The Hare and the Tortoise – Deadlines

The Hare and the Tortoise – Deadlines

The story of the Hare and the Tortoise needs little introduction, but I think fits well with this week’s theme of deadlines in the work place. We all know the moral of the story is that slow and steady wins the day. How do you become the Tortoise and not the Hare?

We each work in very different ways, so I’m not saying that everything here is right for everyone.  However, it’s right for me, and I hope you will be able to take a few tips and adapt them to your working day. In fact, the way I operate now would not have worked at some of my past jobs.  Therefore, each of us has to develop our own special way of making deadlines.

First, I want to consider what this deadline is. Without detail of the project or whatever it is it’s difficult to say. However, deadlines come with certain things attached. First is the end date, the key part of the deadline. This is a brick-wall that can’t be passed by even a second. The sad fact is that we all know there is slack in the date that we are not told about. I’ve spent weekends working on projects only to see the prototypes I have worked on sit on someone’s desk for a week before being shipped! Very annoying! But we can’t assume this is the case all the time and that some manager or project manager is pulling a fast one on us. We have to meet this date.

Another element of a deadline is the number of hours you can work between now and the end point. Do you have holiday booked, dentist, your children’s school plays to attend? Do you have other projects running at the same time? These are the physical hours you can work.  Then there are the practical hours you can work: traffic makes you late for work, phone call to IT on Tuesdays asking just how long will the server take to reboot for nonsense Microsoft updates!? There is even something worse – other people missing their deadlines. This is when the PCBs you ordered turn up a day late or you find the your order for a component that said it was in stock is going to take 6 weeks to come from China! There are unforeseen events that are going to swallow up hours of your time, time you could be spending on the project but end up clearing out your inbox as you have little else to do.

Its possible that you may think that there is less risk in being the Hare. You could start off in a blaze working though your project like there is no tomorrow and rushing to the finish line in half the time allowed by the deadline. If you maintain this pace and hit the end with a complete project, you will feel happy that you achieved your targets. However, have you ever sat in an exam room only to finish well before everyone else.  It feels odd, like, yes, you’re first, but why is everyone else taking so long? Have you missed something? How did you finish so quickly? The answer is you probably have missed something by running at full speed though the project. Now do you let the project go or go back and look for what you have missed? Do nothing and the customer will for certain find the problem.  Go back, and you’re picking holes in everything – and everything looks a mess!

There is also one massive risk in getting the project done so early: next time your manager or project manager will be expecting you to do the work in a similar period of time and shorten your deadlines.  Not so clever an idea after all!

The other option is to do like the Hare did in our story: he rushed ahead to a point, thinking he had got most of the work done, and then sat back – only to find that there was a lot more to do that he expected and missed the end date completely! This is oh-so-common in the work place. “Yes, we have done 80% of the project and will now work on something else till we need to finish it off.” Never a good idea!

The Tortoise has a different approach. This guy looks at where he needs to get and paces himself from the start. He has taken into account how mush time he will practically take to finish the job considering that week’s holiday and building in some slack for the PCB suppliers who are always late on delivery! He also looks at how he can be doing other work while waiting on others. Can he start writing up the test and validation specification while waiting for the boards to be built?  He could probably get a draft CE document started in that time, too, and not wait until the end when its needed.

The whole approach the Tortoise has is not just about being at a steady, methodical pace and hitting the deadline on the last day. He is about having control of this workload and planning, day by day, and making certain each sub-task is complete before moving on. This way he can build on each day knowing that he is in the best position possible to move forward. So what’s my trick?

At ebm-papst, I can be working on a number of projects at once that all overlap. Normally, this would be a nightmare to work out and schedule.  However, I use an adapted ‘Dance Card’ project management tool.

First off, my manager or Project managers give me tasks to complete. ebm-papst use the PRINCE2 project management system, so my work comes to me in work packages. Each of these have pre-agreed numbers of hours, costs and a deadline to meet as well as a goal to achieve, e.g., build and supply a working prototype. The number of hours assigned is never equal to the time between when it’s issued and the deadline. That’s because we know lots of projects run at once, and they all have to meet deadlines. I have to negotiate with management how much time I have to apply to a project in order to get myself in the best position possible to complete it.

My weapon of choice is, believe it or not, Microsoft Outlooks Calendar. Now I’m not a big fan of Microsoft but it’s our chosen calendar system for the whole site, setting up meetings and booking rooms, etc. However, I use it to arrange every day of every week.

Click to Enlarge

The process is quite simple as show above. Here I generate time slots for work to be done. “Some Work” as you can see has 14hrs or so spread over the week. Monday, I could be ordering parts that will come in Tuesday but don’t go back to it until Wednesday just in case it’s late. With “Another Job,” I was going to work on it all Wednesday morning, but now have a meeting so have split the work that was planned. These lost two hours don’t vanish: I just create a two-hour slot somewhere else, say the next week. This way the amount of time I have to complete the work package becomes blocks that can be moved around. This also means that if I finish early, then blocks can be dragged forward.

You will also see that the blocks are of different colours. In my real calendar, different types of activity are coloured differently, i.e., all meetings are of one colour, project and non-project work are different colours, and visits to customers yet another. This allows me to quickly scan my calendar and see tasks that can and can’t be moved easily.

Using this simple and visual method, I can make certain I don’t go over the allowed hours or deadline. It’s not like there is never a disaster, and I do run over time. This, however, can all be accounted for. If another project is pushed in front, I can show where my hours have been used. I’ve now been using this method for over a few years, and it has largely removed any doubt about achieving targets for project completion.


Deadlines hang over every engineer’s head. As strange as is sounds, you have to plan for the unexpected. What is a crucial piece of equipment at work breaks? What is an completed project needs to be done? There has to be room in your schedule to allot for things that could make you miss your deadline.

When I do project scheduling, I like to build in dead time periods into the schedule at certain intervals. That way, if issues develop during project that require extra time to resolve, you don’t immediately become behind schedule. A good time for a dead period is right after a major design review.

Of course, these dead times are hidden in the GANTT chart and not visible to upper management. Some additional things to remember.

1. Not everyone cannot go at 100% all the time. You just burn everyone out.
2. Not everyone works at 100% efficency There are rest breaks, phone calls, etc. that also needs to get done. The best I ever found was 75%, the average was about 60%.
3. The larger the project, the more problems you’ll have with everyone trying to keep to the schedule. This is very true when you need input or equipment from other groups.

Comments are closed.