When studying project management twenty years ago, I decided to apply it to making sushis and then, once I had that down pat, I applied it to the building of a roman aqueduct in 16 B.C., which eventually turned into a novel. Meaning to say, project management is transversal in time and subjects. Great cooking, notwistanding for many, is an organizational feat. After Taylorism, Sue unveils yet another aspect of gastronomy which can indulge in advanced manufacturing techniques. P.C.
It’s finally cooling off, autumn is in full swing. For folks in the US, that means Thanksgiving is nigh. Thanksgiving is a warm, fuzzy hug of a holiday. When the leaves have fallen, the pumpkins are deep orange, and college football is at its season peak; families gather from far reaches of the country for a long weekend of indulgence and gratitude. Like a Norman Rockwell painting, the generations congregate at Grandma’s long dining room table to celebrate love, joy, and appreciation for each other.
Thanksgiving commemorates the meal where the Pilgrims and the nearby Wampanoag people sat together and shared the bounty of nature’s harvest in peace with each other. The story goes, that in 1621, after the religious Pilgrims arrived from England and settled near Boston, Tisquantum aka Squanto, a member of the Patuxet tribe, showed them how to cultivate corn and saved the Pilgrims from starvation. That fall, during the Pilgrim’s first harvest, is when their Wampanoag neighbors showed up one day to the settlement and everyone congenially sat together and ate. Everyone contributed to the meal. Now, on the 3rd Thursday of November, we remember this coming together of these two peoples by sharing a meal with our loved ones.
As a harvest festival, Thanksgiving food is centered on the fall bounty. In the United States, these foods are native to North America. A traditional Thanksgiving meal consists of a whole roasted turkey, bread stuffing, mashed potatoes, candied yams, cranberry jelly, soft dinner rolls, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie. Grandmas have been deftly hosting large family parties with numerous complex dishes for millennia. It’s due to their many years of bringing the family together that makes them dinner party wizards. Because making a dinner for so many is no simple task: it requires a lot of know-how, such as planning.
As a former baker working on advanced aerospace technologies, I am convinced that as part of their program management training, all engineers should make a Thanksgiving dinner for a party of 10 people at least once in their life. Because so much more hinges on the success of a great dinner than impatient customers: a fluid family gathering event sometimes amidst tensions and frictions where any mishap can turn into a diplomatic incident. You just can’t fail, it’s the ultimate test! So here is a culinary perspective, the most venerable of all, most likely.
Preparing a dinner for a group incorporates all the planning elements used in managing engineering projects and probably more. The skills to put together a big meal are not difficult to learn but take practice to become adept. Cooking and the people waiting impatiently for the turkey accelerate this practice.
Project execution just like cooking can be broken into 5 phases: planning, defining required materials, purchasing, producing, and delivering. In layman’s terms, that means figuring out what will be in the meal, writing down the list of ingredients, going to the grocery store, cooking and serving. Each of these phases has its own start time and draws from the previous phase.
In theory, it’s tidy and the project progresses through each phase, cascading from one process step to the next like a waterfall descending down its path, stone by stone, with glimmering light and the birds chirping away.
In reality, each step can run the course of the project; unrolling linearly at times and at others folding back on itself, like the pumpkin pie crust forgotten in the oven.
The project plan at the beginning of the project is very tidy on paper. The tasks sequence, overlap, and nest neatly with each other. The objectives are clearly defined. The durations of each task show that the target completion date is easily achieved. What could go wrong? It’s all so logical !
The cat found the turkey, the corner store ran out of cranberries, grandad took the pumpkins to the shooting range, the new daughter in law doesn’t like pumpkin gluten, the stove went bezerk...you name it!
But before the chaos, let's look at the method. Project planning phase boils down to 3 questions: What are we doing? How are we doing it? When are we going to have it done?
You’ll notice, if you’re a fan of Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why, that I didn’t ask why we are doing the project: probably because it is the most enduring question silently running through millions of minds during that holiday. Somewhat the same that happens to many engineers. By the time an engineer in a large organization is assigned to a project, management has already settled on the purpose. An engineer’s role, by default of their position, is to execute the project. Buying in to the vision is nice but inconsequential. Likewise, much of our daily lives are driven not by vision but by circumstance and obligation.
Thanksgiving dinner is a perfect example of a project that for many is an obligation, where an expectation drives the event rather than a desire to throw a party. I would say many Thanksgiving participants gather with good amount of teeth gritting, a just get through with it attitude, and a what can I avoid? mentality. Thanksgiving is social requirement, not entertainment; which is why it lends itself very well to a program management training exercise.
When a project has an inspiring vision, and an empowering “Why”, the excitement can drive the project and inspire participation without much effort, seamlessly. The drudgery of working a project out of obligation is where the real learning of program management will occur. How do you get people to perform on time when there’s no inspiration? In project manager we call this a leader, in a family we call this impossible.
But let’s get back on task…..
Ok, what are we doing? Here’s where we define the project deliverables – what and how many are we making and shipping to the customer. In an engineering project this is defined in the contract. The deliverables can be I-beams to build a bridge for instance. It’s important at this step to clearly define the scope and state of what you’re making and what you’re not making, even though it is difficult to define a "finely tuned, turkey tender hitch-less evening of joy and laughter".
In our Thanksgiving dinner example, “what are we doing?” is that we will serve 10 people a traditional turkey with all the fixings. To keep it on theme, all the dishes will be served family style with everyone sitting at a large table. Bowls and platters will be passed around the table for each to serve their own portion. Never mind that a buffet style dinner is way easier for a party of 10 to execute than family style.
Once we know what we’re going to make we need to decide how we’re going to make them. Those I-beams will need to meet certain requirements so that the bridge doesn’t fall down. The steel will require specific forging, annealing, and processing steps for the material to meet the required loads. A factory will need specialized equipment and procedures to process the raw steel. Paint or anti-corrosion coatings must be accounted for.
This is where we will need to start making decisions for our Thanksgiving meal. Many of the traditional dishes are baked or roasted in an oven. Besides it being impossible of fit all the dishes in the oven at once, each dish cooks at a different temperature. If we chose to stick with all the dishes that are made in the oven, we will be forced to prioritize the order of the cooking.
These things all need to happen by a certain date. Remember, you don’t want that awkward silence in the living room to persist beyond 6:33PM. The duration of time it takes for all the processes to create the project deliverables must be considered. The timeframes depend upon lead times for purchasing materials, how long it take to process the materials, and the distance goods will ship. If a project is found to fall short of the needed delivery date, then different material sources and processes may be considered to make the deliverables.
Our Thanksgiving dinner could be too ambitious for the time we have to prepare it. Making each dish from scratch is time consuming and a complex number of steps. To make every dish, a plan to breakdown the work which covers multiple days will help balance the work load.
The project plan will need to be pretty reliable before we move on to the next phase, but it will also evolve along the way. The plan helps to determine if the project scope and deliverables should be revised, or different processes could be implemented, or request more time to complete. All this planning is needed yet the second we start work, it will be revised. For that reason, the plan should be specific enough to define the activity, yet flexible enough to evolve.
But those in the kitchens, mothers often, but men also, know this principle very well. Because practice counts and the cooks are pros of retro-planning.
For those readers who are experienced engineers but novice cooks, please read on to the expanded, engineer's version (below). For the rest of you, never forget offering a meal is a supreme balance between art, science, planning and a lots of loving care!
Turkey by Dall.E, prompt "A turkey pointing at a project board, van gogh style"
Painting by Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want