necessary to apply planning techniques during the project execution phase. Integrating these techniques into the project management process increases the probability of maintaining the project scope, budget, quality, and due date.

The planning phase is comprised of four parallel sub-processes: scope definition, work flow definition, resource planning, and schedule development. Creation of a comprehensive and reliable project plan necessitates that the four sub-processes progress simultaneously.

Planning Phase Sub-Processes:

  • Scope definition defines project contents and goals, including project team responsibilities and required external team receivables. The scope definition's maturity level determines the credibility of the project plan.
  • Work flow definition (product development methodology) is defined and reviewed by the project core team, i.e., a detailed work breakdown structure (WBS) and activity network. This yields agreed-upon and uniform work flow templates for use later in the detailed project plan. It is most efficient, at this stage, to reuse previous project methodologies.
  • Resource planning begins with the naming of the project's core team; thereafter, a resource breakdown structure (RBS) is defined and approved and decisions are made regarding project staffing for the various skill disciplines. The RBS must have a balanced number of teams; the teams, comprised of engineers with the requisite skills and experience levels, report to each team leader.
  • Schedule development integrates the above noted sub-processes into a comprehensive and detailed schedule. The schedule considers external receivables commitments, agreed-upon development methodology, and approved resources. This is an iterative process involving tradeoff analyses between project scope, development methodology, available resources, and schedule constraints.

The planning process is divided into two phases: initial planning and finalized planning (Exhibit 1). The control phase follows immediately after the initial planning stage, although without a clear separation, because planning processes continue until project completion. The planning and control processes are detailed below.

Initial Planning

The initial planning phase is characterized by a great deal of pressure. Customers want a delivery date commitment, team leaders seek project priorities, team members need a work plan, and top management wants it all—a detailed plan, the highest quality product, and on-time delivery within resource limits. The initial planning phase addresses the above noted concerns; it effectively organizes the project and establishes solid foundations for the finalized planning phase.

The initial planning phase, combined with the first step plan methodology, ensures that the initial work takes the right direction. Initial planning begins with establishment of the core team and preliminary scope definition.

Core Team Establishment

Core team establishment includes technical leaders from every relevant discipline. A correctly composed core team strongly impacts project stability and quality.

Preliminary Scope Definition

Preliminary scope definition is an iterative step, wherein project receivables and deliverables are defined; it is handled by the project manager and the core team in consultation with senior management and partners. It is highly recommended that a core team member take full ownership for external supplier communications. This step produces a preliminary list of receivables and deliverables with an internal owner assigned to each supplier.

Planning Process Diagram

Exhibit 1– Planning Process Diagram

Following selection of the core team and definition of the project scope, the next three activities are performed simultaneously: high-level plan, appointing team leaders, and work flow definition.

High-Level Plan

The high-level plan is the stage for creating the highest level of WBS—a list of high-level (HL) activities. Every external receivable/deliverable is assigned a WBS line item, thus ensuring that no area was omitted from the HL plan.

A generic work flow template, including effort estimates, is generated for each HL activity. A chart describing HL resource requirements versus time is created using templates and the HL WBS (Exhibit 2). This chart is a starting point for known scope/resource/schedule tradeoff analyses and is used until a detailed plan is ready.

Resource Requirement Chart point for known scope/resource/schedule tradeoff analyses and is used until a detailed plan is ready

Exhibit 2: Resource Requirement Chart

Team Leader Appointments

Appointing team leaders, responsible for HL activities, must consider experience levels, technical complexity, and total effort demanded by activities and the potential risks. Finalized planning is primarily owned by nominated team leaders.

Work Flow Definition

Work flow definition produces detailed sub-system work flow templates for use as “building blocks” in the finalized planning phase (Exhibit 3). The templates describe specific project methodology flows. The HL plan is also reevaluated at this stage—revealing unexpected issues. Intensive meetings with representatives from all project disciplines are held and work flow templates are defined in Gantt/Pert charts.

Work Flow Template

Exhibit 3: Work Flow Template

First Step Plan

Planning complex projects can take weeks or even months. Team members must be focused on project objectives from the onset—waiting until planning ends would waste valuable time. The first step plan addresses initial issues and enables the team to begin work, while the core team concentrates on building an overall project plan.

  • Project manager and team leaders define the next major milestone.
  • Generation of a detailed short-term work plan for all current team members.
  • Control phase begins.

Finalized Planning

After setting the initial plan, a detailed plan is generated. The detailed plan is based on both the HL plan and the detailed work flow templates. At this point, an initial project budget, a resource amount, should be allocated. Furthermore, two important steps from the scope definition perspective need to be completed: Product feature freeze and receivable date commitments.

