7 questions to help you reduce projects‘ duration

On one hand, in current competitive environment, time to market and speed to respond to customers’ needs is a Critical Success Factor, often more important than sales price.

On the other hand, projects templates used in companies have “grown fat” over time with an inflation of additional tasks, milestones and reviews, thus extending project’s’ duration.

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Why templates grew “fat”

Organizations dealing repeatedly with projects will soon develop templates of Work Breakdown Structures (WBS) holding the most current tasks and milestones. These canvasses speed up somewhat the project initiation and insure some degree of standardization.

Over time though, the copy-pasting from one project to the next, the addition of “improvements” and requirements as well as countermeasures to problems kind of inflate the templates and the projects. This in turn extends the project’s duration as every additional task not only adds its allocated time to completion, but also the safety margin(s) the doer and/or project manager will add on top.

Most of the countermeasures and special reviews were meant to be temporary, only for fixing specific problems. But hassle and lack of rigor soon let them in the next copy-paste template and over time their original purpose gets forgotten and those specific and temporary fixes end up being… standardized!

This is how loads of unnecessary tasks extend project duration without anyone noticing it.

In order to stick to delivering on due date, and in some extend reduce the project duration, Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM) proposes some solutions. Yet those solutions mainly concentrate on a smarter use of the margins without challenging the value and necessity of the tasks themselves.

Therefore, reducing the margins and sharing the risks with a common project buffer, everything else remaining equal, the reduction of the total project duration is limited.

Now, combining CCPM with a Lean-inspired approach, projects can be shortened even more.

Challenging every task

The proposed approach is to scrutinize every task and investigate about its usefulness and its added value, as well as about the allocated resources to achieve it.

The idea is to get rid of unnecessary or low-value adding tasks cluttering the WBS and reduce the workload placed upon the scarcest and most expert resources, reduce the related costs and most of all reduce the time required for completing the whole project.

In a Lean Thinking way these kinds of tasks are wastes of resources and time and should be eliminated. If it’s not possible to eliminate them, is it at least possible to to reduce them to the bare minimum?

Here are 7 questions to help you surface these kind of resource drainers and waste generators in your WBS

1. Is this task really necessary? Why?

As soon as the purpose of one task is not obvious and cannot be simply demonstrated, some investigation is advised. Before rushing to the conclusion it useless and can be eliminated, one must verify that the outcome of this task is not required elsewhere in the project as an answer to some regulatory, standard or technical requirement.

The next question can help to answer this one.

2. What would happen if this task wouldn’t been completed?

A really useful task should answer a need. This one can be explicitly expressed in the requirements or in a procedure for example. It can also be implicit and naturally impose itself.

Most projects embed lots of reviews, gates and reporting points. These are resources and time drainer added by anxious project managers and customers. Yet not every project has very high stakes neither is jeopardized. What can make sense for a very sensitive project is not necessarily required for EVERY project.

What would happen if tasks and deliverables related to these reviews, gates and reporting would be omitted?
If a try shows nothing happens, it’s either an evidence of:

  • the no/low value
  • the lack of rigor in project management and follow-up
  • the lost sense of reviews as a management ritual

I remember a manager having put on hold projects for which project managers didn’t demand reports or reviews several weeks after voluntarily stopping to report progress.

It ultimately led to unclutter the project portfolio of several “nice-to-have” or “to-be-done-when-we-have-time” projects and free valuable capacity for sellable ones.

3. Who will benefit the outcome of the task?

In a well structured WBS no task should end “nowhere”. Who benefits from a task, usually the successor, should be directly readable in the WBS.If it isn’t the case, the value of a task as well as the robustness of the WBS must be challenged.

4. Is this task adding any value?

Value-Added is something the customer is willing to pay for. When assessing the value of a task, the right question is: can the outcome of this task be sold? Is anybody ready to pay for it?

An alternative in product, process or software development exists though, which is creating new, reusable knowledge (Lean Engineering/Lean Product and Process Development). This is considered a kind of investment.

If a task adds nothing worthy to a paying customer nor new knowledge to the company, it adds no value. To keep it or not sends back to question 1.

5. Does this task really require this resource? Why?

Once the task is assessed as useful, the next question is about the allocated resource.

One good practice is to allocate the lowest qualified resources to any task in order to save the more competent and expert resources, which are scarcer and thus more precious, from the mundane tasks that can be achieved by more common and cheaper resources.

If a task requires a scarce, expert resource, the next question is: how come?

Overburdening scarce and precious resources is one major reason for projects taking long time as the flushing of their tasks backlog requires the project managers to level the load, thus push back the completion of staggered tasks.

