When Means Become Ends

In a corresponding blog (How We Confuse Ourselvesat the “Thinking Outside the Box”  blog site), I wrote about how, in today’s CPM schedules, the date called an “Earliest Start” does not always represents the very earliest date by which an activity can possibly start.  The blog article traces how the use of a Contiguous Duration software setting has effectively violated the literal meaning of “earliest.”

It is a great example of how means have become ends in their own right, the theme of this blog article. I happen to like the expression: ‘keep your eye on the doughnut, and not on the hole.” Another expression, prominent in the world of marketing, highlights the same message: to not lose sight of what really matters. In their world, the expression is: “sell the sizzle, not the steak.”

We Humans Are Easily Distracted

We humans are easily distracted, especially by things that glitter and look/act cool.  So it is no surprise that we are fascinating by statistics. Just walk into any sports bar and listen to the statistics flying around the smoke-filled tavern. And what is even more amazing is that many of the folks spouting the statistics are only high-school graduates, are not especially computer literate, and have a few pints in their bellies!  Still, they argue performance stats extended three points beyond the decimal.  Go figure!

We humans like our statistics. Our foods have labels filled with grams and daily allowances and percentages.  Our weather reports speak in terms of probabilities and barometric pressure readings. Our nightly news almost always has a few political or demographics polls. And US Today loves to show us colorful pie charts and graphs.

So it comes as no surprise that Schedulers found a willing and insatiable audience for its volumes of statistics when it came up with Total Float, Free Float, Critical Paths, Earliest and Latest Dates, and such.  And on top of that they serenade us with Earned Value statistics, Critical Chain buffers, Monte Carlo outputs, cluttered PERT diagrams, fancy looking bar charts, and endless tabular reports. We schedules love our statistics!

For Whom the Schedule is Written

The problem with all of this, however, is that we schedulers have forgotten that the Schedule was intended to help the Project Team build the project. Instead, we see the Schedule (and its maintenance) as an end in its own right.  My gosh, when the PMBOK Guide went from Version 3 to Version 4 it adopted a Verb-Noun format that only served to further the loss of focus on why we have schedules in the first place.

Prior to Version 4, the culmination of Schedule Development was something called Schedule Control.  And while those two words could have mean “the control of the schedule,” one understood that it really meant “control of the project through use of the schedule.”  But in Version 4, the title became Control Schedule.

And, to make matters worse, the one-sentence explanation of the meaning of this new term, Control Schedule, essentially limited the focus to what was required to maintain the schedule … and nothing more.

The one-sentence explanation read: “Control Schedule is the process of monitoring the status of the project to update project progress and manage changes to the schedule baseline. [italics added]. It then goes on to list four bulleted items that explain what Schedule Control “is concerned with:”

  • Determining the current status of the project schedule,
  • Influencing the factors that create schedule changes,
  • Determining that the project schedule has changed, and
  • Managing the actual changes as they occur

Where, in any of this, is anything about helping the Project Team run the project, by using the Schedule to control project performance?  It seems to me that, more than just Schedulers themselves, the entire Project Management world has lost sight of the doughnut.  They are captivated by the sizzle of their processes and outputs, and forgetting the stake (“steak”) they once had in project performance.

Start Seeing the Schedule as a Means to an End; Not an End in Itself

If I had one piece of advice for the current breed of Schedulers it would be to start seeing Scheduling as a means to an end, rather than as an end unto itself. They must see a schedule as a young boy would see his bicycle laying on the ground at a ball field. Today’s schedulers see the Schedule as a bicycle with so many parts, and Scheduling as so many discrete processes. Everything is technical. There is no feeling!  They have lost the human connection in all of this.

Sure, one could describe a bicycle by its parts, and the description would be accurate. A bicycle is a transportation vehicle comprised of wheels, a frame, handle bars, pedals, chain, brakes, and seat. And each of these could be further described in greater detail. A wheel is comprised of a rim and hub, concentrically aligned by a radial set of evenly-spaced spokes. The rim is wrapped by an inflatable rubber tube which is encased in a molded rubber tire.

