How to implement critical chain project management across the enterprise

I have frequently been asked – how would you actually implement Critical Chain project management? But before I get to that, why would you want to implement critical chain? If you work in an organization that follows traditional project management practices, it is likely that critical chain project management may appeal to your PMO. You can most likely follow the your existing BDUF (Big Design Up Front) process and still implement Critical Chain. The biggest benefit of critical chain is that it will enable you to finish your project sooner. And that’s why you would consider implementing Critical Chain while retaining your traditional approach. A word of caution though: Critical Chain implementation does involve a paradigm shift. To reap the full benefits of Critical Chain, your process will need to change. (see the pdf document by Realization that outlines how projects benefited using critical chain)

So with that in mind, the following outlines how to make the shift to critical chain organization wide. For the purposes of this post, I am assuming that the management is already sold on the concept of critical chain. If you are unsure of what critical chain can do for you, read how it can speed up project delivery. The second most important benefit for me was to predict project failure long before the project got off the rails. Fever charts that track buffer consumption to project duration is an excellent way to figure out when to act when estimates are way off or you are starting to fall behind.

So, assuming you have management buy-in, here’s how I would recommend the roll-out of the methodology across the organization.

  1. First and foremost, make sure you have a person to champion this change. I cannot stress the importance of this step enough. Don’t start this initiative without someone who understands this concept and has the tenacity to tower over the naysayers. This individual should preferably be within your organization. This individual would also train the other project managers on the concepts of Critical Chain and address their concerns.
  2. You can now either pilot it or make the change en masse. Either way, make sure the project managers understand the Theory of Constraints concepts. The project managers are your first line of defense who will help spread the benefits of Critical Chain. They will also be practicing it within their projects. Get copies of The Goal and Critical Chain and distribute it to the project manager/s who will be introducing Critical Chain.

    I’ll now assume you have a project manager who is willing to take this on. The following outlines the steps a project manager needs to undertake to successfully implement critical chain.

  3. Probability Distribution of a Task Estimate with MedianThe project manager needs to, first and foremost, talk to the project team. Explain to them how human nature can cause issues with estimates. Explain how estimates can then extend project duration unnecessarily & sometimes to the point of failure. Estimates are guesses and one cannot apply math to them. Explain to them how variation screws up the best laid plans. More importantly explain to them detailed plans are just provide an illusion of control. Use the estimation probability graph to make your point.

    If you have done the explanation right, you will see the team nodding in agreement. I have made this presentation numerous times and never once had anyone refute it – it just is common sense.
  4. The next step is to tell them, going forward they will not receive a schedule. They will only receive a sequence. This is a paradigm shift – for you as a project manager and for the team. You will not reap the benefits of critical chain, if you schedule; i.e. each task has a start date and finish date. You need to benefit from early task finishes and this is not possible when you schedule. However, you and your team needs to understand the sequence in which tasks need to be completed. The team needs to complete the task like a relay race – run as fast as you can and pass the baton to the next person or process.

    Typically, by this time, your team is on-board. Oh, there will be skeptics and lots of questions. The important thing is to convey that this is a big change and the team will resolve issues as they arise. As a side note, the biggest issues you’ll find are not technology or process issues. The biggest ones and the most difficult to resolve are typically company policy issues.

  5. Once your team is on board, then go talk to the customer & sponsor. Repeat steps 3 and 4 with the customer. Depending on how traditional the customer is, the project manager may have work cut out for themselves. Some customers get it immediately while others still want a Gantt a.k.a. a schedule. (I have evolved my project process using the Kanban that I no longer need the Gantt on my projects. Incidentally, if you use a Kanban, you do not need Critical Chain.) You will find, customers have to be constantly reminded about the benefits of this approach of not having project deadlines and milestones. The critical path method is so ingrained in our system that we revert back to it at every opportunity. This is why you need a champion to help the project manager tide over these situations with the customer.
  6. IF and ONLY IF you have your project team’s AND your sponsor’s buy-in, manage the project using Critical Chain. If any of your important stakeholders are not aligned, your attempt will fail. Don’t even try it. When you do implement critical chain, do:
    1. Build trust with your team members. It takes a lot of trust to let go of the perceived safety of task start and finish dates.
    2. Track your progress using fever charts. Make that your only progress report. Get rid of earned value. It’s useless. Any spike into the Yellow or the Red Zone warrants a chat with the team and the sponsor to understand the root causes.
    3. Work hard to prevent task-switching (or multitasking). If you work in matrix organizations, you’ll find this very hard to achieve. You will probably find your project remaining consistently in the Yellow-Red zone. The good thing is now you’ll know the reasons. You can immediately see the effects on multitasking on your project. You’ll have data to talk to the sponsors and functional managers.

      As a side note, I implemented a Kanban to prevent multitasking. However, over time I found out that the Kanban allowed me to not only reduce multitasking, but also improve the speed of delivery. This enabled me to get rid of the Gantt on my projects. If I am delivering features fast, then why would customers want to spend the money to prepare a detailed plan? I can spend that time delivering.
    4. Implement a 15 minute team meeting everyday. This is one of the most important communication tools you can have. Have the customer and the team on the call. Extended conversations and decisions can be made outside of this 15 minute meeting. But this will keep everyone focused.
  7. If you have done the above right, you’ll find your team becoming more motivated. They start taking ownership. I have seen people go from, “Oh, that is not my job”, to “How can I help move things along faster” within two months of using critical chain with one team.
  8. Communicate, communicate, communicate. I cannot stress this enough. When starting out, there are times when customers and other important stakeholders will want to revert back to the critical path method. If you find this happening, see what you are doing wrong. The concept is common sense. If people want to revert back to the critical path method (signs are talking about schedule, and task start & finish dates), then it just means they are not comfortable letting go of their task safety. This needs a bit of hand holding initially to help people let go of their precious task safety. It takes a while for people to get the critical path method outside their systems. So it helps to communicate. Remember – there is no such thing as over-communicate

Once you see one or two projects fly through this process, you and your team will not revert back to the old way of doing things. Critical chain is a commonsense approach to managing projects.

If you use Critical Chain, I would love to hear your experiences. What hurdles have you overcome? What worked? What didn’t?

8 thoughts on “How to implement critical chain project management across the enterprise

  1. Hi, thanks for this very interesting article. I’m very pleased to see my way of Project leading becomes an official touch 😉 Since 2000 i lead my Projects with nothing than an delivery date and a list of Jobs to do. Everyday a short 10 to 20 min meeting shows the status of each package and the availability of team members ready for a new challenge. Now this technique has a Name: “critical chain ” nice to know 🙂

  2. Hi Shashidhar – The most important change is to help the team identify the buffers within each task and move it to the end of the project. Once you’ve done that, make sure you’ve added in resources and effort as “work” not “duration” before creating the schedule in whatever scheduling tool you use. I have used MS Project and Open Workbench. There are plug-ins available to use with MS project. The important thing is to track your buffer penetration at least weekly using the fever charts.

    There are a few companies who have built tools (For example Realization, but I’ve never used them.

  3. Sir , I would like to know if there are any specific templates used for Critical Chain Project management. What kind of changes should be made for the existing templates and documents used in Critical Path method.Is there any software which can help me schedule a project as per Critical Chain Method.I would really appreciate your help.Thanks very much.

  4. hi,

    im looking to help my organization get into CCPM. i love the article and pointers.
    one question: in step 3, you mention to engage the project teams to get them up to speed with the concepts.
    you also mention having made this presentation many times and mostly seeing positive acceptance.
    do you have a ‘presentation’ that would help build the understanding of each concept?

    let me know

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