Here are examples and explanations of four commonly used tools in project planning and project management, namely: Brainstorming, Fishbone Diagrams, Critical Path Analysis Flow Diagrams, and Gantt Charts. Additionally and separately see business process modelling and quality management, which contain related tools and methods aside from the main project management models shown below.
The tools here each have their strengths and particular purposes, summarised as a basic guide in the matrix below.
*** – main tool
|Project brainstorming and initial concepts, ideas, structures, aims, etc||***||**|
|Gathering and identifying all elements, especially causal and hidden factors||*||***||**|
|Scheduling and timescales||**||***|
|Identifying and sequencing parallel and interdependent activities and stages||*||***||*|
|Financials – costings, budgets, revenues, profits, variances, etc||*||*||**||***|
|Monitoring, forecasting, reporting||*||**||***|
|Troubleshooting, problem identification, diagnosis and solutions||**||***||**||*|
|‘Snapshot’ or ‘map’ overview – non-sequential, non-scheduled||**||***|
|Format for communications, presentations, updates, progress reports, etc||*||*||***|
Brainstorming is usually the first crucial creative stage of the project management and project planning process. See the brainstorming method in detail and explained separately, because it many other useful applications outside of project management.
Unlike most project management skills and methods, the first stages of the brainstorming process is ideally a free-thinking and random technique. Consequently it can be overlooked or under-utilized because it not a natural approach for many people whose mains strengths are in systems and processes. Consequently this stage of the project planning process can benefit from being facilitated by a team member able to manage such a session, specifically to help very organised people to think randomly and creatively.
Fishbone diagrams are chiefly used in quality management fault-detection, and in business process improvement, especially in manufacturing and production, but the model is also very useful in project management planning and task management generally.
Within project management fishbone diagrams are useful for early planning, notably when gathering and organising factors, for example during brainstorming. Fishbone diagrams are very good for identifying hidden factors which can be significant in enabling larger activities, resources areas, or parts of a process. Fishbone diagrams are not good for scheduling or showing interdependent time-critical factors.
Fishbone diagrams are also called ’cause and effect diagrams’ and Ishikawa diagrams, after Kaoru Ishikawa (1915-89), a Japanese professor specialising in industrial quality management and engineering who devised the technique in the 1960s. Ishikawa’s diagram became known as a fishbone diagram, obviously, because it looks like a fishbone:
A fishbone diagram has a central spine running left to right, around which is built a map of factors which contribute to the final result (or problem).
For each project the main categories of factors are identified and shown as the main ‘bones’ leading to the spine. Into each category can be drawn ‘primary’ elements or factors (shown as P in the diagram), and into these can be drawn secondary elements or factors (shown as S). This is done for every category, and can be extended to third or fourth level factors if necessary.
The diagram above is a very simple one. Typically fishbone diagrams have six or more main bones feeding into the spine. Other main category factors can include Environment, Management, Systems, Training, Legal, etc.
The categories used in a fishbone diagram should be whatever makes sense for the project. Various standard category sets exist for different industrial applications, however it is important that your chosen structure is right for your own situation, rather than taking a standard set of category headings and hoping that it fits.
At a simple level the fishbone diagram is a very effective planning model and tool – especially for ‘mapping’ an entire operation. Where a fishbone diagram is used for project planning of course the ‘Effect’ is shown as an aim or outcome or result, not a problem.
The ‘Problem’ term is used in fault diagnosis and in quality management problem-solving. Some fishbone diagrams can become very complex indeed, which is common in specialised quality management areas, especially where systems are computerised.
This model, and the critical path analysis diagram are similar to the even more complex diagrams used on business process modelling within areas of business planning and and business process improvement.
Project Critical Path Analysis
‘Critical Path Analysis’ sounds very complicated, but it’s a very logical and effective method for planning and managing complex projects. A critical path analysis is normally shown as a flow diagram, whose format is linear (organised in a line), and specifically a time-line. Critical Path Analysis is also called Critical Path Method – it’s the same thing – and the terms are commonly abbreviated, to CPA and CPM.
