Managing concept phase projects is challenging with any project management tool or technique, because you start with almost no certainty about the tasks that will be needed. We can surely imagine some work on concept brainstorming, preliminary requirements definitions, market research, component ordering, prototyping, concept testing, and report writing. But it’s really hard to be much more granular than that, when we haven’t even defined requirements or brainstormed concepts yet.
Vendors have lead times. New custom components can have really long lead times. Long lead components are the most incompressible of project tasks, so you need to manage them closely.
I’ve seen all the screw-ups: parts and orders misplaced, fires at vendor plants, incoming inspection backlogs, you name it. As a project manager, it’s your job to prevent these errors and keep the trains running on time.
Your project is capacity limited, but without a Critical Action Plan, you don’t know how limited. You may think you need another engineer or technician, but a Critical Action Plan can really help you define and justify hiring needs.
Scopes change. It’s practically a law of physics. Even if the overall project goals don’t really change, we often find that the project is harder to accomplish than we originally thought. During the project we often discover a need for new features, or our regulatory strategy changes.
Critical Action Planning makes it easy to incorporate and quantify scope changes. In fact, simple quantification of scope and progress is one of the key benefits of the Critical Action Planning approach. It’s a by-product of the technique, that requires virtually no extra work.
Within a medical device project, “division of responsibility” among project team members is usually the default. “Division of responsibility” enables team members to feel ownership of major components of product design and simplifies accountability for project managers. What’s not to like?
New day, new data, new priorities. Like all Agile approaches, overall project execution is optimized when the highest priority tasks are performed in each “Select-Perform-Assess” cycle. So great project performance depends on great prioritization.
The project manager should expect to spend significant time every week re-prioritizing the Project Backlog, with the help of the team, incorporating project learnings and new information from the outside world into the existing project plan.
I’ve identified seven keys to Project Task prioritization, which actually can be used with any type of project management. For example, while dependencies in Gantt charts create a natural sequence of many project tasks, Gantts provide no prioritization when multiple tasks are ready to be started.
While perfection is surely the enemy of the good when it comes to task prioritization, an analytical approach can reduce errors and help the team achieve consensus on priorities. Here are the seven keys I recommend.
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?
Any kind of Project Plan should build in tasks to mitigate both product and project risk. It’s fundamental, but we don’t always do it.
Product risks are the risks addressed by your plan already. In the concept phase, product risks relate to feasibility. For example, can we get adequate torque transfer along our thin flexible catheter in a tortuous anatomy? Can we achieve adequate signal-to-noise in our imaging system? In later phases, product risks relate to reliability. For example, will we meet the tensile spec with 0.95 reliability at 95% statistical confidence?
Critical Action Planning is my attempt to combine key elements of Critical Chain planning with an Agile/Kanban philosophical approach, specifically for companies developing physical/hardware products. Like the Critical Chain, Critical Action project management is based on a detailed best-case task list for the complete project. Like Agile/Kanban, we don’t define task dependencies or projected task start or end dates. Also like Agile/Kanban, we estimate the amount of best-case work-units required to complete each task (e.g. in person days). Eliminating dependency and date planning dramatically simplifies the planning process, and makes the project plan parseable. Like Critical Chain, we add a buffer to the best-case plan, by including tasks to represent potential re-work or project iterations. We estimate work-units for these tasks too.
That’s the Project Plan – a comprehensive list of tasks with estimated work-units for each. I keep the list in a spreadsheet, which I share with the project team. Adding, modifying or subtracting tasks is lightweight, making it easy to update the project as we go along, but we’ll discuss that more later. Today I just want to concentrate on the initial Project Plan, and introduce some terminology.