Distilling a century’s worth of experience into 10 key points
By Richard Muther and Gerald Nadler
The 20th century witnessed the greatest development of technical wonders the world has ever seen. While these advances will continue, the world of business already is seeing a shift in emphasis from doing, producing and product improvement to the more mental emphasis on planning, reasoning and creating.
This is recognition that the mind is underutilized and that it can be made more contributive to our ways of living, of being and of doing. While this may involve all of us in a slow-moving shift of emphasis, a look at where the mind is coming from can be a helpful place to start preparing ourselves for the fresh advances in brain performance.
Recognizing this, it might be helpful to summarize where the craft of project planning stands and let readers weigh in on what may have been overlooked or under-emphasized. Planning is a mental process. It is the process of determining what a person intends to do and how that person proposes to get it done. Those who do this planning — a roster that includes everyone at some time — are called planners. The output of the planning process is termed a plan. Specific, nonroutine activities of determining plans or installing them are termed projects.
This article addresses project planning for any definable subject area. That is, we are not limiting our thoughts and learning to community planning, financial planning, facilities planning, strategic planning or careers planning. This article is organized around the most-need-to-be-understood entities of project planning, whatever the subject matter of that plan is.
The 10 points below should be useful to industrial engineers — and anybody else — involved with planning projects.
1. Essential for good performance
In the classic definition of management (plan, organize, direct and control), the leading term is plan. Research and writings on leadership reveal that good leaders become such because they plan to be. Top managers are said to devote half their time to planning. Several experts identify planning as the most profitable activity of mankind. Taking action on plans leads to consequences, and well-made plans acted upon properly lead to good results.
Any person involved in today’s world cannot avoid planning in multiple situations every day. And proper planning is an essential part of good performance. Planning is a process or way of balancing:
- The product: The purpose and target wanted (what)
- The process: The steps or procedures to follow (how)
- The project: Its people, resources and timing (constraints)
Point: Learning how to be a good planner can be immensely profitable.
2. The necessary introductory adjective
The word “planning,” by itself, has a meaning or understanding to the speaker or writer. But when listeners or readers have not been informed about the subject area or content field, too often they are uncertain as to what the speaker or writer is talking about. Planning is such a common activity — everyone makes plans every day — that this ambiguity can be costly to all those involved.
This uncertainty occurs even between regular, repetitive planning groups within the same organization, such as production planning, new product planning, inventory planning and strategic planning. These are everyday titles or expressions used in many organizations.
If planners are not cautiously definitive, they can become guilty of creating unnecessary confusion. Further, even within designated subject areas, there can be uncertainty just in the term itself. “Planning” refers to the function of planning, to an organizational group using the name, to various subgroups within the larger group, to “outside” contributors, and to specific projects or phases within them.
Point: Planners need to be clear as to what it is they are talking about.
3. Oh, the humanity
People make plans. In spite of technical considerations, physical measurements, factual realities, established systems and pre-established regulations, the fact is that humans put plans together.
In small projects the “people” may be one individual. On larger projects, they typically become classed as planners proper, as contributors or advisors, and as approvers or regulators. Regardless of how they are classed or the function they perform, people bring with them many differences, experiences, educations and exposures that help form a pool of ideas, thoughts or suggestions. While this can be of great benefit, there is a varying degree of reliability that goes with each viewpoint.
BALANCE IS THE KEY
Project planning is a process of balancing:
- The product — the purpose or results wanted (what)
- The process — the way or procedures to follow (how)
- The project — the people, resources and timing (constraints)
Furthermore, individuals can have vested interests based on personal desires rather than the broader good of more balanced reasoning. And there is always the management problem, especially when the planning group is more than three people. Often overlooked are those people who will be affected by the new or different ways of doing things as a result of the new plans being considered. Finally, you, the project leader, also can be a problem. Our lesson learned is simple: A bit of humility up front can save a heap of frustration later on.
Point: You never can rule people out of your planning.
4. It is always about the future
Typically, time is divided into past, present and future, but with planning you always deal for the future. That is, what we intend to do and how we propose to get it done, by its very nature, means immediately, sometime soon, or sometime in the longer future. The future, of course, is uncertain. It cannot be foreseen completely, and seldom can it be reliably exact. Moreover, it is subject to changes of all kinds during the planning process as well as during the installed life of the installed operation.
Planners typically divide the target periods of installed life in the future into short, intermediate and long (or short, long and extra long). The proposed periods of using the installed plan thus can have a life sequence of dynamic sustainability. And, like most solid systems, we plan from the whole to the parts and the long to the more immediate.
The future also plays a part in the period it takes to do the planning. The phases of planning work (before taking action on the installation) must be scheduled. This varies with the size of the project, but it basically is tied to a four-phase framework like orientation, overall plan, detail plans and action plans. Some think of future “size” as 20 levels between molecule and the universe, each level fitting within the next larger level or system.
Point: The concept of fitting levels of space, periods of time, and phases of planning together as a regular reality of project scheduling can be meaningful.
5. Planning is widely applicable
Planning is applicable to any definable subject area, large or small, near or long term, and to most any combination of issues. Still, to be done well, planning has to be related to its surrounding systems and conditions.
The basic sequence of getting things done can be expressed as see, plan, do, use.
