Have you ever been asked to ‘just get the project done’? When you absolutely have to hit the deadline but your schedule says no, you really only have a couple of choices.
Research from nPlan of 500,000 project schedules points to nine out of every 10 projects are delivered late. Admittedly, that data set is mainly large-scale civil construction, but with around two-thirds of projects coming in two months or more late, you have to acknowledge there is a delivery problem.
It’s likely that the issue is reflected in non-major construction projects too. KPMG’s research shows that 42% of projects are likely to be delivered on time… that’s not much to write home about.
So it’s clear that as project professionals, we should be doing our bit to make sure projects don’t get delayed more than is absolutely necessary.
When it comes to compressing a project timeline, there are two main strategies available to you in a predictive (waterfall) environment: crashing and fast-tracking. Both of these techniques have their advantages and disadvantages when it comes to changing a project’s duration, but which one is the best for your specific situation?
In this article, we’ll dive deep into both approaches by looking at how they compare against each other as well as their associated costs. We’ll also discuss different strategies you can use if you decide to crash or fast-track your project so that you get the most out of them.
First up: crashing.
What does it mean to crash your schedule?
Crashing is a project management technique used to reduce the total duration of a project by adding additional resources or making other changes. It is often used when there are time constraints and the project needs to be completed quickly.
When I’ve used it, what we’ve done is add more people to the project team so tasks can be completed more quickly. That shaves off time.
Of course, it does depend on who you get allocated as extra pairs of hands. Someone with no experience may slow you down as you have to train them rather than speed you up. An alternative is to secure your resources for more time, perhaps asking them to work full-time hours if they are part-time or paying for overtime.
And you can’t crash every task. You know the saying: it takes one woman 9 months to make a baby, but you can’t make a baby with 9 women in one month. Some tasks just won’t take less time, regardless of how many people you assign to them.
Let’s look next at the advantages and disadvantages of crashing your schedule.
Benefits of schedule crashing
The main benefit of crashing is that it can significantly reduce the amount of time needed to complete a project, allowing the team to get the work done more quickly. That should make it more likely that you’ll hit the delivery date that your exec sponsor promised the client. (Yep, we’ve all been there.)
Another odd advantage of schedule crashing is that it can help improve quality control since more resources are allocated to the work. That should (in theory, anyway) help ensure accuracy. Or at least make it less likely you’ll make stupid mistakes through rushing as you don’t have enough people.
Limitations of schedule crashing
To crash your project schedule, you need more people (or resources of other kinds – if you are in a factory, turning on another production line would have the same effect).
That’s a major limitation. As I mentioned above, you might not be able to get the ‘right’ resources: people who are aware of the project, need little support or onboarding from your already over-stretched team, are available, and have the right skills.
You might be able to speed up some simple tasks by hiring a temp resource or backfilling the post for a while, but most skilled project work will require someone who understands the organization and what you are trying to achieve.
And you have to pay for those people. If your project budget is as stretched as your time, your sponsor is going to have to make a difficult call: is there money available to pay for the extra help? How much will the incremental cost be, and is it worth carrying that amount?
If you are asking them to work more, are you at risk of burnout in the team?
Investing in additional resources can pay off. For example, if your contract with the client comes with penalties for every day you are late, the cost of extra staff to hit the contracted delivery date may well be less than the penalties between now and the forecasted delivery date. Getting the project done on time might incur additional costs now, but that is balanced by the savings against non-delivery.
There are also risks associated with rushing through tasks, such as increased chances for errors or mistakes due to inadequate planning and execution.
Crashing is a useful technique for project managers to consider when seeking to reduce project duration, but it also comes with certain limitations that should be taken into account.
Fast-tracking is another project management technique used to reduce the duration of a project without changing its scope. It involves performing tasks in parallel that would normally be done sequentially, such as starting construction before the design is complete or beginning testing before coding has finished.
It’s a bit scary to work in this way, but if needs must, it’s an option to consider.
What does it mean to fast-track your schedule?
Fast-tracking is an approach to project scheduling where activities are performed concurrently instead of consecutively. Work on activities in parallel to get more done in a shorter time period.
It allows for overlapping tasks so that the overall timeline of the project can be shortened without reducing its scope or quality standards – as long as you focus on critical path tasks.
For example, if two activities need to happen in sequence—such as designing a product before manufacturing it—fast-tracking could involve starting both activities at once by having designers work on one part while engineers start working on another part simultaneously.
An easier situation is where there are no dependencies between tasks or discretionary dependencies between tasks, and you just bring forward the start date of a later task to get the work done earlier. This can add more slack to the schedule, which can be useful later.
When I’ve used it, we’ve started testing some software components while others are still being built. It’s not without risk, as you don’t know whether a later build will have an impact on the modules you’ve just signed off.
Let’s look next at the advantages and disadvantages of fast-tracking.
Benefits of fast-tracking
The primary benefit of fast-tracking is the same as schedule crashing: you can shorten the timeline for completing a project without compromising its quality or scope.
Do everything! Just in a slightly uncomfortable-feeling order while increasing the risk profile of the project!
Putting my personal feelings about fast-tracking aside, let’s get back to the benefits.
Fast-tracking the project schedule means projects can get done faster (the clue is in the name) and potentially save money by avoiding costly delays due to dependencies between tasks that would otherwise have been completed sequentially.
It might also be free if you have the resources already lined up: you’re just changing the time you are needing them.
