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Meeting project deadlines under uncertainty: an alternative to the critical chain method

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A fundamental problem in project planning and control (PPC) is the meeting of deadlines under conditions of schedule uncertainty and project workers with private information. The PPC process is complex, so an “optimal” method has yet to be found. The project management community is currently guided by heuristics; these include network planning and scheduling (including the critical path) as well as critical chain planning, which has become popular in the last decade. However, improved complex processes do not arise from analysis alone; they also depend on what amounts to an organizational search process. In striving for better PPC methods, management scholars and practitioners should therefore search widely to explore a variety of approaches. This paper presents one example of a company that has developed, through trial and error, an interesting alternative PPC system. In the general language of PPC methods, the system has four features that clearly differentiate it from other systems: (1) disciplined aggregate milestone planning combined with flexible weekly plans produced by the project teams themselves; (2) ”visual” management that visibly shows the weekly status and promptly highlights problems; (3) fast problem resolution that offers project workers support and increases cross-task collaboration while reducing the workers’ tendency to create individual time buffers; and (4) use of lower-- priority projects as a capacity buffer rather than a project time buffer. After this system was implemented, the company’s project management performance improved. One can never generalize from a single case study, but generalization is not the aim of this paper. Rather, we seek to provide PPC specialists (academics and practitioners) with one example of a successful alternative PPC system. As an effective “proof of existence” for such a system, the insights from this case study broaden the debate and, we hope, will invigorate further search for innovations in PPC methods.

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