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Decentralized Project Planning

Paul DeLong- 02/19/19 05:37 PM

This is the ninth part in our in-depth series on Lean Agile project management.

We've covered a variety of Lean principles that have a direct impact on speed to market -- from resource overload to the primary drivers of success in any project. In this part, we discuss decentralized project planning and execution.

What is decentralized planning?

In project management timing is everything. Having the right information available to the entire project team at the right time is critical. In this way, project teams can make timely decisions that move projects forward, avoiding unnecessary delays.

To sail from Los Angeles to Hong Kong in the least amount of time, we monitor our current position and course correct so as not to stray too far from the optimal path. The shorter we make the feedback loop, the less we deviate from the optimal path, the faster we arrive at our destination. Traditional project teams have weekly project status meetings (longer feedback loops) which result in greater deviation from the optimal path and longer project timelines. An entire week may have gone by before the team is aware of a delay that they could have mitigated many days earlier. How does a 12 month project become 2 months late? One day at a time.

Timely, fast information-sharing is what decentralized planning and management are all about!

Read our complete guide to Lean Agile project management here:

View the Guide

What’s holding up information-sharing?

Traditional planning tools are file-based which restricts them to being edited by one person at a time, typically the project manager. In addition, project plans with more than a few hundred lines become too unwieldy for one person, the project manager, to maintain. To make the project plan more manageable the project manager combines activities into work packages several weeks long, often hiding potentially important information. In addition the plan is updated less often, weekly or bi-weekly.

 decentralized planning


In the example above, how many weeks would pass before the project manager would learn the PCB is taking Bob longer than expected?

After the first week, the project manager would ask Bob, “What percentage of the PCB is complete?” To which Bob would likely say, “About 25%."

After the second week Bob would say, “About 50%.”

And after the third week Bob would say, “About 75%.”

However, after the fourth week Bob might say, “About 90%.”

In a traditional environment such as this, feedback is delayed (weekly), leaving the project manager to be mostly reactive with fewer options available to him to prevent schedule delays. For example, if the project manager knew sooner the PCB was taking longer than Bob expected, he would have more options available to him to mitigate the potential delay and more time to plan and execute them.

Short and fast information feedback loops 

What if project planning tools didn’t have these limitations and could be edited by more than one person at a time? What if each project team had a project manager managing the big picture with an arsenal of mini-project managers, each managing their piece of the project?

Project plans could have a lot more detail and feedback would be much faster. The following flow chart shows an example of a process with a mix of resources and dependencies. Bob is the responsible engineer for the PCB. He develops the plan and updates his active tasks, as does Jacob and Mary and Ken in just a few minutes each and every day.

decentralized planning time

 How much time would pass now before the project manager would learn the PCB is taking longer than expected?

Since Bob’s first task is expected to be completed in the first 5 days, the project manager would know at the end of the first week that the PCB is taking longer than expected. If Bob’s task was completed on time, the project manager would know in the next 6 days if Ken’s task was taking longer than expected.

In a decentralized environment, feedback is much quicker, giving the project manager more opportunity to proactively prevent schedule delays. In addition, everyone’s understanding of important details and the impact of change is clear, common and understood.

Won’t the project team get bogged down by planning?

In a decentralized environment, the total amount of time each person spends updating the plan is about the same as the amount of time they would spend telling a project manager the status of their tasks. In addition, the project manager spends less time updating the plan and has the information on hand in real-time to proactively find ways to keep the project on track.

In summary decentralization and real-time dissemination of project information means:

  1. Daily operations are delegated to the team members with the project manager managing the big picture.
  2. Feedback is quicker and team members are more informed which allows the project team to make better decisions faster – they don’t have to wait for information to go up and down the chain of command.
  3. Teams react quickly to situations where fast action can mean the difference between gaining and losing time.

Playbook enables decentralized project management

In Playbook the project manager creates a structure of the overall project plan with summary tasks and milestones. He then assigns Sub-Project Owners (SPO), typically core team members, to the summary tasks.

SPOs develop their detailed plans to near-term milestones. Since the people doing the work know best what needs to be done, this activity is typically performed with a cross-functional group. In our example, Bob might create an outline of the plan to develop the PCB, then review and revise it with Jacob, Mary, Sue, Dan and Ken.

The project manager oversees the overall plan (systems integration) and ensures the sub-plans come together accurately in a cohesive and consistent manner. Everyone updates the status of their tasks daily, in just a few minutes, which keeps the plan up-to-date and accurate. This provides the project manager with fast feedback so that they can make priority changes daily and gives them time to be proactive and find ways to save time on the schedule. Everyone is well informed, aligned and empowered, and projects get done sooner.

In the next post we will discuss the benefits of frequent standup meetings, which are another key to keeping decentralized teams coordinated.


Want to learn more about Lean and Agile Project management? First, see the number one reason that causes project delays. It's not what you think.

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