From Wikipedia.com: A saltine… is a thin, usually square cracker made from white flour, shortening, yeast, and baking soda, with most varieties lightly sprinkled with coarse salt.”
Most people would say that the “essence” of saltines can be found by simply adding an ess: saltiness.
There is no question that projects are time-sensitive. Every week, day and hour that elapses until a project reaches completion means one more week, day or hour before its product, service or result is delivered. That result is what those who provided the project’s funding and/or resources are waiting to get. The longer they have to wait, the longer before that final product starts to generate its benefits. And that time can be extremely costly.
Schedule delay generates value decay. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but it is almost always the case that there is some reduction in the value of the return on a project investment due to the need to wait until the work is finished. The solitary exception is where the project’s completion will not shorten the overall schedule because of either:
- External factors, such as needing to wait until the passing comet is within range before launching our space probe, or
- The fact that our project is part of a larger program, and not on the critical path of that program. If some other project is on the program’s critical path, then our project finishing early will only give its schedule float within that program.
On some projects, the value/cost of finishing earlier or later can be huge:
- On a nuclear plant refueling outage, every day off-line can cost more than $1 million.
- On a new pharmaceutical development project, every day of delay can be many millions of dollars, especially if it means the difference between being first and second to market.
- There may only be a small increase in revenues if we get our new hotel opened before the tourist season starts – but the losses for every night after the start could be enormous.
- A delay in deploying a new software system to support our sales teams in the field could mean a reduction of 20% in expected sales for every day.
- Taking an extra hour to send in emergency response teams after a major earthquake could result in hundreds of additional deaths of those trapped beneath the rubble.
In addition, on every project, early completion retires 99% of the risk of being late. Such risk reduction (and the accompanying savings on anti-stress medications!) can often be worth a great deal to the sponsor/customer. The fact is that although stakeholders may just say they want the product by a specific deadline for a specific budge, if told they could have it earlier they would almost always be delighted and willing to negotiate an incentive bonus for such performance. They would be more likely to give the project/contract to a team that offers to beat the targets.
Project time is managed through the schedule –specifically, the critical path which, being the longest path through the project, determines its completion date. (If the project is delayed by a different path, that only means that we hadn’t correctly figured out the actual longest path!) And what does the critical path schedule give to our projects? It gives the timelines along which the work is scheduled, so that we can see that we need to finish laying the foundation by the end of May if we want our hotel to open at the start of the tourist season. And what is the essence of such detailed timelines on our projects? Timeliness, of course – as with saltines, just add an ess!
Unfortunately, awareness of the value of being early on projects has become almost nonexistent. Instead of planning and working to be early, project teams today often simply go on the defensive – they work to not be late – to deliver just in time! And often, they fail to do even that.
During the US Civil War, prisoners of war were kept in camps like Andersonville, where a line would be drawn in the dirt some twenty feet inside the outer perimeter. That was the deadline – if you stepped beyond it, the guards would shoot you. And around the 1920s, the term became a dead metaphor with the meaning adapted as referring to a time limit. The diagram below shows the Google Ngram Viewer graph of growth in usage of the term in five million digitized books over the course of the 20th century.
Figure 1. Google NGram Viewer picture of the usage of “deadline” in books
But with the original meaning of deadline, if you go beyond it, you’re dead! And that is very different from the way the term is flung around today. Are there cases where being one day late makes a project worthless? Sure, and there the term may be appropriate for use. But in the vast majority of cases, deadline simply signals a drop-off in value. And often not even that! It is often just an arbitrary date pulled from the nether regions of the sponsor’s anatomy.
The first two things that every project team should ask upon being given a deadline are:
- If we can schedule the project to finish earlier, what value would each day/week have for you?
- If for some unknown reason we finish late, what impact would that have on the value of the project for each day/week?
And ask the two questions in that order. The goals of the team should be to:
- Change the concept from deadline to target date.
- Establish as part of the project’s business proposition what the value of time is to the customer.
With that information, we not only can seek opportunities to increase the project’s business value through schedule compression using techniques such as critical path drag and drag cost, but also potentially negotiate both a larger budget and early delivery incentives.
But that is not being done. Instead, teams are being presented with arbitrary deadlines, and then they work to try to achieve them just-in-time. And then something unplanned happens and they delivery somewhat-beyond-time instead. And although the deadline may have been arbitrary, there is nevertheless almost certainly a decline, perhaps a precipitous one, in the project’s expected value.
Add an ess to deadlines and you get… deadliness!