But if you ask that boy to describe his bicycle, he will tell you about the feeling of wind on his face, or the sound it makes thanks to a playing card and a clothes pin. To that young boy, a bicycle means a paper route. It means getting to school on time even after waking up late. It means giving his kid sister a ride on the handle bars. It means racing down an alley with a buddy.

And riding a bike isn’t thought of in technical terms either. It is not simply pedaling or balancing or looking both ways at intersections. Sure, all of those things are necessary for successful rides … But they fail to describe WHY we ride.  We ride for speed. We ride for conveyance. We ride for convenience. We ride for fun. We ride for transportation.

Scheduling and schedules are means to ends, and not ends in themselves.  I wish I could get that point across to my anal-retentive colleagues. Recently, one such colleague responded to the announcement of the PTM TALKS series by doubting the positive value of what he called “more talk.” Instead, he went on to complain that I (and other Thought Leaders he knew personally) had not yet joined his campaign to change the location where Early and Late Dates are written around an Activity Box in a logic diagram. For five decades Earliest Dates have been written on the top of the Activity Box, and Latest Dates on the bottom.

[My good friend, a globally-renowned trainer in Project Management topics, argues that the two sets should be reversed.  Why? Because Total Float is derived by subtracting Latest Dates from Earliest Dates.  And in basic arithmetic, the subtrahend is one the bottom and the minuend is on the top.]

When I responded that I was far more concerned that only 25% of those who create Construction Project Schedules (whether they be Project Managers or “professional” Schedulers) have had any formal training beyond a few days in a scheduling seminar), he responded that if we can’t get agreement on a simple matter (like the placement of dates on a page) how can we hope to affect larger issues.

I responded by noting that we need to focus on what is important to our customers, rather than on what may be intriguing to a handful of technocrats. But he held steadfast, again asking me to join “the Cause.” I told him that I had neither time nor political capital to expend on fixing what isn’t broken.

Scheduling is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end. And because the Project Schedule is so darned versatile and robust, and because it comes in so many different forms and serves so many different purposes, there is no single End to which all schedules are pointed. Every project (by definition) is unique. Every Project Team is equally unique. Every Project Execution Strategy is therefore unique, as well. And since the point of a Project Schedule is to model Project Execution Strategy, it follows that every Schedule is unique, and every Scheduling effort is just as unique.

With all of this uniqueness floating around, the ONLY way to appreciate or even understand a Scheduling effort (or the Schedule at the center) is to recognize and value the reasons for creating and maintaining both. We must always keep our eye on the destination, if we seriously hope to arrive there. Every boy on a bike knows that!

Project Time Management reminds us that the underlying reason for Schedules and Scheduling is to help the Project Team make their very best use of Time during the execution of the Project. THAT … is the prize at the finish line, the pot of gold at the base of the rainbow.  And everything we do or say or think … should be in the context of this single objective … to help Management make the best use of time during the execution of the Project.

The point for this blog article is that all members of the Project Team share a common objective: to better the project.

