Did You Know that Thanksgiving Turkey Dinner is a Project Planning Training Tool?

I can’t take credit for the “Turkey training,” as we called it, that honor goes to one of the best bosses I’ve ever had. She used this method to teach project teams about project scheduling. I’m paraphrasing her here because it was so effective and memorable that 11 years later I’m still using it. The analogy goes:

“Imagine you are making Thanksgiving dinner featuring a turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, carrots, green beans, sweet potato casserole, tossed salad, and pumpkin pie. To make an effective dinner plan you need to know what time you will be serving dinner, how many people will be coming, if they are bringing any food also, determine if you have enough chairs for them, and what task in your dinner will take the longest.

The single task that takes the longest is cooking the turkey. What other tasks should you consider necessary to preparing the turkey? Let’s assume we are stuffing the turkey and making gravy from scratch. This means we should consider the time to make each item. Before you can put the turkey in the oven, you have to have made the stuffing. To make gravy the completed turkey is necessary to provide the pan drippings. These are ‘dependencies’ or tasks that depend on the completion of another task in order to begin. The length of time required to complete these three tasks is known as the ‘critical path.’

The critical path indicates the single group of tasks that are required to complete the project and take the longest. Note that baking the pie is not included in this list because it can share space in the oven, be started after the turkey is removed from the oven, or be prepared ahead of time. Mashed potatoes, carrots, green beans, and tossed salad can all be prepared while the turkey is cooking using equipment separate from the oven. The sweet potato casserole may impact our critical path if we can’t fit in in the oven with the turkey or prepare it ahead of time as it is a side-dish serve with the meal instead of pie which is served at the end.

In our original plan, Aunt Mary was planning to bring her famous stuffing early Thanksgiving morning. She’s just called to let us know that she can’t get a ride until later in the day and will bring the pie instead. Fortunately, she’s let us know a day in advance so we can adjust our plan.

We now need to fit in an additional task to our critical path that we had not planned on. What can we do? We have a few viable options. We can purchase ready-made stuffing today, we could make stuffing this evening, we could make stuffing early in the morning, or we could move our dinner time forward a little. Although we appreciate Aunt Mary bringing pie, it won’t change the amount of time our dinner will take to prepare.

Let’s make stuffing this evening and ask the family for help to do some of the remaining tasks in parallel; at the same time. This is called ‘fast-tracking.’ Since we’re also having the family help we are also ‘crashing’ the project. We are throwing more resources (family members) at the tasks.

In an emergency, we can shorten the critical path just a bit by altering our cooking method (higher temperature, for example). Although we can do this, we run the risk of drying out the breast meat or burning the skin. We could also shorten the critical path by purchasing a jar of gravy.”

By using this analogy, our inexperienced project team could discuss ways to assign project tasks, set priorities, look forward for potential problems, determine short-term and overall project critical paths, and how to recover from the unexpected. We felt informed and able to discuss the topic intelligently. The exercise gave us the tools to discuss the project scheduling process with others even long after our training was over. My former boss also used a “building a new house” analogy if Thanksgiving dinner didn’t resonate with team members.

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Profile Photo Josh Nankivel

Something this just made me think of is the distinction between crashing and swarming. I don’t know if swarming is in use for traditional project management, I don’t think I had heard the term used until I started getting into lean/agile years back.

crashing – adding more people

swarming – redirecting the team to all focus on a single activity

Both can be problematic in many situations, sometimes it takes more time to get something done when you throw more people on it, or often it doesn’t take any less time.

To tell you the truth, the only time I’ve found swarming to be helpful is when it’s R&D or troubleshooting work. Then you can have multiple team members go off and come up with their own solutions and findings or work back and forth with each other sharing information they’ve learned.

If you throw 3 family members at making the gravy, they’ll just step on each other’s toes and get in the way of each other. It’ll probably take twice as long and has a higher risk of being low quality.

Profile Photo Dave Hebert

Very helpful, Faye (and hat tip to Josh N. for pointing me to it). I’ve also thought home renovation is like this — there are usually 6 things you have to do before you can do the thing you wanted to do in the first place.

Profile Photo Carol Davison

I like comparing making Thanksgiving dinner to project planning.

However I would refer to “throwing resources” as delegating to one’s subordinates or a contractor.

I would delegate in accordance with competencies. For example, I want grandma’s apple pie, or my own. The bakery’s is merely acceptable and Mrs Smtih’s is beneath my specificaitons. Cousin Terry may only bring the cider because he/se can’t cook or never arrives on time so if we don’t get it, the entire dinner won’t fall apart!

Profile Photo Faye Newsham

@Carol. I agree that competencies must be considered but if you have four tasks and four capable individuals you can speed the completion (crash it) with those folks. Having Cousin Terry bring the cider would be useful in our scenario because that means he/she won’t ever be under foot in the kitchen and will bring something to serve the other less helpful family members who will be out in the living room watching the big game.

Profile Photo Faye Newsham

@Josh – Thanks for the suggestion that I write this post in the first place. Feel free to adopt the analogy for your use. I share the story often because it has been a memorable learning tool for me. It recently helped a friend get through his first program management course with flying colors!

Profile Photo Kevin Lanahan

Like all good analogies, this one only works if you’ve ever tried to put a meal together. My wife would completely not get this, but may understand the “building a house” analogy (which goes right over my head, but I get the dinner example).

Profile Photo Faye Newsham

@Renda – the building a new house analogy is a common one I see. Basically, you note that you can’t start without getting some requirements (size, lot size & shape, rules, # of bedrooms, basement, part of the country where it will be built, etc.), then you list the most important parts of the house (foundation, wall frames, roof struts, sheathing outside, walls inside, floors, windows, doors, roof, water, sewer, electricity, etc.), then you list the things that take a bunch of time and can’t be done at the same time (foundation has to come before walls, for example). Talk about a change to the schedule and what can be done about it. You then discuss items that can be “crashed” such as painting first floor rooms while flooring second floor rooms. You can also discuss hiring more workers and why this can backfire.

Any process can be turned into a schedule analogy as long as there are enough steps to use for examples of the above. You are really just looking for a non-IT process that is familiar to the entire team or has really logical steps. Planting a flower garden, running a car wash, collecting trash and recycling, pretty much anything will work if you can apply the questions and examples we’ve shown.

Profile Photo Faye Newsham

@Kevin – this is why I noted the house building example. I’ve been in teams where one would be much prefered over the other, simply due to team familiarity. I’ve seen a bunch of different analogies used. The turkey dinner resonates with a bunch of folks because there are a bunch of steps and it is pretty obvious the order things have to be done in, even if the “teller” has to inform people who are not familiar with all of the processes, most of us are likely to know (from TV etc.) what the big dinner looks like.