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Critical Chain by Eliyahu Goldratt

The full title of this important book on project management by Eli Goldratt is

Critical Chain: A Business Novel“.

In my review posted on Amazon.co.uk, I gave the book a rating of Four Stars. This means that it is Good and Well Worth Reading.

Here is my book review.

Interesting ideas about project management in this management novel.

I was reading Critical Chain when I heard the news that the author, Dr Eliyahu Goldratt died.

The Theory of Constraints guru focuses his attention on project management in this book after looking at constraints in the production process in The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement and in the marketing strategy in It’s Not Luck.

Again it is written as a business novel, this times from the perspective of an assistant professor at a small university whose job is at risk. The hero is offered a chance to teach a project management course on the executive MBA program. It’s a subject he doesn’t know much about so he has to learn as he goes along and his ideas clashes with traditional project management theory.

Projects are measured on three criteria – Time, Quality and Budget.

As a general rule, projects are delivered late, not up to the original standard and over budget. They cost you more, give you back less and you get what you get much later than expected.

Eli Goldratt is pushing against an open door – there’s huge demand for a new way to manage projects that delivers on the original promises and commitments… and according to the author, that means managing the critical chain.

If you’ve done any project management, you’ll know of the critical path – the longest sequence of dependent activities which must be done for the project to be completed. The critical chain builds on the critical path and also assumes that one resource will be the constraint or bottleneck and activities by this resource are likely to be delayed. That constrained resource is the focus.

The author makes some interesting points about why project performance is so bad. Slack is built into the time estimates because we don’t go for an expected 50% success but 90% success and then miss it because we delay starting things we think we’ve got time on.

The way around this is to take away the spare time from the individual project tasks and instead have a time buffer on the project and a buffer on individual critical activities. I like the idea and certainly agree that built in slack does happen. Many people will give themselves extra time to complete a task and still miss the deadline. I’ve also known people chronically underestimate the time it takes people to do a task when working on it full time and I’ve even done it myself.

Few people will admit to padding out their time estimates when challenged but probably will confess to a high degree of confidence in getting the task done before their estimate. Few tasks get finished early because there’s always a little extra you can do to make it better. Using the ideas of the normal distribution curve, you can prove the logic that time must be padded away from the median, 50% of the time.

I really liked the emphasis on the cost of project time overruns because there’s a temptation to scrimp and save on the resources because keeping within budget seems more important than hitting the project deadlines. The cost is much more visible than the missed revenue and profit streams that come from the project but in reality, cost may be tiny in comparison.

I enjoyed reading Critical Chain but it’s not as compelling a story as the classic book, The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement.I can understand some people will think the story is waffle and the contents should be stripped down but I think it’s useful to read about someone developing the ideas that challenge conventional project management techniques.

I had a few aha moments as I was reading it and wished that I’d known about some of the ideas when I was managing large projects. This book will challenge the way you traditionally think about and plan projects.

My one concern is that the book is fiction so it’s easy to have a story of project chaos without critical chain thinking, and peaceful sanity using the ideas of the critical chain. The real world can be a much harder taskmaster.

It is available to buy from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.


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