A few years ago, I was working for a large company and we were in a very competitive tender situation. Despite having a great product there were some key modifications that we had promised to demonstrate to our prospective customer in early January and our plans showed that we'd finish in late December. Plenty of time, we thought. The reality of the situation was that it was going to be incredibly tight to get things done in time.
In fact, as the deadline approached, it became clearer that things were actually a lot worse than we thought. Everyone on the team had been working really hard on the project for many months and team members had been putting off taking their leave - so as the project was progressing at this intense level there was a build up of people expecting to take time off over and around Christmas.
There were various crisis meetings and heated planning sessions. One unfortunate project manager was even the target of a frustrated senior-level accusation of "Didn't you see Christmas coming?"
“Didn't you see Christmas coming?”
Fast forward a little, and you'll be pleased to know that the team successfully performed the demonstration, and eventually won the contract! However, it came at a cost.
Although managers didn't actually use the words "Christmas is cancelled" that was the effect. Leave was cancelled, people were requested and expected to come in every day they could. In return we were paid double-time, so there was an immediate direct financial cost to the slip. But there were other significant costs in terms of impact on families, team relationships and frazzled employees leaving the company. The backlog of untaken leave also carried forward into the next year - further impacting other projects.
Plan for vacation / holidays
While incidents like this are hopefully few and far between, every company I have worked at has at one time or another planned a project to finish just before a company holiday. It's not just Christmas that is tricky. There are other times such as Easter, school breaks, and summer holidays where people naturally want or need to take their vacation or holidays. But this can wreak havoc with plans.
Project managers account for company holidays and employee time off in a number of different ways. Some project planning tools incorporate a resource planning feature, which lets a project manager block out a chunk of time to represent the company holiday and team members time off. This works well, except that gathering the time off information from each team member is cumbersome, subject to inaccuracies, omissions and last minute changes and presents an extra burden on the project manager.
Another way to incorporate time off into plans is for the project manager to create “fake tasks”, which turns the problem on its head, effectively adding more work to the project in place of reducing the available resource. This has the same disadvantages as the previous solution and also distorts the perceived project costs and the effective team velocity, making it more difficult to predict future team performance.
Better planning tools
Using advanced planning tools that are designed to incorporate company holidays and employee time off into the resource planning comes with a significant burden and updating complex plans can be a full time job. Really, a simpler solution is needed.
We think Workteam Planner has a great blend of features, simplicity and ease of maintenance. It takes a lightweight agile approach, so while it is not the tool of choice for planning a Nasa mission, it is a very good fit for most business planning tasks.
Workteam Planner uses a 'progress chart' to illustrate progress and forecast completion dates. Technically, the progress chart is a variant of a 'burn-up chart' called a 'cumulative flow diagram'. Whilst it provides lots of useful information, the key features are that it clearly shows the rate of incoming work, the rate of work completion, and how much of each has accumulated.
Our progress chart automatically forecasts the rate of incoming work and completed work going forward and if those two lines cross the predicted completion date is shown. The progress chart takes into account any effort estimates you have provided. If you don't specify effort estimates the system assumes all tasks are of a similar size - which works well for many projects.
Progress charts are easy to understand, giving a fairly natural overview of what is happening. Crucially, they give an early indication of whether the plan is on track, and therefore allow early course corrections. For example, the progress chart clearly shows if new work is constantly being added to the project, it also quickly highlights if there are bottlenecks where work is getting stuck in one state and not moving to completion, or if there’s a build up of overdue items.
Course corrections can take various forms, such as extending deadlines, reducing the scope of the project, juggling resources or assignments within the team - but without a doubt, these adjustments are almost always easier and have more impact when done early.
Where Workteam Planner really excels is that that the forecasting algorithm takes into account the work rates of each member of the team and crucially when their working days are, accounting for company holidays, working days of the week, and booked time off.
As you can see in the example above, completion of work stops for the period over the 4 day Easter weekend as the whole team are out of the office, and there's another smaller for the following weekend. You would also see the completion rate be lower than normal if one of the team has taken time off .
Hopefully, you can see that the integration of time off information into Workteam Planner's progress chart helps you produce more accurate completion estimates for projects you're working on.
We'd love to hear how your organisation accounts for company holidays and employee time off when striving to keep projects on track. Drop us a comment below.
Stephen Darnell is a co-founder of Workteam, an HR Management System for businesses of all sizes with a focus on growing employee engagement. Visit http://workte.am to find out how it can benefit your organisation.