Many project managers compete to have the best resources allocated to their projects. Success and reliability attract attention and any project manager wants the best team in order to achieve his/her challenge. Always picking the same best ones ends up with overburdening them. Besides, not challenging the lower performers will not help them to improve.

6. Can it be done differently?

The alternate ways to consider here are both technical solutions as well as alternate resources.

  • Technically: can it be done differently so that the scarce bottleneck resource(s) is/are less required? Simpler solution may require less expert resource to implement it, for instance.
  • At the resource level, is it possible to delegate to a lesser constraint resource? Is it possible to subcontract?

These alternates should be considered for the sake of project’s duration reduction first, then for cost efficiency.

7. Must this task be done at that moment/stage of the project?

Some tasks have some degree of liberty with regards to when they must be fulfilled. Moving their relative place in the project structure may help limiting the overload and load levelling.

Wrapping up

Challenging necessity and contribution of all tasks in a project helps reveal those useless and of low added-value. Getting rid of them shortens the project’s duration accordingly, provided those task are on the Critical Chain.

This reservation is a hint about where to look first: the string of tasks on the Critical Chain.

The second benefit of this approach is to reduce the workload of the scarcest, most constrained resources, thus reducing the effect of load-leveling, hence project duration.

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Does Value Stream Mapping apply to Product Development?

Value Stream Mapping (VSM) is a great tool to map processes. It started in manufacturing where it is used to understand physical and information flows and quickly spread to administrative processes. It is even used in hospitals.

As Product Development is a process, so yes VSM can be used.

However, development activities have some specificities compared to manufacturing which require to adapt VSM to Development and also bring some limitations to VSM used in Development.

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The first limitation is similar to manufacturing if the activity is high mix / low volume. In such a case, the specificities may outweigh the commonalities, thus drastically reduce the interest of VSM as the time spent to map the process vs. valuable informations to get from the map isn’t worth it.

If this isn’t the case, and if the Product Development process is underperforming and needs improvement, VSM “manufacturing-style” can be used to map and analyse the development process despite other limitations. It is “good enough” to surface the biggest obstacles to better performance.

Having used VSM to describe and analyze an automotive equipment maker product development process, I could identify improvements leading to a potential 30 to 40 % Lead Time reduction depending of the nature of the project. This is consistent with what I call the Lean rule of thirds, i.e. reducing wastes or improving performance 30%.

Later on, with a more mature Product Development process this type of VSM may show its limitations.

VSM pitfalls and limitations in Development

There are many differences between manufacturing and development. For instance the definition of “value-added” is relatively easy in manufacturing while more elusive in development. Takt time is a key concept for production but does not make sense in development*. Loops are wastes in manufacturing but iterations are valuable in development.

*Takt time in manufacturing is the rate of customers’ demand. In development takt time can be the rate of new projects or product launches decided by the company.

Concurrent activities are seldom in manufacturing but common in Lean Development, and so on.

Therefore the transposition of Lean Manufacturing methods and tools is possible to some extend but with great care and adaptation. One warning about this is to be found in “The Lean Machine” Productivity Press. pp. 131–132:

Key learning about the difference between TPS and LPD is summarized in the advice Jim Womack gives Harley Davidson’s Dantaar Oosterwal; “Don’t try to bring lean manufacturing upstream to product development. The application of Lean in product development and manufacturing are different. Some aspects may look similar, but they are not! Be leary of an expert with experience in lean manufacturing that claims to know product development”.

On the other hand, Allen Ward and Durward Sobek recommend to “learn from Lean Manufacturing to improve labs and prototype shops”, in Lean Product and Process Development, Lean Institute Inc, 2014 second edition p.42.

Other resources about VSM for Product Development exist. Here are only few chosen examples:

Ronald Mascitelli discusses the usage of VSM in his book “Mastering Lean Product Development”, Technology Perspectives 2011, pp. 187-190.

There is a paper of interest by Darwish, Haque, Shehab, and Al-Ashaab, “Value stream mapping and analysis of product development (engineering) processes”  that can be downloaded here:  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/272565743

Finally, the Lean Aerospace Initiative (LAI, MIT) proposed the Product Development Value Stream Mapping (PDVSM) specifically designed for Product Development. The Manual version 1.0 (Sept. 2005) can be downloaded for free from several sources, including MIT:



Value Stream Mapping does apply to Product Development with limitations in mind and/or adaptation to the specificities of development activities. Before rushing to map such a process, give yourself time to consider if the time invested will really be worth it, especially if the process is not likely to be common to many new developments.

VSM is great but is only one tool among others. The value of the analysis does not come from the map but from the “brain juice” the analyst(s) throw in to sift out improvement potential and identify issues and obstacles to overcome.

Feel free to comment and share your thoughts and experience. If you liked this post, share it!

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