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Cliff Holste

Supply Chain Digest
Material Handling Editor

Logistics News - Sorting It Out

Cliff Holste is Supply Chain Digest's Material Handling Editor. With more than 30 years experience in designing and implementing material handling and order picking systems in distribution, Holste has worked with dozens of large and smaller companies to improve distribution performance.

March 22, 2017

Sorting It Out : The Business Case for Project Planning

Successful Execution of Improvement Projects Depends Upon Completion of Many Parallel and Sequential Initiates


If you are a shipper and going to Chicago for ProMat 2017 (April 3-6) then you probably have a few projects that are in the development stage. Most shippers have a list of projects that must be completed in a given amount of time in order to continue to move the business forward. Getting those projects done and achieving the desired objectives hinges on planning.

Holste Says...

...getting everyone on-board is essential. That starts with establishing a common project goal, something that can be stated in a few words and that nobody can forget.

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Can you imagine doing even a relative simple project like painting a room, without first thinking it through and doing the basic planning? While actually painting a room is no big deal, when you consider all of the planning that is necessary just to get started, it can be a bit overwhelming. Those of us who have done this know that the preparation far exceeds the actual painting. And, then when you have finished applying the final coat of paint, there’s the cleanup, putaway, and returning of the room to its intended purpose.

I used this simple analogy because most everyone can relate to it and because the planning steps are common to projects in general. You have to know what you’re going to do, how much you’re going to spend doing it, when you are going to start and how long it will take to complete. 

Michael Ensby, Director, Engineering and Global Operations Management at Clarkson University School of Business (who contributed to an article on this subject some time ago) acknowledges that when you break it down you discover that there are (3) key factors in planning any project; performance, cost, & time.

  • Performance: This is all about getting straight on what you want to accomplish. Given the above example - what’s the problem with the room and will painting it fix the problem? What are the objections/concerns to doing the project? What are the options and/or alternatives?
  • Cost: How much will it cost? Are the funds available? Does it produce any returnable value?
  • Time: What is the schedule for starting and completing the project? What is the impact of delaying the project?

Because the above planning factors can, and often will, conflict with each other, they need to be prioritized. Again, using on our example - if the budget for painting the room is set at $200.00 you may not be able to hire a professional painter, which brings into question the capability and availability of internal resources (you for example) to get the project done on time. 

Professor Ensby says, “One of the problems you run into in poorly managed projects is everybody wants maximum capability right now for nothing. That’s a theoretical impossibility. What you have to do is sit-down early with the stakeholders and get them to agree on the scope characteristics and where tradeoffs are going to happen.” 

He goes on to recommend breaking down project requirements into “musts”, “wants” and “likes” Then you need to make sure the musts can be achieved within the time and budget parameters. This is important because by focusing on musts you can prevent scope creep – which happens when new tasks and objectives are added on during the latter phases of a project that contribute to delays and cost overruns, i.e., adding new drapes and furnishings to the newly painted room. 

As important as the above three factors are, getting everyone on-board is essential. That starts with establishing a common project goal, something that can be stated in a few words and that nobody can forget. This is especially true for big projects like an organization-wide change initiative. Using software tools like Microsoft Projects and other such charts can help manage the details. But, if you haven’t established the goals and have buy-in, computerized charts aren’t going to help, because the details will never come into play.

Final Thoughts

The more projects you do the more you realize that most of your conflicts occur in the implementation stage when things aren’t going well. Ensby makes that clear when he asks, “What if you had that conflict in the definition and planning stage and everybody stated their case, and fought for their position, and provided hard evidence for why they have that position, and then you collaborate on an optimal outcome that respects everybody’s position?” 

It’s hard to argue with this logic. Think about how much less conflict there would be in the implementation stage and how much more support there would be for future projects. The HGTV show “Fixer Upper” with Chip and Joanna provides a very good practical model for planning and executing projects. However, even with all the experience they have doing complex projects they are often confronted with the unexpected.

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