>Systems: Managing a Project

Posted: February 2, 2011 in Uncategorized



Management has been defined as the “skillful employment of means,” which basically means doing the best with what is available. You may know people who are very organized and seem to be prepared for everything. You will also know people who are not.

“I’m late! I’m late!

There are often many factors that can affect a project and they need to be organized so that the project is finished on time and completed.

You may notice signs for major construction work that read something like “XYZ Company was pleased to hand this project over six months early.” The company is advertising the fact that it has very good project management and used less time than it was given when the original contract was signed. Modern contracts for things such as public buildings or highways can provide great benefits if they are ready as soon as possible, so often there is an incentive, or financial bonus, for the company to be early. On the other hand, there will also be a penalty, or fine, for late completion, so companies working on these kinds of contract learn good management quickly.

“Curtsey while you’re thinking what to say. It saves time”

You have heard of multitasking systems, probably in connection with computing, but it is a much more common concept than many people realize. The term “multitasking” simply means doing more than one thing at once.

We are all, by nature, multitasking because we can, for example, walk, breathe, and chew gum at the same time. Breathing comes naturally—in most people it is a body reflex that needs conscious will to stop—but walking needed to be practised. Since many people learned to walk when they were very young, the memory may not be clear, so instead think about learning to ride a bicycle. At first, the process was difficult, but gradually the “journeys” grew longer until turning corners became vital. This and many other things have to be mastered before the “Tour de France” can be won.

Turn your attention to a building site. Let us assume it takes about 30 weeks to build a house from start to finish (the actual time depends on size and method of construction). A housing company knows it must dig foundations, lay main utility services, build the walls, put the roof on, put windows and doors in, and generally finish the place to make it habitable. This must be done in the correct order and not too many of the stages can overlap—certainly building the walls cannot begin before the foundations are set, for example.

Building one house would be fairly simple, but imagine building an estate containing 50 houses. The building company cannot simply multiply 30 weeks by 50 houses and say that the last one will be ready in 1,500 weeks time—that is just under 29 years! The company overlaps the work done on each house so that teams of workers move from one to another in sequence. You will find that the building site is very busy and houses are at various stages of completion, some finished and others not yet begun. Since building companies may be hiring the heavy equipment (cranes, excavators, and so on), it makes much more sense to plan the work so that the hired items are used continuously and then handed back to the hire company, rather than hiring them for odd weeks here and there.

“If everybody minded their own business.. the world would go around a deal faster than it does”

A building company uses several management techniques to make fullest use of the resources (staff and equipment) with minimal disruption. One method is to use a Gantt chart.

During World War I, Henry Laurence Gantt developed a graphical way of showing how the different stages in a project could be organized to prevent clashes and to cut down on “slack time.” Slack is the time spent doing nothing and it is costly—there is no production, but staff wages and equipment hire charges are still being paid. A Gantt diagram makes it easy to see where the slack is occurring because it shows each element with a start time and an end time that may be longer than the actual time needed to finish the task. Any gaps between tasks’ start and end times should be avoided, but this type of planning allows individual tasks to move around slightly so long as they do not go beyond their maximum end time.

Not every task can be afforded the luxury of spare time. In any project, there will be a combination of tasks that gives the shortest possible time that cannot be reduced any further without extra resources (and therefore extra cost). In this combination, tasks run end to end, and any delay in one cannot be absorbed because the minimum start and maximum end times exactly match the task length. They form what is called the “critical path,” and the process of determining this is called critical path analysis.

Often, allocating resources cannot shorten the critical path. In the house-building example, the concrete foundations are not going to set any quicker once poured, so it really will not matter if one or ten people are mixing it. For a larger building, however, this will have an effect since each person can be set to work on a particular zone.

“Why,” said the Dodo, “the best way to explain it is to do it”

Clearly, the better managers will be those who have a good idea of what is going to be involved. Training for management is important, but so is experience—this is why the best managers in business are generally not school-leavers. Careful planning must be based on a clear idea of the steps to take because if one critical-path step is omitted, the whole project could run over time, incurring whatever penalties are applicable.

Schools try to help pupils become better at managing their time, and may provide a planner or diary for them to use. This experience is normally vital as school-leaving exams approach, but should be practised at all other times. Like walking or riding a bicycle, managing a project is easier for some than for others, but everyone needs to work at it to one degree or another.

(Quotations taken from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll.)

Question & Answer

Question: What is management?

Answer: The “skillful employment of means,” or in other words, making the best of what you have.

Question: What is multitasking?

Answer: The concurrent execution of more than one task—doing more than one thing at once.

Question: What is a Gantt chart?

Answer: A graph that shows each task or element in a project as a (usually horizontal) bar. The chart shows times for each task and can be used to illustrate the critical path.

Question: What is critical path analysis?

Answer: A procedure used in the management of complex projects to minimize the amount of time taken. It shows which tasks can run in parallel with each other, and which have to be completed before other tasks can follow on.

Question: What will happen if a task on the critical path is delayed?

Answer: The project will overrun. Critical-path tasks have no spare time and run consecutively.

Question: What is slack time?

Answer: The time that a task has left over before the following one can start. It may occur in a project, but ideally not on the critical path, where it would result in a delay in the overall project time.

Question: How can the overall time for a project be minimized?

Answer: By removing all slack time on the critical path.

Working in small groups, you are going to plan the administration of the next school drama production. The work could be done hypothetically, or in conjunction with an actual event. You are going to be responsible for the front-of-house information, ticketing, and financial planning. For this exercise, you have a deadline of ten school weeks until the production opens, so plan your time carefully.

You must:

--identify the main areas of work. Refine this to create
clear outcomes
--determine the order in which the task must be done
--model your project using Gantt charts. Time management will
be critical
--plan your finances (income and expenses) to show how you can
break even
--prepare samples for the production of the tickets, posters,
and other front-of-house items. These may include
hand-drawn sketches, but should be of good quality
--organize additional elements, for example a refreshment stand,
and arrange contacts for publicity
--produce an outline management plan and make a submission to
the show's organizer. This must be done by week five at the
latest—remember time for preparing everything and expect
changes—that way you will not be surprised if they occur.

If the drama production is real, actually running the administration will take the rest of the time allowed. If the exercise is hypothetical, try a “practice run” to sort out any glitches.

Make a full submission of the results, including final copies of all material and an “actual” cost breakdown. Compare this to the outline submission and make suggestions about changes for future productions.

Who had overall control? It is always wise to sort out the group hierarchy early on in the process.

Systems: Managing a Project © Research Machines plc 2006. Helicon Publishing is a division of Research Machines. All Rights Reserved.


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