CCPM – Critical Chain Project Management

CCPM was introduced in the late 1990’s so is less than 20 years old.  In this short time it has become the default project planning and execution management approach for leading companies all over the world, of all sizes, and in many many different industries.  

CCPM is part of a systems thinking approach to managing organisations known as TOC (the Theory of Constraints).  Just like the ubiquitous Gannt Chart, CCPM evolved from ideas first applied to improving manufacturing, when a global oil company asked “We like the way TOC has improved manufacturing beyond recognition, and how it can be implemented in a very short time.  But we don’t make widgets – can you adapt it for our projects?“.

Critical Chain Book CoverSince it was first published in the book Critical Chain in 1997, the method has evolved and been continuously improved through experience globally.  Whilst staying true to the original fundamental ideas, the method has been extended to improve and simplify its application for complex portfolio management and organisation-wide programmes, for simpler applications, in hybrid uses (alongside techniques such as Agile), and to align with the practicalities (and limitations) of supporting software.

CCPM is still an embryonic method, most project managers have not heard of it, and an awful lot of training and qualifications make no reference to it.  But then innovations and new ideas take time to spread.  What are you going to do to help spread the word – because you can no longer claim “I didn’t know”?

What’s wrong with the current methods?

The methods of planning and controlling projects such as Critical Path, PERT, and Earned Value, have been around for over 50 years.  They are built into almost all the major project management software products.

However, projects are notorious for not delivering promises.  To many, the word “project” triggers reflexes like late, over-budget, contingency, padding, stress, or change.  Why is that?

Many organisations assume that project problems are due to lack of skill and knowledge amongst project managers and teams.  So the most common approach to the problem is training, education, and employing very experienced project managers.  But what if the problem is not the people, but the system they use? If that is the case, might that lead us in a totally different direction in search of improvement?

CCPM was founded first-and-foremost on a structured look at the existing system for managing projects – why do so many projects miss their targets?  This analysis identified a range of significant problems in the prevailing methods which drove the inconsistent performance of projects.  These problems are not due to “bad people”, they are the result of how mathematics works and how human beings behave, combined with the management system used.  The main problem areas include….

  • A fear of uncertainty.  Projects were planned based on fixed task durations, whereas in real life everyone knows task duration is probabilistic (“there is a 50% chance it will take 6 days, and a 90% chance I can complete it in 10 days”).  Very few project schedules are based on the average task duration.
  • Too much safety, not enough safety.  With most tasks being planned to take much longer than the “50% chance” duration as mentioned above, you would have thought most projects would finish on time.  But they don’t.  The problem is the “safety” to protect against uncertainty is in the wrong place, this combined with the following point means the abundant safety is never in the place it is needed.
  • Early is wasted, late is accumulated.   Several human behaviours and statistical effects combine to give the result that traditionally-managed projects fail to capitalise on tasks that finish sooner than expected.  Tasks that take longer than planned obviously have a knock-on effect on subsequent tasks.
  • Integration Points.  Where many parallel tasks come into one, the likelihood of the the downstream task being able to start on the planned date is extremely low.
  • Task but not resource dependencies.  Most plans only look at logical dependencies and assume resources will be available.  This often leads to overloaded resources, delays and pressures to multi-task
  • Multi-tasking.  The ability to multi-task is highly sought after, but the disastrous impact on project completions is rarely understood.  Scheduling individual tasks based on highly likely durations also encourages multi-tasking because people think “I’ve got more than enough time to do this task, so I can do something else too”.
  • A belief that the earlier you start the earlier you finish.  Whilst this is true if you only have a single thing to do, it is the opposite if you have many things to do.  Immediate starting has many harmful impacts, in particular it fuels multi-tasking and having to stop/start tasks.  This has a dramatic – and usually overlooked – negative impact on the rate projects are finished.

Unbelievably the impact of these unintended problems can be shown to extend project durations by at least 20%, and more typically by more than 100%.  This claim is supported by behavioural, logical and statistical evidence.

However, traditional management methods do not address these problems head on, and we are not aware of any traditional project management software solution that accounts for them either.  Project Managers are left to manage blindfolded.  No wonder good project managers are mostly those with decades of experience – they have instinctively learned the hard way about these issues.

The CCPM approach

CCPM explicitly addresses the problems listed above with a different approach to scheduling, and a different approach to controlling execution.

      • The goal is set to complete projects not to start projects.  Many organisations have drastically reduced the number of projects underway at any one time – and dramatically increased the rate of completions.
      • Tasks are scheduled based on average durations – so in 50% of cases a task will take longer than scheduled.
      • Safety is aggregated and included in the schedule at strategic points, aimed at protecting the end date (“project buffer”), and reducing the impact of integration points (“feeding buffer”)
      • Once started, tasks should be finished as soon as possible with 100% attention.
      • Progress reporting is done more often, with one simple question.  Managers of active tasks simply state when they currently believe they will be finished on that task.  This data is gathered frequently – typically daily, at most weekly.
      • Project control is boiled down to two simple measures (i) how much of my strategic safety have we used, and how likely are we to finish the project on time.
      • Management attention, and actions are based on these two measures:  Resource managers can prioritise their team across different projects; Project Managers know which tasks to focus on, and Senior Executives know which projects to focus on.  It is no longer “who shots loudest”
      • The project portfolio is actively managed to minimise the impact of bad multi-tasking. Projects are started using a rigorous pipelining process, based on when key resources are available to rapidly complete them.

This is not a complete description of CCPM – but it covers the main elements.

All simple to describe, but not easy to implement – because these behaviours often cut across decades of past experience and training, formal processes, customer demands, and performance measures.

CCPM Requirements for Success:

  • All managers accept the new ways of working
  • Pilot projects are protected from the continuing business operations
  • Use is not optional
  • Trust and confidence across the project and particularly between project members, project managers and senior executives

CCPM has been used by thousands of companies, in all sectors, since its development in the 1990’s.  When implemented correctly it has reliably reduced project durations by at least 25%, with on-time completion rates to well over 90%.

Before we embarked on writing the book, we were puzzled as to why CCPM had not had a much wider application in construction and capex projects.  We don’t just think it is the lack of awareness, though this is part of the issue.  No, the main issue that we saw was the way in which projects are procured.  CCPM requires a collaborative project team to work, and the traditional approaches to procuring and contracting on projects, are not compatible with CCPM.  There are ways to work around this issue, but in our view, by far the best approach is Project Alliancing.


Comments 1

  1. I share your concerns that CCPM has still not become widely applied, even in big reputable mining companies with their records of ill-conceived, very expensive and failed acquisitions and internal projects.

    My personal experiences of these problems have been most discouraging, particularly at the Olympic Dam mine since long before BHP acquired it. I mention BHP because there may be ways to interest it’s minority shareholder, Elliot Management, in CCPM.

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