Throughput Planning – Why Project Managers Should Like Lean and Agile

Project managers in IT have a tough job. I’ve been there myself, and I have also coached a large number of project managers (PM) throughout my travels consulting for a number of organizations around the world. One of the biggest challenges a PM faces is managing the iron triangle of time, cost and scope while wrestling with never ending waves of change and uncertainty as they sheppard the team and project to completion.

The typical tool most PMs have been trained on is the work break down structure (WBS) and being schooled by institutions such as PMI, that the best way to manage change and gain predictability is to track at the task and resource level. Unfortunately this approach tends to fail as project complexity increases and most experienced PMs that have the battle scars of large complex projects learn quickly that detailed planning and tracking doesn’t help manage change or gain predictability. Trying to keep up with a large rapidly changing project is like playing Tetris on level 20, good luck.

At this stage of their career, the tendency is to move from detailed task and resource tracking to focus on milestones and deliverables tracking to reduce the detailed planning that doesn’t justify the cost vs value of keeping it up to date. While this lighter weight approach is better as it frees up the PMs time from updating project plans and chasing people for status and allows them to spend more time on managing the client, leading the team and resolving issues, it has also has flaws. At some point in the large hairy project, the client or someone else will launch a large number of changes at the project.

Change is inevitable in projects for knowledge work. During this time, the PM is struggling to answer the questions of ‘what is the impact of these changes?’, ‘will we be on time?’, and ‘what can we do to get on track again?’. Tracking milestones and deliverables fails miserably at answering those questions. The PM desperate for answers and in need to ‘show progress’ tends to fall back to detailed plan in an attempt to resume control forgetting why they avoided doing this in the first place. It’s a vicious cycle and leaves the project at risk.

Lean and Agile to the Rescue

Lean and agile methods provide an incredibly easy to use technique that provides the visibility into progress without the overhead of managing the details. It’s called ‘Throughput Planning’ or ‘Velocity Planning’ depending on what agile circle your part of (Kanban or Scrum). In Throughput Planning, all the PM has to do is make sure that the project is decomposed into a set of business valued increments (features, user stories, agile use cases, etc.) that can be worked on fairly independently of each other, are similar in size and provide business or end user functionality. To simplify this example, I’ll call them features. Once the PM has the features, the last piece of information they need is the expected average monthly throughput the team can commit to. Once you have those two pieces of information, number of features and expected throughput you can then forecast the end date with some simple math. 20 features, 5 features / month means you will be done in approximately 4 months.

Benefits of Throughput Planning

With this tracking system, you have an accurate measure progress that doesn’t lie easily. 5 features done in this scenario represents ~25% completion rate for the project and is a much more accurate measure of progress than tracking at the task level. It also provides an easy way to assess impact of changes to the timeline. If we add 10 new features we know this pushes the timeline back 2 months. If we want to bring the timeline back on track, the question is now what can we do to increase throughput over 4 months by 10 features (~2.5 features/month)? If we want to know if we are falling behind simply look at how many features have been completed. The final benefit of this approach is it also forces the team to deliver completed work often to prove progress, every month the team should deliver 5 features. Want to de-risk your project? Nothing reduces risk like seeing incremental returns rather than waiting for the big bang return at the end.

If your a project manager that is struggling to manage the chaos and complexity in your projects, I encourage you to take a look at Throughput Planning and look at how to make your project more lean and agile. It reduces your workload in tracking, simplifies impact assessments, and reduces risk

Reference: Throughput Planning – Why Project Managers Should Like Lean and Agile from our JCG partner Alexis Hui at the Improving Software Delivery and IT Organizational Maturity blog.

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