Sunday, 05 September 2010 00:00

Why We Are Always Late

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schedule with Identified Padding

Why is it that tasks always seem to be late? No matter how much time we allot, there never seems to be enough to complete a task on time. There is one overreaching reason pervasive throughout the enterprise—poor time management. To accommodate the continual barrage of supposedly urgent tasks, we heavily pad estimates. Excessive padding triggers numerous negative work patterns. The extra time and over confidence in estimates allows people to accept other unrelated tasks, introduce low priority features, and strive for perfection. It is unfair, however, to saddle the individual with the entire problem; the work-place culture reinforces and rewards the behavior.

Striving for Perfection

Many project managers have a saying that perfection is a schedule's worst enemy. Nothing is, or ever will be, perfect. Typos exist, colors can be better, finishes smoother, and no level of testing will eliminate bugs. Yet, we try. The more time we have, the harder we work to prefect the deliverable. Trying to please the customer, we add minor features or functions that are not critical to the customer. Our estimates for these little features are always over optimistic and the tasks consume far more time than expected. The time consumed is amplified, as others document, train, built, test, and learn the additional noncritical functions.

The incentive to add features and functions is high. Customers shower us with praise when they see them, not realizing that their addition has cost them time and money. Their effusive thanks drown out the complaints from bosses on how long it took to complete the task. We strive for this praise since we get so little of in our daily work.

Padding Estimates

We are all victims of procrastination. Even if we do not strive for perfection, we still have trouble getting tasks done on time. When given two weeks to do a one-week task, we rarely start it as soon as we can as to complete in the first week. We start well into the two-week allotment, often leaving less than the week we know it will take.

Knowing there is more time than needed we accept other unrelated tasks. This has its own built-in reward system since agreeing to do the work avoids confrontation.

This behavior ignores the benefits of completing the task early—pulling in the project's completion date—and is a result of erroneously thinking that task completion dates are quotes. It is wrong to believe that completing tasks by the scheduled date proves proper time management.

Pressure Is Good

People like pressure. Most of us work much more efficiently if there is pressure on us to complete our work. We focus better, do only what is required, reduce the frills, and do not add non-critical features. Lack of pressure creates the lackadaisical condition that Eliyahu Goldratt calls the Student Syndrome. The name is best understood when thinking about students who are given an entire school term to write a final paper, yet they start it a few days before the paper is due.

Improper Incentives

The problem is rooted in corporate culture. Everyone praises the super star—the person that pulls off the nearly impossible task is the hero. People completing their work quietly or ahead of schedule with no fanfare go unrecognized for their proper planning. Managers fail to reward the calm methodical approach or early completion. Adding bell and whistles, working all night to meet the due date, or multitasking on five tasks at once, gets the recognition and praise.

This is apparent in the most subtle of daily activity. Our days are needlessly interrupt-driven. Senior managers make requests expecting middle management to prioritize the task with current work-in-progress. Unfortunately, middle managers fail to validate priorities and interrupt higher priority work to complete the task. To compensate for the anticipated requests, individual contributors significantly pad estimates. Having the extra time means that they do not need to question priorities and they can simply complete the senior manager's request, and receive the recognition for solving the problem. Our lives are hero driven. The consequences are that projects have significant padding, making them more costly and are often late since the interrupts chew up more than the scheduled pad.

The Solution

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The solution is to change the corporate culture. A task only for the strong willed. People should be rewarded for completing tasks early, deferring new assignments until the current task is complete, and ensuring that deliverables are devoid of even the smallest of additional features. The resistance to this model is huge. Meddling managers are incapacitated, kudos-driven employees must get their rewards by staying on task, and confidence challenged staff must learn to question and be questioned.

The key is to question. Progressive organizations are willing to listen to their employees and challenge the status quo. They must reward for staying on task, completing tasks early, the ability to say "no," and providing estimates that are aggressive but achievable. Without this, the cycle will continue and projects will not improve.

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