Project Tea

In the course of my life I have watched thousands of people make a cup of tea, including observing and refining my own efforts.  Routine and insignificant as it is, the process still has this in common with a project; it has a beginning, middle and end and an outcome.  Are there some useful lessons to be learned for project management?

No two people seem to make tea exactly the same way.  If you have ever stood in a queue for tea (or coffee) you may have noticed the variation.  Moreover there is no correlation between how much effort the maker puts in to it, how long it takes them and what the quality of the tea is at the end.  People who make it very fast with little effort can produce both some of the best and some of the worst results.  People who put in lot of effort and take a lot of time can still produce a bad cup of tea, and sometimes fail to produce a cup of tea at all.

What are the different approaches to this simple routine job?  Here are some of the main ones you may have noticed.

The one-thought-at-a-time method:

The process is strictly sequential. Is the first thing that comes to mind the need for a cup?  Walk across the kitchen to get the cup.  Recall that a saucer is also needed?  Go back to get the saucer.  Next it’s a walk along the same route to retrieve a tea bag.  Following that there’s a realisation that milk is involved, so there’s another errand to cross the kitchen to get that.  At last there’s a trip to fill the kettle.  When the kettle is carried back to its place beside the power outlet the power can be switched on and there is an idle wait while the water comes to the boil.  Once the water is boiled the tea can be made.  Finally the tea bag is fished out of the cup and walked to the bin, and the tea served.  Only then is it discovered that sugar is needed and a teaspoon has to be found and provided.

This approach takes so long that there’s time for distractions and other more urgent requirements to arise while the tea-making process is going on. The maker may be called away, sometimes never to return to complete the task.

The plan-it-first method:

Thought is given up front to planning the best route to walk to get together the necessary components in a logical sequence, assuming that they are all in the place they were last time.  The kettle is filled first and set to boil.  Following that the cup, saucer, teaspoon, tea bag, sugar and milk are all collected in one sweep and moved to where the kettle is boiling.  Then the tea is made efficiently in one place.

The prepare-beforehand method:

In anticipation that tea will need to be made more than once, the kitchen is reorganised in advance of any tea-making, so that the kettle is placed near the source of water and the cups, saucers, teaspoons, tea bags, bin, sugar and milk are all located together within reach of the kettle.  No time is consumed walking around and no effort is duplicated.

Then thought is given to making the process as concurrent as possible.  During the time that the kettle is boiling tea bags are routinely placed in other cups ready for later orders, used cups, saucers and teaspoons are washed up and dried and drying cloths replaced and milk and sugar topped-up.

There is a big difference in the time and effort involved depending on which approach the tea-maker takes.  Cyril Northcote Parkinson observed the order-of-magnitude impact of variations in approach to the simplest of tasks.  In the opening paragraphs of his famous book “Parkinson’s Law” he says:

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.  General recognition of this fact is shown in the proverbial phrase ‘It is the busiest man who has time to spare.’  Thus, an elderly person of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and dispatching a postcard to their relative at Bognor Regis.  An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half an hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the mailbox in the next street.  The total effort that would occupy a busy person for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.”

The largest of projects consists of tens of thousands of equally small processes – micro-projects if you like.  If you don’t want to be “prostate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil” consider disciplining yourself to follow these rules in all things:

  1. Prepare before you start. Preparation is not the same as planning. It is about organising the environment around the task, rather than planning the task around the environment. Preparation has far more impact than planning on the effort and the time it will take to get the outcome you want.
  1. Make the process as concurrent as possible. Start by assuming that everything can be done at once and then reluctantly admit only essential sequences.
  1. Constantly recall the outcome you want. Ruthlessly resist and discard any diversions.  Constantly “re-calculate the route” to the objective, as the GPS says.  Aim to do each task (micro-project) in such a short time that distractions don’t have time to intervene or can be postponed until you have finished.

If you make these behaviours habitual, it’s not only your projects that may benefit.  You are likely to find that you become far more effective in your personal life too.  Beware, however, of the frustration you will begin to experience in watching how other people make cups of tea...

Alan Fowler

Partner, Outcome Delivery Network


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