“Plans are nothing, Planning is everything” is one of my favourite project-related quotes (from Dwight D Eisenhower) because it clearly spells out why a budget, resource plan, schedule or Gantt chart are potentially useless! It is the thought process that goes into preparing plans that is important, not the document that is produced.
I’ve been using the following slide in my recent project skills workshops because it helps people identify the different “levels” of thinking that are required when planning projects. Interestingly, it seems to result in lots of “lightbulb” moments as people realise project planning isn’t just about producing Gantt Charts. It opens up conversations about the different tools and techniques needed for each “level” of planning.
The Master Plan is the high-level view of what is expected to happen over the full life of the project. It will identify the main phases of the project and the key milestones associated with major deliverables and/or approval points. It gives the overall shape of the project. However, as Glenn Ballard (Lean in Construction guru) said, the only thing you can be certain about your initial plan is that it will be wrong! In reality, the Master Plan is probably more about communicating the “shape” of the project than it is about planning it.
The length of look-ahead in the Look-ahead Plan often depends on the lead-times for project activities. If availability of key resources are dependent on long lead-times, the look-ahead window will need to reflect that, otherwise activities won’t be initiated early enough. The Look-ahead Plan will almost certainly require a Gantt Chart, but this needs to be developed collaboratively by the project team, with appropriate stakeholders (such as customers, suppliers and partners).
Weekly planning is where the Gantt Chart needs to “come off the wall” and get translated into the specific work activities that need to be (a) started and (b) completed in the next week. There’s almost an implicit assumption in this that the activities on the Gantt Chart can be broken into 5 (or 7) day chunks, otherwise it will be hard to tell what needs to start and finish in a given week. For some projects it may be more realistic to adopt a 2 week plan. Whether it’s 1 or 2 weeks, this pretty much mirrors the agile approach to projects where teams run 1 or 2 week “sprints”. Agile thinking also leads us to tools such as a Scrum Board which the project team can use to identify and track the work to be done over a week (or 2). Alternatively, a simple To Do List might be perfectly adequate as long as it is agreed and shared amongst the team doing the work.
If the work can be broken down into 5 day chunks, it is then possible to measure progress weekly, using an indicator such as Percent Plan Complete (PPC). If you planned to finish 10 activities, but only finished 4, you have achieved 40% and can plot this on a weekly line graph. If you’re achieving 40% each week, you will know within a very few weeks that the project is in trouble (!) and need to initiate some corrective action. Maybe the plan was unrealistic, in which case you need to improve your estimating, or things are going wrong that need to be addressed. Weekly planning should be done with the team towards the end of each week and should include an update (one additional week) of the Look-ahead Plan.
The Daily Meeting (preferably a stand-up which should only take 10-15 minutes) is less about planning and more about tracking and corrective action. It should have three agenda items: what did we achieve yesterday, what issues from yesterday need to be sorted out, and what do we intend to do today. Any issues become actions for the day and are not debated in the meeting, otherwise the meeting risks getting bogged down and diverting people from their day’s work.
The people attending my workshops really seem to “get it” and feel much more comfortable about planning when they realise it’s best done as a collaborative effort and there are lots of useful tools other than Gantt Charts.