by Bill Flury

Starting a New Project

 “Hey! Piece of cake!” That was the team leader speaking after I had described the team’s next project, a critical six-month, fixed price job for our top client. It was good to hear her speak so confidently, but I had some concerns.

This would be the fourth project for this team since it was formed nine months ago. They had produced excellent products on their first three projects. They worked very well and our client gave them a pat on the back for each one. However, getting those pats on the back had not been easy for them. They had had some significant problems. They had to put in a lot of unscheduled overtime to finish those projects on time.

On the first project, they rushed into the work before thinking about the sequence in which tasks needed to be done. Some work not needed until later was done early and vice versa. It looked like they were doing the work backwards. They had several false starts before they figured out the right sequence. Then they had to put in extra time to get everything done.

On the second project, they had trouble figuring out what software and other materials they would need to accomplish some of the difficult tasks. They wasted a lot of time looking for those things. That put them way behind schedule. It took a lot of late nights and cold pizza (not cake) to get back on track.

On the third project, they ran into many things they never expected. Two of the key team members got sick and were out for a couple of weeks. They didn’t have any slack in their schedule so they had to work harder and longer to cover for those who were out. Some of the special software they were using didn’t work properly. It took even more overtime to fix that and some other things they never anticipated.

Considering their performance on those prior projects, I decided we had better talk about the expression, “piece of cake!” because I wasn’t sure that this project would be ”a piece of cake”. So, the next day I got them together to discuss what they would have to do.

The expression, “Piece of Cake”

I told them that this expression originated in the British Royal Air Force in the late 1930s. It was used to describe an easy mission. It evokes the easy, pleasant task of savoring and swallowing a slice of sweet dessert.

The pilots found out early on that they had to fly and survive rigors of their combat missions before they could claim that it had been a “piece of cake”. On this new project, getting to the point when we can enjoy our piece of cake we will have to do what the pilots did – we’ll have to go through the rigors involved in making the cake. If we do a really good job, we can all share in and eat that luscious piece of cake. So, here’s a plan:

The “Piece of Cake” Project Plan

First off, we should agree on what kind of cake we are going to make. What will our final product be like? Will it be plain and simple or highly decorated? Will it contain all sorts of goodies or be very plain? We will need to agree at the outset on the vision of the cake we will all work together to make and enjoy.

Then, we’ll use a cake making model as a guide. As we go through these steps, think about how these cake making tasks relate to the types of things we’ll need to do on our new project.

Project Initiation

  • Develop a “Making the Cake” Project Plan
  • Develop a Work Breakdown Structure
  • Assign tasks and due dates

Phase One – Initial Preparation

  • Identify all the required ingredients
  • Identify and gather all the required tools and utensils
  • Find or replace any missing ingredients or utensils
  • Prepare the utensils (cake pan, spatulas and mixer) for action

Phase Two – Production

  • Assemble and mix the ingredients in accordance with the plan (recipe)
  • Ensure all equipment is correctly set and working properly
  • Grease the cake pan
  • Place cake in oven
  • Test readiness to deliver
  • Allow time for cooling
  • Perform quality review
  • Avoid or mitigate risks (Ongoing Activity)

Phase Three – Delivery Preparation

  • Remove “almost complete cake” from pan
  • Add icing on the cake
  • Package for safe delivery

Phase Four – Final Action

  • Clean up utensils and kitchen
  • Mark up recipe for next time

Delivery – Finally!

  • Enjoy your piece of cake.

About the First Three Cakes

After we went through the cake making project task list above, we discussed, in cake-making terms, how the other three, earlier projects had gone.

Upside down Cake: On the first project, we started out with no recipe. Nobody knew what the various steps were that we had to follow so the ingredients all got mixed in the wrong order. The Work Breakdown Structure was being executed upside down. As a result, we had to do the whole project a second time to get it right.

Fallen Angel Cake: On the second project, we had confusion about the process. We didn’t all agree on some of the intermediate work and that led to problems. Using the cake simile, we forgot to include a couple of critical ingredients and that kept the product from rising to the performance level we were trying to achieve. Also, we didn’t prepare properly for delivery (i.e., by greasing the pan, so to speak) so we got everything stuck at one point and some pieces crumbled as we started to get them ready for delivery.

Ouch! No Hot Mitts: On the third project, we got hurt by illness and several other unforeseen risks. We got burned by not thinking ahead about risks and allowing extra time for them. We had not ever planned a backup for our server and the power outage that killed it for two days left us with no “baking oven”.

Getting to Our “Piece of Cake!”

So, now we know what we need to do. We have to make our cake before we can enjoy it. Remembering that should be easy. Spending the time and effort to do a really good job of planning and scheduling our work really pays off. It is a recipe that, ultimately, requires less elbow grease and midnight oil and makes the baking process run more smoothly. In fact, it’s a:

“Piece of Cake”.

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