Critical Action Planning – The Select-Perform-Assess Cycle and The Living Plan

Capacity is king. You can’t do more than one week’s worth of work this week. Sounds obvious, right?

Most of the time, though, we take on too much, and end the week in frustration with lots of work still in process. When project teams take on too many tasks at the same time, everyone struggles with the ambiguity and morale is endangered.

Critical Action Planning uses the kanban technique of limiting work-in-process (WIP) to get things done.

How does the Select-Perform-Assess Cycle work in practice?

At the beginning of the project, and weekly thereafter, the team meets to select the week’s worth of tasks to work. Tasks are selected from the backlog (the list of Project Tasks still to be started) based on Project Task priority. I’ll talk more about prioritization in another post. The team assigns the highest priority project tasks to appropriate individual team members, and no one is allowed to take on more work-units of tasks than he or she has capacity to work. If a team member is taking two days off, she can only take on 3 days worth of work-units. Later in the project, remaining work-units from incomplete WIP must also be accounted for. Each team member must be able to complete their residual WIP plus their newly assigned tasks. Accountability is an imperative, so it must be clear who is accountable for each assigned task. When the selection process is complete, the team will have a limited amount of WIP assigned to appropriate team members.

Like Agile, specific task responsibilities are assigned weekly in project meetings, depending on team member availability/skills. Like Agile, the Critical Action approach requires the team to select and work on the “right tasks” to perform this week, and emphasizes serial rather than parallel activities.

Simple, right?

It’s never easy to say no. It’s not easy to delay starting an obviously important or interesting task. The team will need some not-so-gentle reminding that no on can do more than one week’s worth of work in a week. Further, a weekly planning cycle means that an incorrectly prioritized task can always be addressed the next week. A one week delay is not so terrible. Explicitly limiting WIP is the key to success in Critical Action Plan projects.

After the tasks are selected, the team heads off to perform the tasks. Team members are responsible for reporting roadblocks or issues, and the project manager helps unblock or redirect as needed. Teams that like to scrum might have a daily standup for this purpose. No team member wants to show up at the next team meeting with their assignments incomplete. No one wants to let the team down. If WIP is limited properly, disappointment should be rare. On the rare occasion team members complete their assignments early, they can work with the project manager to select another Project Task from the backlog for completion within the same or next cycle.

Before selecting projects, each week, the team meets to assess Project Task completion. For each task in WIP, the team evaluates task completion. It’s easy to tell if a PO was placed or an ECO approved. It’s less easy to tell if the samples were built (were all the lot history records completed and are there any open non-conforming material reports?). It’s even harder to tell if concept downselection was completed (was the DHF memo completed)? Honesty is the best policy. If there is even a little more work to be done on a task, face it. It there is a task to be performed (e.g. fix non-conformances) that wasn’t in the plan, add it to the plan or leave the task incomplete. For each incomplete task, the team estimates the Work-Units remaining. A solid estimate of remaining Work Units is critical when assigning additional tasks for this week’s work, and is also important in keeping track of overall project progress.

The Critical Action Plan is a living document, reviewed at every team meeting. During the weekly meeting, we record the amount of Work-units remaining for each Project Task in WIP (0 for complete tasks). We note the evidence (e.g. document numbers / revs) that the task is complete. The assignment of new tasks to team members is also recorded on the Project Plan, with the date each task is assigned to WIP.

In a sense, the Critical Action Plan is a large to-do list, managed by the group. By estimating Work-units, we quantify the size of the to-do list, and can easily track our progress towards project completion. More on that in another post.

Work In Process (WIP): Project Tasks actively being worked.
Completed Tasks: Project Tasks that the team agrees are complete.
Backlog: Project Tasks that will be done in the future.


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