The Last Planner and other Old Ideas

I never ceased to be amazed by the number of people who either have no knowledge of project management history and established practice or chose to ignore established practice in favour of a new fad that is the old practice recycled. Given modern project management is less than 60 years old this is a worry (for more on this see The Origins of Modern Project Management)

One of the more annoying ‘new ideas’ is the Last Planner® this methodology has at its root, the idea that the best people to involve in the planning process are the front line supervisors and team leaders who will actually have to do the work. This is a really great idea that has been used by good schedulers since the 1960s. Certainly when I was learning the craft of scheduling construction projects in the early 1970s one of the key messages from my teachers was that there was no point in developing a schedule unless; (a) the foreman though the sequence of work was best and (b) the foreman understood what was involved in the work. In effect my job was to make sure the foremen totally agreed with and understood all of the work implications in the schedule. As a bonus the foreman also was likely to know more about what was involved in doing the work than a green scheduler so we ended up with a realistic and achievable schedule.

Fast forward 40 years and a whole new idea called Last Planner® is being marketed with the idea the front line supervisors should be actively involved in scheduling the work using techniques such as affinity diagrams (Last Planner calls this post-it-notes stuck on the wall). There’s nothing wrong with the ideas in Last Planner® it just not new – the fundamental processes were being used by skilled schedulers 40+ years ago.

The reason this sort of recycling is seen by so many as ‘new ideas’ has been canvassed in A Brief History of Scheduling – Back to the Future. The advent of desktop PCs virtually wiped out the scheduling profession.

Similar adaptation of sound ideas from the past can be found in the concepts of ‘Light’ and ‘Lean’ project management. Both of these seem to be mantras of the Agile software development community (no guys – Agile is not a project management methodology, it is a way to develop software: see Agile is NOT a Project Management Methodology and two later posts).

Lean manufacturing was made famous by Toyota. Some of the key principles such as minimising unnecessary movement and waste, simplifying process and continuous improvement have huge potential in both software development and project management. But Lean is Lean, it was developed by Toyota and can be adapted to areas other than manufacturing. It’s a good idea but it was not invented as a part of Agile.

Light is a different philosophy focused on minimisation of unnecessary overhead. Complex plans and processes should be simplified, but only to remove excess complication, not to remove core requirements. This philosophy is certainly a part of Agile but again hardly revolutionary. Its roots can be traced back to the ideas of Scientific Management in the early 1900s and Parkinson’s writings in the 1950s.

Perhaps as the song goes; ‘everything old is new again’? Or maybe only a few of us have been around long enough to either remember the song or know our history?? At least a few of us old time schedulers will be able to kill off a few more brain cells in Boston next week (by the moderate use of good wine and beer) at the PMI COS conference ‘Revolutionary Scheduling’. It will be interesting to see all of the new ideas as well as adaptations of old ones.

3 responses to “The Last Planner and other Old Ideas

  1. Pat,
    Not only is what you describe a “good” idea it is madated in all aerospace and defense organizaitons. The submitted proposal IMS (Integrated Master Schedule) and the associated Basis of Estimate (BOE), MUST be derived from a variety of sources. The Subject Mater Expert (SME) “can” be one. In some cases, SME’s are not acceptable, and measureable past performance is required.

    Once on execution, the Control Account Manager (CAM) and the Work Package Manager MUST provide estimates based on information provided by those “working” the program.

    To do otherwise is not acceptable.

    The Last Planner group and the Lean Construction litertaure describes alternatives to what is essentially poor planning and scheduling activities.

    I’ve come to understand they have an intractble problem in some domains of constrauction. Having attended on PMI-COS conference and presented a paper of “Establishing the Performance Measurement Baseline.” Many commented that what I described was not possible in their domain. Asking further, it was clear that construction has problems not found in defense. The first is the subcontractors are many time wholly unreliable, will tell you anything, and pretty much can’t be trusted.

    This would the source of failure in defense. So like many “alternative” solutions, it’s a tool that fixes a broken process, rather than fixing the process itself.

  2. Hello Pat,

    Maybe there are no new ideas. What we see in the design and construction industry is a clinging to very old ideas that are not serving the clients nor the industry well. The projects are usually late or over budget or both. In addition we are killing or injuring people at rates that have statistically not changed in 17 years.

    Involving foremen in planning and scheduling might be the way you were taught doesn’t mean that the industry behaves that way. For the most part, it behaves the opposite way. It is burdened with contract provisions that impeded collaboration and fix schedules before specialty contractors have been hired. It doesn’t make sense; people know it doesn’t make sense; the industry lives with it operating in a mood of scarcity.

    The Last Planner® is an approach that is more novel than you depict. Not only does it include foremen (and other supervisory staff) in planning, it uses lean practices for work packaging, batching, learning from success and failures (PDCA) and project control (sorry Glen…I had to say it). Further, the development of the approach was informed by the Theory of Constraints, the Toyota Production System and the Language Action Perspective. None of the three were distinguished 60 years ago.

    It is cute to say “old is new again.” Not accurate, but cute. But more importantly, the test of a fad does not hold up. The International Group for Lean Construction (IGLC) is meeting for it’s 17th conference in Taiwan this summer. About 500 peer-reviewed papers have been presented at these conferences. There is a healthy exploration and debate on project theory that continues year after year. The community is healthy; the practitioners are thriving; and clients are calling for lean construction and Last Planner for their projects.

    • I completely agree with your thoughts on the poor quality of management Hal (and not just in construction). There are shining examples of good management such as the construction phase of Terminal 5 at Heathrow but they are few and far between. And looking at the comments from BAA, they are reverting back to the failed approaches of the 1960s and 70s for the next major project at Heathrow.

      My irritation is in two parts:

      Firstly the insatiable need for newness! The only really new idea in lean construction and last planner is the name ‘Last Planner’. Lean dates back to the 1960s as does scheduling (not quite 60 years but we’re getting there). TOC is a minor adaptation of critical path scheduling based on a flawed theory that people pad durations, is effectiveness comes from another direction, its power as a motivator… (for more on this see Scheduling in the Age of Complexity). The power of getting people to commit to a promise (Speech Act Theory) or as you call it Language Action Perspective also goes back to the 1960 as a formal theory although in practice probably 100s of years. As Goethe said towards the end of the 18th century, “Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans – that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would not otherwise have occurred….. Boldness has genius, magic and power in it. Begin now!” Even the combination of these ideas is not unique – almost everything in Last planner with slightly different naming conventions is in the Agile software development manifesto. Applied common sense is hard to do well, understanding the learning’s of the past is the only way to avoid repeating past mistakes in the future.

      Secondly, a much higher level of irritation is focused on ‘clients and management’ – these people are paid by shareholders to operate their businesses effectively. The reason new branding like ‘Last Planner’ is so effective was summed up by Peter Drucker some 30 years ago, “Thinking is very hard work and management fashions are a wonderful substitute for thinking.” It seems almost mandatory to create a ‘new management fashion’ before management can commit the money and effort needed to apply good old fashioned common sense to the running of their businesses. Unfortunately in a year or two the fashion changes and the same management are off chasing a new fad rather than working on maintaining and improving good practices. You only have to look at the promise of well implemented PMOs to see this cycle – the problem of ‘following fashion’ seems to be a far greater issue in the USA / UK than some other parts of the world.

      I must admit though, the time ‘Last Planner’ has been around is a surprise – it just goes to show most overnight successes take years of hard work.

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