Why Do Our Projects Take So Long? Because We Don’t Care Enough

Why Do Our Projects Take So Long? Because We Don’t Care Enough

Picture this. There is a small / medium-sized high tech project running in your organization. Let’s say it’s an average of ten people for six months. In other words it’s five person-years. While costs vary considerably, the typical cost of such a project in Western Europe or the U.S. might be in the range $ 12,000 – $ 15,000 per day.

I think you’ll agree that such projects fail all the time. And bigger ones and smaller ones. And, if not fail, then run late or over budget (sometimes dramatically so.)

Now imagine that, instead of the project costing say, $ 12,000 per day it was costing ten times that. Or twenty times. Or fifty times. Would you behave any differently than you do?

Well, why don’t we look at an industry where projects do cost ten or twenty of fifty times that per day and see what we can learn?

The movie industry is one where very expensive projects are planned and executed. While there have been famous examples of movies that have gone spectacularly over-budget (Cleopatra, Ryan’s Daughter, Heaven’s Gate, Waterworld) these days, movies get shot with a precision that would keep any CPA happy.

A couple of years ago, I heard an interview with Phyllida Lloyd, the woman who directed the movie, Mama Mia. In the course of the interview she happened to say, ‘It was a seventy nine day shoot’. Now, when’s the last time you heard one of your project managers say, ‘It was a seventy nine day project’? The language used is interesting because you get the impression that if you asked the makers of Mama Mia what they did on day forty two, for example, they could tell you. And they could tell you. Because long before they began shooting the movie, somebody figured it out. Contrast that with our kinds of projects where we’re often slapping our forehead and saying, ‘How could it be Friday already and where did the week go?’

Filmmakers are completely focused on (a) spending each day wisely and (b) keeping the number of days as short as possible. There’s a very simple reason for this. It’s because shooting movies is so expensive. Filmmakers care because of the huge expense that any little delay or wasted time can involve.

So they spend their days wisely. The most obvious way we can see this is when we look at the way filmmakers plan their projects. Filmmakers build what is known as a shooting schedule. You can think of a shooting schedule as being like a giant spreadsheet. In the rows of the spreadsheet are the days of the shoot. The first series of columns contain a column for every member of the cast from the major stars down to the smallest bit part actor. Essentially, an ‘x’ in a cell means that we need that particular actor on that particular day.

After the cast, there are another series of columns for all the other things that might be needed – props, special effects, animals, vehicles and so on. Then each cell contains exactly what we need on that day under that heading.

In essence – they plan at the day level of detail. They view each day as being precious and irreplaceable. Once gone, that day will never come round again. Contrast that with our kinds of projects. We build a not particularly well-estimated Gantt Chart using something like Microsoft Project and then hurry on to start doing the fun stuff – the real work. Often, the best that can be said about such plans is that they are optimistic hopes for the future. We look at them wistfully and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if it turned out like that?’

Filmmakers care about their days. We don’t care enough.

So if you work in an industry where time means money, where every day the project runs early is money in the bank, then plan it at the day level of detail. Care about what happens to your days. Spend them wisely. They are irreplaceable.


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