Working Hard or Hardly Working?

The city/county/state is doing a major rebuild of the streets leading to the Interstate exit closest to my house in Seattle.

My office is in my home, and when I travel I take another road to the airport, so I get to see the road construction once every week or two.

You’d think that at one- or two-week intervals, progress would be noticeable. As far as I can see, they leveled some buildings six months ago, pushed the dirt and rubble around, closed off some side streets, and…

…and I’m not sure what else.

Am I wrong to judge this project by visible progress?

You bet I’m wrong!

Observers and even sometimes project participants make this mistake repeatedly. They judge progress according to what is visible to them, rather than on how the project is doing against its timeline and objectives.

Imagine you’re a relief pitcher, and the starter is cruising along. (Yep, baseball season is creeping up on us.) From your perspective, there’s no progress. You’re not warming up, and you don’t even know if you’ll get into the game; you’re a spectator. Should you be frustrated? Of course not; if the starting pitcher is having a great day, your team will probably win. The project is making great progress toward its objectives, putting another tick in the Win column.

It’s easy to mistake visible progress for total progress. However, the visible aspects may be only one axis along which progress should be measured. Think of the following rough grouping of phases for building a house:

  1. Clear the land
  2. Design the house
  3. Dig and pour the foundation
  4. Put up the framing, walls, windows, and roof (“lock-up”)
  5. Finish the interior
  6. Move in

At right I plot these phases against a timeline, showing the level of activity visible to folks casually driving by the construction site. There are three relatively brief bursts of vigorous exterior site activity, a long and apparently fallow period (design), and another long period where it’s apparent there are workers on site but little visible manifestation of whatever it is they’re doing (like sheetrock, plumbing, painting, wiring, etc.).

Of course the project is making steady progress whether or not passers-by can see the workers sweating.

Don’t judge your projects by their visible progress.

By the way, that road-construction project is making progress after all. (I love the web, where you can actually find out what’s going on!) They’re relocating various sewer lines and underground utilities that would otherwise disrupt the construction. I suspect these sewers are 100 years old and in poor shape… and they can’t just turn off sewer service to adjoining buildings for a month while they reroute the enormous underground pipes. The whole site is glacial till (nature’s landfill, so to speak), not the most solid of foundations, and it’s a block from a large lake, which may seep through the work.

I can’t judge the project plan, but I know there’s progress not visible to me.

It’s the same way with most projects.

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