To understand how variation changes as the number of tasks in a sequence increases, we begin with a computer model of a single task (section a of the figure). The one task is our entire project, initially. We model it as a log-normal distribution, with a mean duration of 10 days and a standard deviation of 5 days, values that are quite realistic for product development organizations today. The figure below shows how variation is affected by the number of tasks in a sequence.
Notice that as the number of tasks in the sequence increases from 1 to 2, 4, and 8, the degree of variation in the duration of the entire sequence increases dramatically. In fact, the degree of variation increases linearly with the square root of the number of tasks. Clearly, to be of any use, our models of projects must take into account variation. Were we to ignore the effects of variation, we would be omitting vastly important pieces of information from our predictive models. Yet, today the most popular project management tools virtually discourage project managers from even attempting to represent variation.
Now, let’s discuss interpretation. How should we interpret the sort of model shown in, say, Section (d) of the figure? Let’s begin by outlining the current, extremely widespread practice. Today, project managers and executives alike glance at the completely deterministic representations of their projects; they identify the so-called last scheduled day of work; and they make a commitment for that deterministic, wrong, and even boneheaded estimate of project duration. By allowing this practice, a project manager pretends that there is only a single value in that magical duration bucket, when, in fact, there is an infinity of values.
The histogram above the representation of eight tasks indicates that the actual duration of the sequence is entirely unpredictable over a very wide range of values. The operative word is unpredictable. This is the effect of variation. It makes it impossible for us to specify precise durations and to make precise commitments, without offering up bold-faced lies to executives and customers alike. At any time before a project is completed, we cannot possibly know the final duration of the project, no matter how emphatically we pretend that we can. So how should we interpret the 8-task model?
We should interpret the model, the histogram, and any desired or target value of duration in terms of our confidence that the sequence might be completed within the desired value of duration. For example, the histogram tells us that the probability of completing the entire sequence in 50 days or less is nearly zero. We know this, because nearly all of the histogram lies to the right of the 50-day mark. Consequently, the expectation of completing the sequence of tasks in 50 days or less comes with a near-zero level of confidence. Conversely, the expectation that the 8-task sequence can be completed within a duration of 110 days comes with an extremely high level of confidence. We know this, because nearly all of the histogram lies to the left of the 110-day mark.
We see, therefore, that we really cannot specify just one value of duration for the sequence of tasks. If it were possible for us to specify a single value of duration, we could display not a histogram but a vertical line at the corresponding value. However, within our very real universe, where variation abounds, this is simply not true to reality. Instead of specifying just a value duration, which implies the complete absence of variation, we and our customers are far better served if we identify the level of confidence that we prefer to maintain. Then, we can identify and communicate the corresponding estimate of duration, which supports our confidence level. In other words, either we specify a desired duration value and a corresponding level of confidence, or we are lying to ourselves and to our customers.
Unfortunately, this is not the widespread practice at this time. Today everyone simply looks at what appears to be the last scheduled day of work, for the project of interest, and makes a commitment for that date. This completely deterministic and equally boneheaded approach ignores completely all forms of variation in task duration and in project duration. Further, the deterministic estimate is itself extremely optimistic in virtually all cases, since all the effects of variation are excluded from the model of the project. Thus, commitments consistently correspond with exceptionally low confidence levels. The risk to customers and to the enterprise is extraordinarily high.
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