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.