The following steps comprise the finalized planning phase.

  • Product feature freeze is a well-defined product feature list (final scope) that should be finalized to truly evaluate the project's size and complexity.
  • Receivable date commitments is a detailed list of receivables and date commitments provided by each supplier. Suppliers are external vendors, external contractors, or other organizational teams.
  • Defined detailed plan with generic resources. Each HL activity is detailed using the predefined work flow templates as they accelerate closure of the overall project plan. The detailed generic templates are integrated into one schedule and, thereafter, derived effort estimates are refined. If necessary, resource-leveling is applied.
  • Plan review and adjustments are made by the project manager and the core team. The review validates existing plan assumptions, identifies resource mismatches, and confirms existing commitment dates. An iterative trade-off analysis may be required to reach an accepted combination of scope, resources/budget, and scheduling.
  • Detailed plan with named resources is reached upon final budget approval—the project team is then fully staffed as per a predefined project resource chart. Named resources are assigned to short-term (two to three month) activities and generic roles are assigned to other project activities. The plan is presented to the entire project team and, after the resolution of outstanding issues, the baseline plan is frozen and the team committed to it.

Development projects are characterized by frequent changes in scope, resources, and work flow. Consequently, additional planning is required throughout project execution—these planning activities are integrated into the control phase.

Control Phase

The control phase begins shortly after the start of the planning phase and continues, in parallel, until project completion. The control phase has two recurrent and complementary cycles, short-term status update and plan update (Exhibit 4), that ensure all project activities progress according to plan.

Control Process Diagram

Exhibit 4: Control Process Diagram

Short-term Status Update Cycle

Weekly, short-term status meetings review project activity progress during the previous week. All team members provide a weekly progress update—reporting actual invested activity efforts as well as the estimated times for activity completion. These team leader-approved reports are integrated into the master project plan. The newly updated plan is then analyzed with standard project management methods such as critical path analysis, milestones status, resources load, and so forth.

Plan Update Cycle

A “rolling wave” planning method should be implemented due to the frequent changes characteristic of prolonged development projects. Monthly or bi-monthly planning updates should be held for each project team; this is a communication and acceptance process important for aligning individual plans with project goals and priorities. There are two objectives to the “rolling wave” planning method. First, it extends by two to three months the detailed plans of team members. Second, it incorporates new changes into the project plan—scope updates (changed requests), work flow updates (new tools and/or methodology changes), and resource changes. The plan update cycle is comprised of two parts: plan review and plan presentation.

  • The plan review is attended by the project and program managers and the relevant team leader. The plan review checks actual team member progress against the short-term plan (Exhibit 5) and reviews upcoming team member plans. Short-term plans are part of the overall project plan and reflect changes to-date.
  • The plan presentation is attended by the project and program managers, the relevant team leader, along with team members. The presentation objective is to present upcoming individual plans and receive related team member commitments.

    The plan presentation meeting demonstrates the full commitment of the management team, as well as the project team members, to the managerial procedure of planning and control processes. The covered topics include the following:

- Actual progress versus the existing short-term plan. This comparison provides data for the future planning of similar activities. Personal accountability is also demonstrated.

- Individual short-term plans for the near future.

- Clarification of activity content and completion criteria.

- Team member acceptance and commitment to plans.

Analyzing the Short-tenn Plan versus Actual Progress

Exhibit 5: Analyzing the Short-term Plan versus Actual Progress

Summary and Conclusions

A managerial challenge characteristic of complex development projects is addressing the frequent changes that occur throughout a project's life cycle—changes to project scope, resources, and work flow. Detailed plans, derived from a disciplined planning process, are crucial to project success. However, detailed plans alone aren't enough, additional planning techniques must be applied throughout the project's execution. If these methods are an integral part of the project management processes, then the probability of meeting project scope, quality, budget, and due date is significantly increased.

Lessons Learned and Recommendations

Quick and efficient generation of a detailed plan is achieved using predefined work flow templates. The templates, used as modular “building blocks,” forego the need to create Gantt charts from scratch. Generic templates contribute to a uniform work flow and terminology—elements vital to an effective control process.

The “rolling wave” approach helps overcoming the frequent and inevitable changes to project scope, work flow, and resources that occur throughout the execution phase of complex development projects. This approach should be considered a structured part of the project management process.

The recurring control phase plan update cycle enables the management of dynamic development projects. The plan update cycle demonstrates managerial commitment, creates project team accountability, and significantly contributes to the early detection of problems and a proactive response.

©2011 Yaniv Brokman and Yuval Pilovsky
Originally published as part of proceedings PMI Global Congress 2011 – Dallas/Ft. Worth Texas



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