By Bill Flury

We were getting going on a major system conversion process. Our job was to replace a legacy image processing system with all new hardware and software. Our team included three contractors, one for software, one for the computing hardware and one for displays. We were in the third month of an 18 month schedule. The project had been planned by the combined team and the schedule and tasking was recorded on-line in MS Project. We had a “War Room” with a giant Gantt chart on the wall showing the detailed task schedules for each of the contractors posted. We had regular meetings in the War Room where we discussed the project.

We were only in the third month, but I had a vague feeling that the project was beginning to slip. We had recently read a US Air Force study that showed that projects that were behind schedule at the 15% mark never recovered their slippage. The study was based on hundreds of their projects. Those that were behind at this point never got better and usually slipped even more. That made us nervous because we were now at the 15% point. If we had slippages now, we would have to struggle to keep from running over badly.

We had been meeting every other week to discuss schedule and each contractor Task Manager was saying that things were ok. We kept hearing, “One or two tasks might be lagging but we’re ahead on the others so, were fine.” After two or three meetings like this the PM decided that we had to find out what was really happening. All it took to highlight our problems was a 3 foot piece of red string. How could such a simple thing as a piece of red string become a powerful project management tool? Here’s how.

On the 15th of November we went to the project Gantt chart and fixed the top of the string to the 15 November mark on the schedule line. We ran the string straight down to the bottom and taped it in place. We called the piece of string the “Today Line”.

Immediately, it became clearly apparent that all unfinished tasks to the left of “Today” were late and we could see how many there were. Also, glaringly obvious, was the fact that there were not enough “work-aheads” to the right to balance the late tasks. The contractors’ game of “We’re fine” was over. Now, for the first time, instead of dealing with a broad look at our progress we could all see the lateness problem on a task-by-task basis and start to deal with the total picture.

We thought, and later figured out, that they were playing a game of “Chicken”. Each one waited for another to own up to a slip in one of their tasks. Then, they could all claim that they were being held up by the other person who admitted a slip.

We moved the line each day and discovered that, in addition to its ability to stop the game-playing with the progress reporting, it also provided new and compelling motivation to the task leaders for those whose lagging tasks were now so obviously apparent to the left of “Today”. Another bonus was the opportunity for us to recognize the task leaders who were consistently ahead of schedule.

In a children’s book by Marion Holland called, “Big Ball of String” an imaginative CAN-DO 6 year-old child says, “With a BIG ball of string I could do ANYTHING, anything, anything, ANYTHING AT ALL.” That child has a good start on becoming a successful project manager.

Establishing and enforcing schedule discipline in a project doesn’t require a BIG ball of string. A three foot piece called the “Today Line” is all you need to start.

Do you have a clever process of your own to help keep your teams on track? Share below!


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1 reply
  1. Vicki Wrona
    Vicki Wrona says:

    Good point Bill! Sometimes, we try to fool ourselves, so that the biggest person we have to convince is us. The consultants (or us or our team) may honestly have believed they were ok and that they could get things back on track. That’s human nature. It’s only when presented with the facts in a way that can’t be denied (i.e. visual) that the dawning occurs and real work can be done. We can state facts and percentages, but without the picture, it doesn’t seem real.

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