Trevor Moat

Managing to Completion in Medical Device Development

A quick survey of available project management tools yields some interesting findings:
1.  There are many of them
2.  Some are expensive, and not worth the investment
3.  Some are free, and still not worth the investment
4.  Most are Gantt variants, and Gantt charts don’t tell the whole story


Gantt charts are the de-facto standard for reporting project progress because they are graphical, easy to understand, they identify critical paths and illustrate dependencies, they support baselining, and perhaps mostly because they have gained tremendous inertia in the field. They are great tools for scoping, estimating, and initiating projects.

I find Gantt charts to be incomplete as project management tools, however, for at least one of the following reasons:

1.  Progress is tracked by percent complete, even though task progress is rarely linear. This leads to a wide range of possible mis-interpretations, and considerable variance in estimates of nearness to completion.

2.  Percentage as a metric is by definition dimensionless, but tasks are most often comprised of multiple smaller sub-tasks of different types and dependencies, and are thus multi-dimensional.

3.  Budget (both consumed and forecasted) is a critical dimension of project management that is not well-supported by the Gantt process.

4.  Gantt charts are referenced to the start of the project, so resolution of budget and schedule declines with time.

This last point is crucial in my experience. Once the major risks are removed (typically about a third of the way through a project), I find it far more effective to manage backwards from the perspective of project completion rather than from the Gantt perspective of progress made.

For example, imagine our project consists of filling the metaphorical “glass half full”: If we reference the amount of fluid in the glass to absolute emptiness, then we lose resolution as the glass is filled. If on the other hand we reference the fluid level to the (well-defined) full mark, then our resolution improves as we approach fullness.

Once the mid-point of the project is reached, the remaining budget and time estimates are smaller than the overall project estimates, and thus variances generated through incremental progress become more visible. To be specific, if a project is three quarters complete, then our progress visibility is greater (by a factor of 3) when referenced to the outstanding 25% than to the completed 75%.

I have found that it’s better to focus attention on the work left to do as the end of a project nears; to measure against the diminishing hours and costs of the outstanding deliverables than against those of the expanding accomplishments.

Image: © Can Stock Photo / Elenathewise

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