Recently I posted a quick-and-dirty guide to process improvement. One particularly difficult question that I skipped over in that post was this one:

When you are mapping your workflow, how do you determine the ideal level of granularity?  In other words, how much detail is too much?

Conventional wisdom is that:

  1. Planning and execution are two discrete activities (remember this assumption)
  2. The key to good execution is lots and lots of planning (which tends to mean planning at a very granular level)

Conventional wisdom is wrong, however.  And this is evidenced by the many examples of poor execution we encounter on a day-to-day basis.

My argument (and this is classic TOC) is that, above a very low detail threshold, more planning actually means worse execution!

In other words, in most cases, to execute better, you should plan only at a high (non-granular) level.

The relationship between granularity and confidence

Let’s imagine that we are planning a simple workflow – getting to work in the morning.  Here’s a high-level (low-detail) plan:

  1. Get out of bed
  2. Shower
  3. Get dressed
  4. Drive to work
  5. Log-in to computer

And here’s the low-level (high-detail) one:

  1. Upon awakening, check to see if alarm is sounding
  2. If so, deactivate alarm
  3. If not, check to see if current time is greater than [alarm time minus 10 minutes]
  4. If so, cancel alarm and get out of bed
  5. If not, go back to sleep
  6. And so on …

Imagine that you completed the second (low-level) plan, and then compared it with the first – and answered this question for each plan?

Rate your degree of confidence that reality will play-out as specified in the plan? In other words, how confident are you that each of these activities will be performed in exactly the sequence specified?

My guess is that you will be highly confident where the first plan is concerned – and not-at-all confident in the case of the second.

In fact, it’s probably worse than that. In the case of the second plan, you will likely be certain that reality will not play out as specified by the plan.

The irony is that the second plan creates a perception of accuracy, in spite of the fact that your confidence in the plan is practically zero!

Finding the inflection point (essential and non-commutative)

It’s tempting to assume that there’s a linear relationship between granularity and confidence (that they vary in direct proportion).  And, if that’s the case, there’s no correct answer to the critical how much detail question.

The reality is that the relationship is definitely non-linear: as the granularity of the plan increases incrementally, beyond a critical detail threshold, your confidence in the plan plunges rapidly towards zero.

Here’s why:

  1. All the activities in the first plan are essential (you simply can’t skip any)
  2. Each activity (relative to its predecessor or successor) is non-commutative – meaning that you can’t swap the sequence without dramatically changing the outcome

However, with a slight increase in granularity, these two conditions cease to apply: not all activities are essential and the outcome can conceivably be delivered with an alternative sequence of activities.

So, my suggestion is that you should plan only to the level of detail where you are confident that all activities are (a) essential and (b) non-commutative (relative to their neighbors).

Semantics are important!

I can almost feel your incredulity at this point! How can a plan at this high level of detail be sufficient for execution?

And your reaction is warranted … because it can’t be!

The high-level plan that I’m recommending is sufficient for planning – but not sufficient for execution.  The thing is that planning must continue after the creation of the plan!

To clear the confusion we need two words for planning:

  1. Pre-plan planning (the planning phase, terminating with THE PLAN) – let’s call this planning
  2. Post-plan planning (the execution phase) – let’s call this fine-tuning

So, in summary, here’s the solution:

  1. Create a plan that contains only the degree of detail that enables you to be highly confident that reality will play-out as prescribed
  2. Accept that the level of detail in the plan is insufficient for execution
  3. Manage prioritization decisions on a day-to-day basis to ensure that reality tracks to the plan

In the post referenced above (quick-and-dirty approach), I talked about the importance of centralizing scheduling and building a management information system (MIS).

If you re-read that article it should be clear now that both of these initiatives are essential for the management of execution.  It should also be clear that the MIS should be designed to enable management to fine-tune the prioritization of low-level tasks so as to ensure the compliance of the undertaking with the high-level plan.

(Execution management is outside the scope of this posting. To explore the subject further, read my brief overview of Critical Chain Project Management.)