See involves observing, receiving, envisioning and understanding the proposed purposes, results wanted and the process to be followed. Plan involves determining what to do and/or how to do it. Do involves taking action or installing the plan. Use involves making it work to get what was wanted in the seeing. Depending on one’s definition of results, they may not be attained until the installation is made to work as planned.
This planning-to-get-what-you-intend approach is different from problem solving, which is analyzing what you have and synthesizing a better way of performing. When we tie together the future and the process of planning, regardless of the project’s subject area, we get some basic concepts, including the following: Plan from the outside in, from the whole to the parts, from the long term to the short, from the results wanted to the means of achievement, and from the experienced planner to the newly hired.
Point: Planning is a logical sequence or system of thinking and/or doing in order to get things installed and working right.
6. Planning has a basic process
Of course every project is different, in subject area or content, in size or complexity of project, and in specific constraints or situations involved. But there are basic processes that planners can follow. It is not surprising that perhaps the two leading planning processes are fairly similar.
First is the basic enhancer of creative thinking, where each phase of planning follows the sequence of list, organize and decide.
- List as many ideas as possible.
- Organize the ideas into three to five options to consider.
- Decide which option is best for the project or phase thereof.
A second process is known as planning by design, where each project follows a pre-designed working model that is:
- Compatible with the formula for planning: Discern, devise and decide
- Particular to the fundamentals of the subject area/content: A related to B leads to Cs
- Appropriate to the “size” of the project at hand: Short-form, full and extended version
Point: For best results, planning should follow a recognized process that is suited to the variables involved.
7. Planning prevents problems
Planning allows us to make all kinds of mistakes or errors before we spend the money, time or effort to do something. Making plans and judging their costs and benefits before we do the work allows us to try out our thoughts or suggestions, or propose the estimates, visualize the risks and simulate the plan, all before we commit to a specific course. While we are still on paper, on screen or in thought, planning probably is the best insurance we can get.
Point: Planning reduces the likelihood of failure and the seriousness of mistakes made.
8. Systematic and systemic
Planning is a process. It should be applied in an orderly way, from the often fuzzy front end to the more definitive installation planning. It changes degrees of finiteness as the project planning advances. That’s why we divide planning projects into phases, gradually working from the whole to the more specific details, hopefully by following a comprehensive, systematic process. At the same time and within the systematized breakdown, each step or element not only should be tied to the whole, but itself should be a definable system, tool or technique that does its share of the planning.
Planning by design, also known as P x D, is a recent development of working models for any particular subject area. It pre-designs a systematic project process for each step. It predesignates the form of output for the specific project at hand and the key document that leads to that output.
Point: A bundle of tools, no matter how systemic, doesn’t make an orderly, comprehensive process; and a systematic overall process doesn’t guarantee that each step will have a sound, systemic planning method. It’s best to be solid with both aspects of planning.
9. The best way to be creative
Being creative is a valuable trait. But creativity has a logic to it that can be enhanced. Basically, we fill our minds with the purposes to be achieved in whatever situation we are in. We understand the conditions involved or that are possible. Then, either in a group or as individuals, on schedule or while “sleeping on it,” we get lots of ideas to generate possible solutions (which is the start of the list), organize and decide steps. We clarify, interrelate and organize the ideas, converting them into reasonable, doable, preferable solutions or plans. Not infrequently, the mind suddenly will discover a seemingly good alternative, especially when relaxed but still full of concerns, like when in church or walking in the country.
Planning, of course, requires a decision about which alternative is best, and that process itself may generate a whole new alternative. On large projects we will repeat the process in iterative phases, typically with different people involved.
Point: The interchange of ideas among open minds or from entirely different situations can stimulate the entire process of planning.
10. Pushing us to look ahead
When we consider only what to do today or tomorrow, planning is not working for us at its best. We aren’t really planners if we consider what was and what is. Planners need to plan for the future: What will be, what could be, what should be, what might be. Without thorough reasoning about the operating life of the installed project, we may be guilty of planning only for the present.
True, managers often push for installation before the planner is ready. Planners typically want more time and hesitate to release plans until pushed to do so.
True, good planners should have the ability to envision, foresee and think ahead. But typically, they have to get their input data from others, which all too often brings its own set of misunderstandings.
True, good planners should help approvers and regulators see their alternate choices. But too often the planner says why it has to be “this way.”
A clear process of planning that schedules “foresightful probing” and that has well-announced schedules of each step within each phase can itself bring on better planning.
Point: Planning by its very nature tends to make all of us more effective, particularly when planners are helping approvers see and understand the plan’s long-term benefits and potential risks.
Richard “Dick” Muther is chairman emeritus of the Institute for High Performance Planning and a retired professional engineer and certified management consultant (CMC). He has led more than 2,000 projects in 22 countries, has written a dozen books on planning, has founded four professional organizations, and has served on the faculty of MIT and as guest instructor at leading technical institutions on five continents.
Gerald “Gerry” Nadler is president of the Center for Breakthrough Thinking, an international firm of affiliates, and IBM Chair Emeritus in Engineering Management at the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Southern California. He was president of the Institute of Industrial Engineers in 1989-90. The systems planner and designer has written 15 books, including The Planning and Design Approach, the 1983 IIE book of the year, and Breakthrough Thinking: The Seven Principles of Creative Problem Solving, a 1994 business book best-seller. He also has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.