Fast-tracking also allows teams to identify potential problems early on since they’re working on multiple parts of the same task at once, which helps them address issues quickly and efficiently when they arise during development or production phases later down the line.
Limitations of fast-tracking
One major limitation is increased risk; due to attempting to do more than one thing at once, there is always a chance something could go wrong, which may lead to costly delays or even failure if not addressed in time.
Your project assumptions are put to the test: can you really run activities in parallel with no consequences?
I think fast-tracking also requires more project management oversight and attention, as you’ve got several tasks moving along at pace and that needs more coordination.
Doing tasks in parallel might change your resource costs – and, as I’ve just mentioned, increase your project management overheads too.
Fast-tracking is a powerful tool for project managers to help them meet tight deadlines and optimize human resources. But I’d recommend using it with caution.
Comparing Crashing and Fast-Tracking
OK, but what’s the difference between crashing and fast-tracking again?
Fast-tracking means reworking the project schedule to complete tasks in parallel instead of in sequence. Crashing is where you add more resources to individual tasks so they can be finished faster.
In reality, you can use them both on the same project, and they are both used to compress a project’s schedule. Both require you to have decent task estimates of how long the work will take so you can calculate the time saving expected. Both of these techniques involve reducing the duration of activities, but they differ in how they do so.
So which one should you choose?
Both crashing and fast-tracking techniques are used to reduce the time it takes for a project to be completed by decreasing the amount of time needed for certain tasks or activities. They only make a difference to project timelines if you crash or fast-track tasks that are on the critical path.
They both also require additional resources, such as money, materials, people, etc, in order to complete them faster than originally planned.
Choose based on what your problem is and how you can fix it. Can you get more resources or more time from existing resources? Are the tasks crashable? Is the task required urgently? Go for crashing.
Can you juggle the tasks around? Can you run tasks in parallel without compromising quality? Are there some activities where you are prepared to accept the risk of running tasks in parallel in case that means rework in the future? Go for fast-tracking.
In reality, you’re likely to find room for them both in your plans to cut time out of your schedule. Some tasks are better suited to one or the other, so don’t feel limited to just one technique.
How to make schedule compression work on your projects
As project managers, we often have to make difficult decisions to juggle time, cost, quality, customer satisfaction, value, benefits, and more. Schedule compression techniques are no different. There are tradeoffs to weigh up.
And you need to know the difference between the two techniques for your Project Management Professional (PMP)® exam.
Here are some tips for making whatever schedule compression approach you choose work for you.
Consider the cost
Both crashing and fast-tracking incur costs. Do the cost-benefit analysis.
Go for the lowest crash cost per unit of time – the activities that cost the least to crash, so you get the most value out of them.
Look for options that are the lowest cost and ask the question about where the extra money will come from.
Plan ahead for risks and issues
You know this isn’t the way you’d be leading the project in an ideal world. So bear in mind that compressing the schedule with either crashing or fast-tracking is going to potentially bring more issues to your door.
Identify any risks that are specifically related to changing the schedule. For example:
- Resources may not be available, or may not have the right skills.
- Tasks may need rework to bring them in line with delivery expectations.
- We may have to carry an increase in cost.
- The team might suffer with burnout or lower morale as a result of the extra work or expectations.
Put contingency plans in place to help ensure that any unforeseen issues can be quickly addressed without causing too much disruption to the timeline of the project.
Identify the right resources
Before you go ahead and make the decision to crash or fast-track, consider who is available to help you out. What other projects are lower priority and could go on pause while you poach their resources? Who could increase their hours?
And most importantly, remember Brooks’ law: will those people actually give you the desired effect of saving time, or will they end up adding time as you have to bring them up to speed?
Fred Brooks wrote about how adding manpower to a software project makes it take even longer in his book The Mythical Man-Month (1975). While we have better development approaches and project management software to help now, I do still think there is so much truth in this concept.
When we added an intern to our team, it did not speed up my workload, at least. I had to spend a long time on training and support, which pulled me away from my own tasks. Longer term, that was a good thing, but for a short-term fix on a project, you’ll have to consider whether it really is the right thing to do.
Manage stakeholder expectations
Tell project stakeholders what you are doing and why the original schedule no longer works. Spell out the risks. Explain the benefits and point out this is the best chance of completing the project deliverables.
Get them onboard and helping to secure the additional resources and support required.
Set expectations for the team
Make sure people on the team know what they are responsible for and how that fits into the bigger picture. Keep your schedule up-to-date and accurate.
Talk regularly with everyone. You’ll have to do more project communication because the overall risk profile of the project is higher, and there’s more at stake if things go wrong.
You don’t have time for tasks to fall through the cracks or for people to do work based on an outdated version of a specification.
Both the crashing technique and the fast-tracking technique will help you keep a project on track when time is shorter than you planned. Crashing is more focused on reducing activity durations, while fast-tracking focuses on overlapping activities.
Both give you time savings but have benefits and drawbacks, so it’s important for project managers to consider resource and cost implications before deciding which technique to use. Or whether to use both: the reality of project management is that they are often used together.
And remember, go through the right project governance whenever you want to change the ways of working for the team.
When implementing either crashing or fast-tracking, it’s essential for project managers to plan ahead, engage the team and manage expectations in order to ensure success with these time management strategies.
How will you put these into play on your projects to bring down your overall duration?
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