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Why Things Always Take Longer Than Planned

November 26, 2009

The stewardess worked unsuccessfully on securing the equipment in galley while the last few passengers settled into their seats. After repeatedly attempting to get it locked in place, she finally notified the pilot about the problem.

“Excuse me ladies and gentleman, this is your Captain speaking. We’ll be delayed for just a brief moment while the first officer helps the crew secure some equipment in the aft galley prior to take off.”

The first officer takes the long walk down the isle to the aft galley. He pushes and pulls in a vain attempt to get it to lock in place. After a few minutes, he notifies the pilot that a maintenance crew will be needed.

The Captain and the maintenance supervisor arrive at about the same time. After a brief inspection and a quick call on his portable radio, the supervisor advises the Captain that the unit will have to be replaced and it will take “at least fifteen minutes” depending on how quick we can get another unit.

The Captain heads back up to the cockpit and makes the following announcement. “Ladies and gentleman sorry for the brief delay (it’s now been about twenty minutes since the first announcement). It looks like we’re going to put a new unit in, we’ll be out of here in about ten minutes.”

Ten minutes! The people sitting next to the galley just heard the maintenance crew say that it was going to be “at least fifteen minutes”. What’s going on here? Is the captain naive, a liar, or just optimistic?

Things always seem to take longer than you expect. Why? Probably because “things” are usually compound, physical events that are more complicated than we presume and most of us are well intended optimists. I doubt that the pilot of that plane was trying to fool any one. He was just as eager as passengers to get going.

The funny part is that there wasn’t anybody on that plane who thought it was going anywhere in ten minutes. Negative expectancy is well entrenched. Think about it. When some one promises to get you a report by Wednesday, you probably plan on having it by Friday. If your car is supposed to be ready by five, you keep your fingers crossed all day.

Why did the Captain say “we’ll be ready in ten minutes” when the maintenance supervisor just told him “it’ll be a least fifteen minutes.” Probably for the same reason that the sales department promises delivery by the end of the month when productions is already behind schedule, engineering hasn’t finished the drawing, and the parts haven’t even been ordered yet.

If the intention of these well intended but unrealistic time estimates is to please the customer, isn’t it obvious that real satisfaction comes from estimates and information that is reliable? Think about the few people that you do business with that are always on time. When they make a commitment , you can count on it. It’s such a pleasure to do business that way, why is it the exception rather than the rule?

How can you break the cycle of negative expectancy? Once you’re convinced that the long term benefits of establishing the integrity that comes with positive expectancy is better than the instantaneous, but short lived gratification of telling them what they want to hear, you just do it.

Make a commitment to plan and to be realistic. When you make a commitment take into account human limitations and don’t rewrite the physical laws of the universe. But once you have made a commitment, spare no effort in meeting it.

A little late has become acceptable, it’s the norm. Accurate estimates are such an exception, they don’t take long to get noticed. You can quickly turnaround the normal negative expectations and build a real competitive advantage.

Once you’ve established positive expectations, how do you handle the exception? First, don’t hide. When you’re dealing with a customer, it’s better to let the messenger get beat up a little than not to deliver the message. As frustrating as late deliveries are, not being informed is worse. Return all your calls, bad news won’t go away.

While the passengers were frustrated when the Captain advised them it “would be about ten more minutes”, they were more annoyed during the previous thirty minutes when they hadn’t heard anything. And it didn’t get any better thirty minutes later!

When things get done on time, it looks easy. Don’t be fooled by appearances, it takes careful planning and hard work. Because nothing is as simple as it looks, steer clear of complex solutions. Because it’s a complex world, strive for simple solutions. Simple is hard, but it’s worth it.

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