Right to Left Planning

The most famous example of right-to-left planning I can evoke is –

That the United States should set as a goal the “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” by the end of the decade

Powerfull stuff, no messing around, but with a budget of $19.6bn you get a flying start. The engineering that went into the Apollo missions is astonishing. It’s a simple idea, set a deadline date and work backwards, right to left. Set the project team the task of creating a delivery plan to meet the set-in-stone delivery date. Let’s look at the Six Sigma Goal statement using the industry-standard template as follows:

To Increase/Decrease the Metric from Baseline Level to Goal Level by Timeframe

We fix this time constraint during Define. Of course it is within the project teams control to set the timeframe, but that is by no means always the case. There is the industry benchmark of 3-months to aim for and business expectations of rapid results.

That leaves the two other constraints – Cost & Quality. What tends to come next? Which is the more tangible, readily measurable and universally understood? No obscure conversations – “what does quality mean to you?” – everyone understands cost. The project defines its costs and gets the budget approved.

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We now have two fixed constraints which leaves one more to flex, the quality of the project. So you could debate the logic here and cover alternative situations & scenarios within this project-based paradigm. But the real point I am looking to make is – Are projects always the best way of continuously improving business performance? Does anyone have experience of non-Project based delivery? Does it work or do you need to have project structures and the norms of project management? Could the goal read?

To Continuously Improve the Metric

Comments 5

  1. BBinNC

    I’ll refer to Dr Joe Juran, who after 30 years of studying the issue and working with corporations to improve their quailty, came to the conclusion that improvement happens project by project , "…and in no other way".

    I am in no position to argue.

    He also emphasizes that quality improvement/success MUST be planned for the same way a company plans for financial success. Imagine what is possible if corporations spent as much time & resource planning a quality strategy & tactics as they do planning their financial strategy & tactics.


  2. Robin Barnwell

    Thanks BBinNC, unequivocal stuff!

    What I was thinking of was a business in which the quality approaches were fully embedded. Here senior and line managers would work with staff to continuously improve.

    Everyone working in the business is working on improving everyday.

    It’s the other extreme to project hoppers and discrete black-belt projects. Never seen an environment like this before and I wonder if it exists?

  3. BBinNC


    Interesting concept. I agree that I don’t think it exists. At first glance, I’m not even sure it is wise.

    Rarely can any one employee (or dept) comprehend the entire value stream well enough to make improvements in isolation that don’t end up being a local optimization.

    Additionally, I must consider how willing I am to change my behavior just because "someone" in another department says it will be "better"? Not ALL change I’ve experienced is good (I think everyone has examples).

    So, team approaches facilitate the engagement issue and robust methods are applied in an attempt to ensure that the results are favorable. Even with these advantages, some projects fail. I cannot envision a scenario where improvement is not "discrete" and no oversight or strategy is applied to ensure alignment with "the goal".

    Even the most mature and successful EE suggestion processes (at least that I’ve seen published) yield only a ~2/3 accept rate for ideas. Presumably some of the rejected 1/3 ideas looked good to the EE and their immediate supervisor.

  4. Robin Barnwell

    Thing is I am fully aware of the project approach and have been doing projects for years.

    What I was interested in was other approaches. I take on board that you see no alternative approaches – thanks!

  5. Dr. James P. Ignizio

    I served as an engineer, project engineer, and program manager on the Apollo program, starting in 1962 – and right out of college. The lesson that I learned, particularly in terms of reducing cycle time (e.g., satisfying the goal of landing men on the moon by the end of the decade), was that there were three primary obstacles that had to be overcome. These were:

    * Unnecessary complexity
    * Excessive variability
    * Lousy Leadership (e.g., a lack of vision)

    The methods developed by the pioneers in Scienfic Management and Classical Industrial Engineering, even though develped in the first few decades of the 20th century appeared to provide a means to eliminate or at least mitigate the first two of these obstacles. (And, under different names, they still do.)

    Not much has changed since then. Projects fail because of unnecessary complexity (e.g., gold-plated weapons systems), excessive variability (e.g., constant changes in goals and measures of performance, and never-ending searches for that silver bullet). And we all have experienced obstacle number 3.

    Lean, Six Sigma, and OR have led the way in overcoming the first two obstacles (i.e., when applied to the right problem, in the right manner, by the right people, with the right training). Now if we can just deal effectively with the third obstacle.

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