By Craig Brown

Numerous articles and presentations abound about crashing or fast tracking a schedule.  These techniques are designed to get your project back on schedule but with risks and costs, which may make the practice less attractive.  Schedule compression can improve a project schedule but my story is that fast tracking saved my life.

Schedule Compression: The act of shortening the timeline during production.  Generally, there are only a few reasons to compress the schedule:

  1. The project is running behind schedule. The compression at this point is used to regain the lost time and get the project back on the agreed upon timeline.
  2. The resources (generally people) required for the project are also needed on another project and the second project has a high or higher priority.
  3. The customer’s needs have changed and the desired project completion date has moved up.

Each of these reasons can be achieved through two primary schedule compression techniques—schedule crashing or fast tracking.  Of course, these different techniques each carry with them their own specific risks.

Schedule crashing is the technique where management applies additional resources to a process to shorten the time it takes to complete it.  Think of the classic word problem in algebra: Harry and David Painters can use two people to paint a house in 6 hours.  If they add an additional painter, how long would it take to paint the house? (4 hours if you are into the math)  Obviously, you cannot add extra paint to make things go faster so you have to add people to apply the paint.  This means that you are going to have additional costs to complete the job as well—the additional painter’s wages and the painting equipment the new painter will need (brushes, rollers, ladder, rags etc.). Additionally, there will be the cost to bring the new member up to speed on techniques, policies, and practices.  From a management point of view, there are additional risks associated with bringing in additional people to do work that a two-person team normally does.  Is the original team going to be upset that they are not allowed to complete the job themselves? Are they going to think that their work is less valued than before, and are they going to feel threatened by the new team member?  The risks here are a combination of additional cost and the possible friction associated with the new member.  While the cost factor can easily be valued by determining whether the time saved is worth the additional costs associated with the additional resources used1; the risk associated with the personnel factors require clear and direct communication to ensure the schedule crash does not result in disenfranchised employees who could scuttle the positive impact the crash could generate.  The Algebra question also rarely took into consideration the fact that different people have different levels of skill associated with any task, for example, my wife and I can both peel potatoes but we definitely have different skill levels.  As a project manager, you have to be able to assess the value add against all the costs associated with the crash.

Fast Tracking is the other technique used to compress a schedule—performing tasks that are normally sequential in nature, in parallel with each other.  For example, with my last program, my employer had a process where the design team identified the equipment needed for an installation and provided the bill of materials to the warehouse when the design was completed.  The warehouse team pulled the equipment and delivered it to the integration team as needed.  The integration team returned the equipment to the warehouse for packing and shipping when integration was completed.  When time was short due to outside influences, we determined if it was worthwhile to fast track the process by identifying the necessary integration items prior to completion of the design so the warehouse and integration teams could do their work while the design team completed the design package.  While this worked a majority of the time, there were risks we had to identify, quantify, and accept before adopting this process.  The greatest risk was that certain elements of the design would change in the latter phases of design development that would require a change in equipment. If that happened, the work associated with pulling the equipment from the warehouse, integrating the equipment, and subsequent packing of the equipment, would be wasted. Not only would we waste the labor, but we also would still be behind schedule. Another fast-tracking technique we employed at times was shortening the allowed time to perform certain required activities—quality assurance checks were normally given 3 business days to be completed—we would shorten that to as little as a number of hours as needed.  We could make similar adjustments in integration, packing and reviews if necessary.  While the tasks were not overlapped, the time allotted to complete them and the time between one task and another could be condensed.  A combination of both types of fast tracking saved my life.

On August 11 of 2015, I was diagnosed with stomach cancer. My gastroenterologist told me after my exam he was going to refer me to an oncologist who would give me a call.  Within 2 hours, the oncologist contacted me and we set up an appointment for 7 days later—August 18.  By the time we met with the oncologist, he had already selected a surgeon, set up a treatment plan and organized other appointments I would need to be able to start chemotherapy.  Exhibit 1 summarizes the procedures and dates.

I had eight appointments and procedures between the 18th and the 27th (eight business days).  Obviously, the Endoscopy was a precursor to the oncologist visit and I had to see the oncologist prior to seeing the surgeon or the new gastroenterologist.  Because the normal minimum wait time to see a specialist is a week and I had three separate specialists, it could have easily taken over 3 weeks to see them all if the oncologist did not run these in parallel with each other. Additionally, the standard wait times to see these doctors or perform procedures was greatly reduced- -some happening within 24 hours of each other.  For example, my surgeon needed to install a port in my chest for the chemotherapy drugs prior to my first chemotherapy treatment.  This is a hospital procedure and required pre-authorization from my insurance company and pre-operation paperwork and bloodwork at the hospital.

Procedure or Appointment Date Doctor
Initial Appt. w/ Oncologist 18 August Oncologist
Initial Appt. w/ Surgeon 19 August Surgeon
PET Scan 19 August Hospital
Port installation 20 August Surgeon
Initial Appt. w/ Gastroenterologist (new) 21 August Gastroenterologist
Internal Ultrasound 26 August Gastroenterologist
Chemo Teach 26 August Oncologist
1st Chemotherapy treatment 27 August Oncology center

Exhibit 1: Procedures Leading to Treatment. A coordinated effort by the Oncologist and his team eliminated normal wait times as well as scheduling and approval delays.

It was already late afternoon when we finished talking with the surgeon and we went to the scheduling person to get the port installation scheduled. After a couple of phone calls, we were zipping across town to complete the pre-op paperwork and procedures so we would be able to get the port installed the next day. With the sense of urgency that the scheduler presented, we received the authorization that day prior to arriving at the hospital for the pre-op work. For anyone who has been through the pre-authorization process—you know that this sort of thing generally does not happen without at least a day’s notice.

My production timeline, the time between diagnosis and the start of treatment, was only 16 calendar days (12 workdays) and incorporated some extremely complicated and critically important procedures and treatment decisions. The professionalism, courtesy and efficiency of the people involved was inspirational to say the least. I did not experience a single surly attitude or get the impression from anyone that I was putting him or her out by having all this done in such short order. I think this is part of the reason this worked as well as it did—I experienced a level of commitment and dedication from every person involved with my care I had never seen before.

After the start of chemotherapy, there are very few opportunities to shorten the timeline, as part of the treatment is the time needed for the chemo to take effect. The doctors and nurses at Hematology and Oncology Center of Fredericksburg and Surgical Associates of Fredericksburg (Virginia) saw the opportunity to affect the timeline in order to make a significant impact on the chance of survival and quality of life of a patient and took the steps needed to make it happen.

It is now almost a year later; after having the affected organ removed and six cycles of chemotherapy, I have received two CT scans declaring me clear of any cancer. The team of doctors developed the plan and followed it as closely as they could and as a result, I am here today trying to put schedule compression in a better light.

1   The value of the schedule crash can be computed by figuring the labor saved (the two painters for 2 hours) minus the new labor (4 hours) minus the additional equipment, minus the training required, plus the value associated with meeting the schedule.  This value could be as simple as dollars rewarded to complete on time, but it may also have less concrete factors such as the company’s reputation or availability to do other work.

Editor’s Note:

It is with great sadness that we must share the news of Craig Brown’s passing in January of 2019, after a hard-fought battle with cancer. We continue to share his words and insights here in honor of his bravery and enthusiasm for life.