  • Recruiter: When a recruiter looks for someone to fill a key position on the Project Team, a critical part of the vetting process should be to ascertain whether the candidate truly understands the factors that coalesce to create Project Momentum. Projects are streams of coordinated action. They are not discrete, detached parts. A Newtonian view will miss the point, time and again. By contrast, holism teaches that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
  • PMs and Superintendents: The most decorated Project Managers and Superintendents, like their Conductor counterparts on the orchestral stage, intuitively understand this point — for it has been reaffirmed through a lifetime of experiences. It is all in the flow! Projects are streams of coordinated action, and when that action flows undisrupted it creates a palpable momentum that is rich with cadence and energy.
  • Hiring Manager: The HR Manager who understands this then examines resumes for evidence of this perceptive. And it won’t be found in a string of initials after one’s name. All that those abbreviations confirm is that the holder studied books, memorized facts, and passed a test! Nor will it won’t be found in keywords sprinkler across the resume. Rather, it is to be found in candidate’s eyes … as he or she  describes the ordeals they survived and HOW they met adversity. These are the details that matter. And as the candidate describes what they did, and the reasoning behind their actions and decisions, the astute Hiring Manager watches for the connection back to Project Momentum, to that invisible flow of coordinated action.
  • Attorneys and Consultants: The lawyer or consultant who struggles to make sense of a project gone awry, to understand what went so terribly wrong, must too look at the collective story, and not get distracted or misled by the details. There is always the Big Story. One can never understand a book by only reading one page. And one should never dare to create each page separately.
  • Owners and the Agents: Owners, above all others, should pursue and cherish the Big Picture. And yet it is Owners (and their agents) who, more than any other Interest Group, wallow in minutiae. They drive the discussion into fractious and meaningless details. They have Managers squirming in the Hot Seat to explain the most minute shifts in Total Float or a projected completion date two years away. They are the force behind the demand for Earned Value. They are the authority behind  countless contract clauses that seek to micromanage the Schedule and the Scheduling processes.

And the overall tone of the Scheduling Specs is unmistakable: the Schedule is an End in its own right. Because it is to be used to validate progress payments, or justify time extensions, it must be kept current. It cannot be changed without Owner permission. But what about the Schedule’s use to actually guide the work in the field? Does the Contractor have the right to change the Schedule as performance conditions change … without first getting Owner permission?

Much of the struggle between Contractor and Owner (and their respective agents) can be traced back to this blurring of the line between Means and End.  Maybe this blog article will spawn some discussion. What do you think?

4 Responses to When Means Become Ends

  1. Zach Reed says:

    I find it intriguing how the tool (the schedule) can become the final goal as opposed to the project itself. It is sometimes hard to maintain the big picture when working with such minute details. Building a schedule requires fine attention to detail and thought on every single activity—and no two ways are the same between schedulers. With all of the differing opinions between project members, it would be easy to lose the forest for the trees.

  2. Sue Backiel says:

    To often a schedules’ purpose is to show where we have been, not where we are going and if we are going to get there on time. Many Project Managers focus on the details, some of which are years out.

    Scheduling is a means to an end. As pointed out, the schedule is the tool that will make the best use of time during the execution of the project.

  3. Connie Bremer says:

    I found this blog informative and interesting. You mention in the article that only 25% of schedulers have had formal training. Do you think this low percentage instigates the perceived necessity and reasoning behind owners micromanaging the schedule? I agree that the PM should have greater control over the schedule, especially considering it is their rear end on the line in meeting the deliverable date. It is their tool to manage/coordinate the work. I also agree with your view that a schedule is a means to an end.

    It’s maybe a little like a AAA TripTik, a routed map to a final goal. Along the way, there may be detours, traffic congestion, inclement weather, etc., but all in all, a reasonable estimation of how long it will take to complete the trip. Ok, maybe not a great comparison, anyway, this tool is a graphical, user input means to an end. A schedule kind of serves as the routed map to aid in the completion of the project.

  4. Michael Neal says:

    [C] A baseline schedule delivered to the owner may fulfill the role for payments and progress in the management portion of the project. This same schedule may not be of any benefit to the field side due to its activities. To build a project, from the field perspective, a greater breakdown of activities may be and usually is more beneficial. Each schedule has its purpose and both need to be in line as far as updates. Lets use an example. The contract schedule which can not be altered has an activity for pouring a sidewalk in the natural area between two buildings. Since the two buildings are not scheduled to finish at the same time the sidewalk can not be poured in its entirety. The Superintendents schedule will have the schedule broken into different sections to show the field when to pour and finish surrounding work in that area. The owners schedule will show a 50% completion respectively while the field schedule will show a 100% completion. In an overview, a schedule for the owner may or may not work for those in the field, more than likely not. This is based on years of experience in the field and project management.

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