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Freezing tasks in a project plan? Hmm…

The project managers shouts: “I want to freeze my activities. I had confirmed resources in my plan until last week, and now…. How can I plan my project in a proper way?”. It’s a completely logical reaction, isn’t it?

“Freezing activities “ in the context of this blog is about confirming time and resources, not scope.

In our Binocs implementations this is often a hot topic but let’s have a look at this from a few different angles…

The value of the commitment

Many organizations don’t use a capacity constrained resource planning. So, project managers get commitments when they ask for it. But asking might have different meanings: shouting the loudest, being good allies with the team, enforcing it hierarchically, … And when the “new high priority project” crosses our path, things are overruled anyway. In the best case you saw it coming. Mostly you know it when it’s too late. It creates tension and frustration.

The value of the commitment was OK in normal times. It was worthless in times of high demand.

The quality of project management

Project management is like driving a car. Driving at the country side with nice scenery on a broad highway without traffic is easy. But the project management reality is often like driving cars at rush hour in high density traffic and stormy weather. No cruise control, anticipation, constantly assessing the cars around you. Evaluating alternative routes to arrive on time. It takes time to learn to thrive on such project dynamics.

The quality of delivery

Also functional teams drive bumpy roads. Function managers need to understand their delivery methods and their team’s capabilities. The throughput of their teams strongly depends on how work is standardized, to whom it is assigned and the amount of context switching between projects. They need the insights to keep efficiency high while still being agile and flexible.

Don't freeze your project plan. Bend it instead.

The new commitment is not about freezing. It’s about bending.

When you freeze something, it will break with brute force.

So the question is: “What can we put in place to bend a plan -rather than breaking it- when there are project demand and capacity dynamics?” With bending, we mean periodically recalculating the plan and still find a way to manage sudden planning changes. Here are a couple of tips to become a bending organization.

The holy demand

In most cases rush demand can be avoided. It is caused by bad communication, organizational silos and bad planning skills. Because of that it was not visible in the planning horizon. But it’s better to have a very rough plan early than no plan at all. So before all, a correct demand picture is very important. Project managers that make good plans need to be rewarded. Project managers that do not see the importance of creating a correct picture need to be trained or replaced. Many organizations face quite a job in implementing demand, project and planning management skills. Do it. It’s worth it.

Project priorities vs. operational priorities

Priority management is a very challenging process. Many companies have nothing but urgent projects of which some are more urgent and a few most urgent. Here, introducing a good project/demand portfolio management is key. But that’s not all. Functional teams that blindly sequence their work based on project priorities will mess up the overall delivery of less prioritized projects because it gets pushed forward all the time. Functional teams need specific business rules that ensure that each project gets delivered according to agreed service levels. Such business rules can be quite specific by functional team. A simple strategy is FIFO or a capacity reservation. More advanced methods play with operational tactics as an extension to strategic project priorities.

The escalation process

But even when an organization has a perfect demand picture and the most sophisticated prioritization mechanism, capacity collisions will still occur. That’s where a solid escalation process is needed that facilitates an agile and facts based decision process. Preparing for the escalation process is about building and evaluating resource planning scenarios. Not within the project or functional silo, but across the organization, end-to-end. Building end-to-end scenarios is collaborative. Even if it is the PMO that prepares the business scenarios, all stakeholders have to be involved and committed.

The functional fast lane

No organization is perfect, neither are their customers and suppliers. Imperfection in demand leads to capacity and delivery hick-ups and firefighting. At our clients, we saw functional teams that allow for a fast lane. The fast lane is a capacity reservation that processes unattended work, prioritized work and rework. It’s not a pure buffer that is intended to maintain a stable flow of work and delivery by isolating exceptions. It is a way to handle urgent work and keep up the service levels. But this one you should handle with care! Before you know, there is only the fast lane left.

Assignment strategies

Assigning team members to tasks is like chess. You need to evaluate different options and derive the consequences of each choice. But in large functional teams that deliver a broad portfolio of services, the resource assignment might be a choking factor for throughput. Therefore such working environments need smarter assignment strategies that optimize capacity utilization and planning adherence. E.g. in Binocs the planning algorithm assigns resources based on constraints such as:

  • The resource must be qualified for the assigned activity (based on a competence matrix)
  • An assignment preference: preferably we assign this resource to that type of activity, or preferably not.

Tips for becoming a bendable organization

During Binocs implementations we have seen many actions that were taken to improve the delivery performance, but the ones with the most impact are in our vision:

Action Enabler
Get a correct and complete demand picture, at all times. Automate demand capture.
Apply constraint planning and across the organization. An unconstrained view is nice but offers insufficient decision support. Use an end-to-end resource planning platform. Excel won't do it.
Evaluate end-to-end scenarios and prepare decisions before publishing a new plan. This will help moving from freezing to bending. The PMO (Project Management Office) or RMO (Resource Management Office).
Ensure execution focus on short term (operational horizon)… Team leaders and project managers empowered by senior management.
But accept flexibility on mid-long term horizon. Run scenarios on all aspects such as team member exchanging, outsourcing, fast lane tactics, etc. in order to understand how bendable your organization is and to take measures if it's not. Senior management supported by PMO/RMO.

How does Binocs support this?

In Binocs, project demand is defined by requesting an activity from a team or resource between a requested start and finish date. We ensure that the requested time slot is large enough to execute the workload and duration of that activity. The larger it is, the more flexibility to plan it. The Binocs planning algorithm will then calculate a capacity constrained plan and suggest a planned start and finish date for the activity. If the priority, available capacity and other constraints can be resolved, the planned time slot falls nicely within the requested time slot. If not, the planned finish will be later than the requested finish. Of course when project demand is changing, the planned dates can change each time a plan is recalculated. But the alarms only go off when planned dates are jumping over the requested time fence. By means of scenario evaluation, the organization reduces the number of alarms and everybody contributes:

  • Project managers maximize the time fences
  • Team leaders optimize assignments and skills
  • PMOs/RMOs look at the end-to-end picture
  • Senior management takes informed sourcing decisions (recruitment, exchange between teams, outsourcing, prioritization, …)

Suggested reading

Binocs aligns resource demand and capacity.

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