In the previous articles in this series you learned how to plan robust projects and manage pipeline entry to avoid derailing work already underway. Now that your project has entered execution, you want it to flow like a relay race—easily and swiftly with a minimum of interruptions.
Even if your business is large enough to have dedicated teams for each project, there will be some resources that must be shared across multiple projects—resources with a particular expertise that is only used sparingly throughout a project or capital-intensive resources like testing labs or pilot plants.
And that means everyone must know what the priorities are to avoid having a project become unnecessarily hung up waiting for resources. That’s impossible without clear, stable priorities. That means your people need to know the answer to these two questions—and hopefully without a lot of effort.
- What should I be working on now?
- What should I work on next?
These may sound like simple questions, but in most companies, the answer is resolved by the “Wheel Method”— the squeaky wheel or the big wheel. Whoever makes the most noise or has the most influence, gets the resources.
The conventional wisdom that causes much of this is that strategic priorities should drive all priorities—including day to day execution. In fact, some project managers learn to manipulate this to their project’s advantage—not necessarily what is best for the company.
Don’t get me wrong. Strategic priorities are critical, most importantly as part of governance where they help you to decide which opportunity should be the next to start. It’s just that they are very difficult to interpret at the execution level.
The good news is that there is another, more effective approach. Bear with me through this next example and any remaining fog should lift.
Project Greenlight is your company’s newest program and your highest strategic priority. At the 3-month point, Greenlight is 25% complete and looking like it will finish well ahead of the promised launch date.
At the same time, Project Yellowlight, your second highest priority, is looking like it will just barely finish on time one month from now.
That’s when you hit a speed bump—both projects need the same shared testing resource to complete the next three weeks of work. Following strategic priorities, Project Greenlight gets the resource first. Consequently, Project Yellowlight finishes three weeks late and misses the promised due date for an important customer.
So what’s the alternative? If instead the risk of finishing late is used to prioritize the resources, Project Yellowlight gets priority and finishes just on time while Greenlight still has plenty of buffer left to assure an on-time finish—a much better outcome all the way around.
Again, following the model of a relay race, once a project has started running, strategic priorities become secondary and the project that is most at risk of finishing late must get priority access to resources–especially if the goal is an on-time finish.
Follow this approach and you’ll keep projects flowing more smoothly, have happier clients and increase new product throughput—i.e. make more money sooner.
The Buffer that Synchronizes
In a previous article, you learned about the project buffer as a way to protect each project’s timeline. It turns out that the buffer also becomes an important tool for synchronizing priorities.
If you plot the buffer status of all your projects on the same chart, you will get a clear visualization of which project should get the resource. The vertical axis is the percentage of buffer burned. The horizontal is the percentage of the critical chain completed. Projects that are burning buffer faster than they are completing critical chain tasks will be quite obvious—residing above a diagonal from the lower left to the upper right.
In the graphic showing the status of all projects, if Projects A and B both needed the same resource, the resources would go to Project A which has burned a higher percentage of buffer vs. critical chain completion than Project B.
That’s not a reward for burning more buffer. It’s simply a strategy to increase new product throughput by bringing more projects in on time.
The portfolio view is a snapshot, but sometimes you need to go a level deeper to see how a project is really doing. That’s what you see in the second graphic, where it’s clear that this project is blocked and needs attention.
You’ll hear more about what actions the project team can take to help get a project back on track in the next article.
Benefits of Prioritization
Working in an organization where priorities are crystal clear and stable is significantly less stressful—to be sure. But beyond that people also view the transparency around priorities and how they are decided as being inherently fairer and less political—which helps to drive engagement.
This was especially important for an OEM components manufacturer. The climate had become quite political between product marketing, engineering, and procurement. Marketing was driven to bring more new products to market. Procurement was incentivized to run projects to drive costs down on existing products.
Both types of projects were needed to maintain a healthy business. But Engineering was caught in the middle, needing resources from both groups to complete projects. This resulted in constant project meetings to re-plan as the people doing the work were pulled back and forth, rarely accomplishing what was planned.
Together, we crafted a system that combined balanced governance with clear priorities. This eliminated most project replanning meetings—saving thousands of work hours per year that were instead redeployed to real work.
Months after rollout, the team was achieving better than 90% on-time performance, and the projects that finished late were only a few days late—not the months late that they had been experiencing before. Additionally, employee surveys showed significant improvement in adherence to priorities, workflow, and team communications—and all with a lot less time spent in stressful and frustrating meetings.
Clear, stable priorities are a powerful guide for any company, but there are a few pitfalls you’ll want to avoid.
Pitfall #1 Ignoring Priorities – Some people will continue to want to set priorities the way they always have—maybe they enjoy the power or maybe it allows them to trade favors. Or to be fair, maybe it’s pressure from somewhere else in the organization.
Whatever the reason, it’s critical to design your operational meetings and escalation processes in a way that prevents this from undermining continued progress.
Pitfall #2 Inflexible Priorities – There are cases where projects come along that are so strategically important or have such a high cost of a day’s delay (economic opportunity cost or perhaps even liquidated damages) that you need to act differently.
It’s important that your approach is flexible enough to handle these exceptional cases without people beginning to doubt the system and feel like it can be ignored anytime a big wheel or squeaky wheel wants.
Visualize Flow for Early Warning — While You Can Still Recover
This article summarized the elements of prioritization necessary to establish crystal clear workflow. In the next installment, I’ll explain how to visualize flow so that you get an early warning before projects begin to go off track.
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