Planes, Trains and Projects – The Lateness Problem

Projects often come in later than expected. It depends on who you ask and how you measure, but 68% is a reasonable guess for the proportion of late projects.

The cost of having a schedule

Arguably though, projects put themselves in an inherently tough position, they have a schedule and that’s precisely what makes extreme lateness possible. Without a schedule there’s no way to be late, since there’s nothing to measure against. Think of a colleague at work who never sets a deadline, but never gets anything done. They’re never late, but only because they don’t have any system in place to measure it. I’m not trying to defend lateness, but the point is projects have accountability because of schedules and deadlines, that’s a good thing.

Comparison With Planes and Trains

Airlines in the US are late about 20% of the time, and trains are late 10-70% of the time depending on the route. Now, bear in mind these are processes not projects, they repeat many times whereas projects, almost by definition have never been done before. And yet repeated activities still suffer significant delays.

What This Means

Maybe we shouldn’t be so harsh on projects. It’s great that we have exacting standards, but bear in mind that:

  • Projects are actually measurable, it would be easier to avoid deadlines altogether and eliminate measurement of lateness.
  • Even processes experience delays, and they have the benefit of learning through repetition whereas projects don’t.
Something to think about the next time you shoot for 100% on time completion. Even though that feels like a reasonable expectation, maybe it isn’t. On the other hand there’s a lot of value in aggressive goals.

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