Less is more - Critical Chain

Do you ever get really impressed and nod appreciatively when you hear about a project that was completed on time and within budget? That is not necessarily the rule, but rather the exception. The most prominent example is certainly Berlin Airport, but all the numerous small projects, whether in the construction industry or others, also often blow up the budget and schedule. But why is that? And what strategies are there to counteract it?
A young woman sits in a darkened room in front of a PC and drinks coffee

The Critical Chain Approach

What does critical chain mean and how can this principle help to keep project budgets and schedules? Critical Chain is the technical term for the "critical path". This was already discussed in the 1950s. What was a new insight at that time is taken for granted today: if you want to look at your critical path, you must not only include the technical and factual connections, but also consider the resources and different dependencies. A classic example: two tasks that can actually run in parallel must be carried out by the same person in a particular company because only that person has the necessary expertise. What is shown in parallel in the schedule takes twice as long because this person can only work on one task at a time. The principle of the critical path has developed from these logical considerations - in the context of a US space project. The term chain refers to the fact that critical tasks are lined up if they are dependent on each other. This dependency can be of different kinds.

Critical Chain today

Today, the term critical chain is used in project management specifically in the multi-project organisation for the bottleneck-oriented control of several projects. This always makes sense when limited resources have to be used for several projects at the same time in a company. The company's goal must be to create a realistic schedule for all projects, large and small, priority and subordinate. Resources should be used optimally and the projects should all be completed as quickly as possible. It is not uncommon for serious conflicts to arise because assignments are taken on when the opportunity arises and not when resources have become available again. This means that all staff have to multitask. The consequences: projects take longer than they should if they were handled primarily with full resources.

Multitasking as a working time trap

Multitasking is often the reason why quality and on-time completion have to be compromised. Often this results in management getting the impression that projects could be done better and faster. This in turn often leads to the company scheduling even more projects. This can be fatal, because studies have shown that 30 to as much as 70 percent of working time is lost through extended multitasking. These are frightening figures.

Less is more

This is where the question comes in, so how can it be achieved that the existing staff finish more projects in a timely and qualitatively satisfactory manner. The clear answer is: fewer projects need to run simultaneously. Staff must have the opportunity to focus on one or a few projects in order not to get bogged down and to be able to work efficiently. In this way, staff actually complete more projects.
In general, management can follow a four-point plan:
  1. Create a list that includes all ongoing projects.
  2. Prioritise the projects on the list.
  3. Draw a line in the middle of the list.
  4. Everything below the centre line is put on hold for the time being and only dealt with when projects higher up the list free up resources so that projects can move up.

Consequences of the changeover

The projects that are now put on hold for a while have to wait. However, they no longer cause interruptions or disruptions in the daily lives of the people working on the prioritised projects. As a result, the priorities are completed more quickly - much more quickly. Then the less "important" projects can move up and are often completed even earlier than if they had simply run along in between, because now someone can finally also deal seriously and sufficiently time-intensively with one of the less important projects. As a rule, such an approach can increase productivity in a company by 20 to 30 percent. Of course, someone in the company also has to take care of the prioritisation - and that the decisions are made: Which project will be suspended, which will be pushed forward, which will be reactivated and when? Don't leave these decisions to the project teams or project managers themselves. Make them in a separate body, at the management level. The responsibility of whether a project will be two weeks late instead of possibly six weeks late should be made at the higher management level, so that the actual project participants can devote themselves fully to their projects.
Author: IAPM internal

Key words: Project management, Guide, Tip, Resource management, Management Culture, Budget planning

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