Saturday, 26 January 2013

Lead times

I want to tell you a story. The details have become blurred over the years, but it is basically true.

One autumn, a keen systems designer, whom I shall call "Mark", in a division of a large corporation had a bright idea. He could see a way of combining the various existing management data into a single easily-read report. He took an outline of his proposal to his head of department, who thought it worth taking to the finance director. The finance director called a meeting and asked when the scheme would be ready. Mark made some back-of-the-envelope calculations - so many weeks detailing, so many weeks programming, so many weeks testing, add on contingency for error-correction etc. - and said "June". The finance director said he would think about it, but after a few days informed the other two that the budget would unfortunately not allow for the new work.

Mark went back to his routine work and thought no more about his scheme until the next April when he had a call out of the blue from the top floor. We've had second thoughts about your program was the message; we can see how much management time it would save and we'd like you to go ahead with it. It will be ready by June as you promised, won't it?

Mark learned from this episode never to give fixed dates in future, but to quote only elapsed time when asked when projects would be ready. When he told me the story several years later when we were both IT contractors, it confirmed my impression that higher management in large commercial undertakings could be as impractical as that in the civil service.

Unfortunately, politicians, because so few have real-world experience, are generally burdened by the same mind-set. They seem to believe that projects can be turned on and off like a tap.

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