I talk a lot about “on time” as being a project management tool. This might strike many as backwards. Normally we figure if we do a good job then we will deliver on time. I maintain that often, more often than one would suspect, we can figure out what “on time” looks like and then squeeze the project into that period of time. For me, achieving this is a key pillar of the success of any project. I will argue that if we deliver on time, the rest – including good quality – naturally follows.
For more on this, see: Get The Schedule Right!
The first time I realized that I had done something unique regarding being “on time” was in college Air Force ROTC. We had a training program in which the upper class ROTC cadets would run the lower class ROTC cadets through a weekend of intense training at a local Air Force base. I was the cadet officer in charge of training and so was responsible for planning and running this training program.
Towards the end of the training weekend, the Commandant of Cadets (an Air Force officer, not a cadet) commented how this was the first training program he had seen run on time. That stuck in my mind for several reasons. First, it was positive feedback — something often rare in officer training — and second, it struck me as strange. Why would they not usually run on time? I did it. It didn’t seem too difficult. I had to tactically adjust some of what we did to keep us on time. I had discussed options, things to do differently, with my team if things started to get behind. I never even imagined that it would not run on time.
Over the years I came to realize that delivering something on time was more of a goal, often pursued, but too rarely achieved. While I also suffered through many of these not-on-time efforts, the ones where I got to plan and lead the effort from end to end, always — yes always — delivered on time. OK, now here comes all the qualifications and nuances behind this provocative statement (no, I’m not perfect!).
For example, I’ve been on many projects that delivered late and buggy software. This is where I observed and learned a lot of my techniques and strategies. I often had bosses who wanted to throw me at problems on a multitude of projects. I explained to them that if they just let me be in on the beginning of the project or just put me in charge at the beginning, we would not have the need to be throwing people at problems. Yes, I know this too sounds a bit bold. No, they didn’t always believe me at first either. One of my lessons learned is that projects are successful for what we do at the beginning and not for how hard we work at the end.
See more: Avoid This Schedule Trade Off Trap!
Many of my lessons learned articles are illustrated from a large project which was technically ten days late to the first customer. Our “normal” delivery time at that point was routinely three to four months late. The customers saw us as being on time from their perspective, so I am very comfortable at saying this was an on time project. The second and third regions we shipped the product to hit the exact week, and I am pretty sure the exact day it was promised. However, the fourth region was three months late! But that is another lesson learned about how you can tell if the problem is you or the problem really is the customer.
The first project that was ever late that I managed from beginning to end was a week late. I remember it vividly. That occurrence was one key data point in another lesson learned that if things do go wrong it is usually our best people who are implicated (including myself). Again, this was considered an on time delivery by management and the customers who were surprised when we said we were done. Nobody expected us to be anywhere near the date we promised. No one had ever come close in the past.
This fuzziness in defining things such as the meaning of “on time” helped fuel my interest in an objective and statistical approach to project management (see for example: Defect Reports Are Your Best Friend!). However, the bottom line was always that the customer recognized and celebrated the effort as being … on time.