A commonly used tool within Critical Path Analysis is PERT (Program/Programme/Project Evaluation and Review Technique) which is a specialised method for identifying related and interdependent activities and events, especially where a big project may contain hundreds or thousands of connected elements. PERT is not normally relevant in simple projects, but any project of considerable size and complexity, particularly when timings and interdependency issues are crucial, can benefit from the detailed analysis enabled by PERT methods. PERT analysis commonly feeds into Critical Path Analysis and to other broader project management systems, such as those mentioned here.
Critical Path Analysis flow diagrams are very good for showing interdependent factors whose timings overlap or coincide. They also enable a plan to be scheduled according to a timescale. Critical Path Analysis flow diagrams also enable costings and budgeting, although not quite as easily as Gantt charts (below), and they also help planners to identify causal elements, although not quite so easily as fishbone diagrams (below).
This is how to create a Critical Path Analysis. As an example, the project is a simple one – making a fried breakfast. First note down all the issues (resources and activities in a rough order), again for example:
Assemble crockery and utensils, assemble ingredients, prepare equipment, make toast, fry sausages and eggs, grill bacon and tomatoes, lay table, warm plates, serve. Note that some of these activities must happen in parallel – and crucially they are interdependent. That is to say, if you tried to make a fried breakfast by doing one task at a time, and one after the other, things would go wrong. Certain tasks must be started before others, and certain tasks must be completed in order for others to begin. The plates need to be warming while other activities are going on. The toast needs to be toasting while the sausages are frying, and at the same time the bacon and sausages are under the grill. The eggs need to be fried last. A Critical Path Analysis is a diagrammatical representation of what needs done and when. Timescales and costs can be applied to each activity and resource. Here’s the Critical Path Analysis for making a fried breakfast:
This Critical Path Analysis example below shows just a few activities over a few minutes. Normal business projects would see the analysis extending several times wider than this example, and the time line would be based on weeks or months. It is possible to use MS Excel or a similar spreadsheet to create a Critical Path Analysis, which allows financial totals and time totals to be planned and tracked. Various specialised project management software enable the same thing. Beware however of spending weeks on the intricacies of computer modelling, when in the early stages especially, a carefully hand drawn diagram – which requires no computer training at all – can put 90% of the thinking and structure in place. (See the details about the most incredible planning and communications tool ever invented, and available for just a tiny fraction of the price of all the alternatives.)
Gantt Charts (commonly wrongly called gant charts) are extremely useful project management tools. The Gantt Chart is named after US engineer and consultant Henry Gantt (1861-1919) who devised the technique in the 1910s.
Gantt charts are excellent models for scheduling and for budgeting, and for reporting and presenting and communicating project plans and progress easily and quickly, but as a rule Gantt Charts are not as good as a Critical Path Analysis Flow Diagram for identifying and showing interdependent factors, or for ‘mapping’ a plan from and/or into all of its detailed causal or contributing elements.
You can construct a Gantt Chart using MSExcel or a similar spreadsheet. Every activity has a separate line. Create a time-line for the duration of the project (the breakfast example shows minutes, but normally you would use weeks, or for very big long-term projects, months). You can colour code the time blocks to denote type of activity (for example, intense, watching brief, directly managed, delegated and left-to-run, etc.) You can schedule review and insert break points. At the end of each line you can show as many cost columns for the activities as you need. The breakfast example shows just the capital cost of the consumable items and a revenue cost for labour and fuel. A Gantt chart like this can be used to keep track of progress for each activity and how the costs are running. You can move the time blocks around to report on actuals versus planned, and to re-schedule, and to create new plan updates. Costs columns can show plan and actuals and variances, and calculate whatever totals, averages, ratios, etc., that you need. Gantt Charts are probably the most flexible and useful of all project management tools, but remember they do not very easily or obviously show the importance and inter-dependence of related parallel activities, and they won’t obviously show the necessity to complete one task before another can begin, as a Critical Path Analysis will do, so you may need both tools, especially at the planning stage, and almost certainly for large complex projects.
A wide range of computerised systems/software now exists for project management and planning, and new methods continue to be developed. It is an area of high innovation, with lots of scope for improvement and development. I welcome suggestions of particularly good systems, especially if inexpensive or free. Many organizations develop or specify particular computerised tools, so it’s a good idea to seek local relevant advice and examples of best practice before deciding the best computerised project management system(s) for your own situation.
Project planning tools naturally become used also for subsequent project reporting, presentations, etc., and you will make life easier for everyone if you use formats that people recognize and find familiar.