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18 January 2019
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To plan or not to plan

2 June 2014  

“We need a plan” is a fairly obvious statement before you start any endeavour and with a decent plan in place there is little excuse for not succeeding; “I love it when a plan comes together,” I think Hannibal Smith used to say in each episode of The A Team.

But what about when a plan goes off the rails, or if you don’t have a plan?

Plans can go wrong through circumstances beyond your control and that is why we build in risk management to assess the likelihood and impact of such occurrences, and why we also practise emergency routines. Minimising the consequences of problems is a basic skill for any manager but – as with most skills – you get better the more you do it because experience does really count.

In most cases where a plan fails it is because it wasn’t as good as it should have been. Not allowing enough time or underestimating resources tend to crop up regularly, and although this is no crime when it happens through inexperience, I have no sympathy for those who deliberately try to cut corners. Planning to do in seven days something that you know needs 10 is just silly.

When a plan fails the most important thing is to sort it out. Jumping up and down and shouting is not going to solve anything and wastes time. Working out why you are where you are and whether you can get back on track or – if not – what the slippage will be, needs to be done quickly, and preferably quietly. Again, experience helps here, but if you don’t have the experience this is where you start to acquire it. The other place of learning is in the project review and there you can also learn from what went right.

But what if you have no plan? As I write this, I am letting my breakfast settle before embarking on day three of a project with no plan – or at least one that had no plan when we started. The project is to reorganise a storage facility and I started last Friday with a required target completion of Thursday next week with five working days allowed.

I am doing this job for a business pal and was only roped in the day before and on the understanding that it would be a hands-on management role and so I arrived on Friday morning kitted out in safety boots, jeans, t-shirt and carrying my rucksack, which contains all sorts of essentials that I have learned I will probably need. “What’s the plan, then?” I enquired, and the door was opened to reveal a wall of stuff – you couldn’t get into the building!

There was no plan because the huge scale of the task had bewildered my pal and his team to the point that they did not know where to start and, faced with the point that they had to do something or they would not be able to function, had painted themselves into a corner and, with time running out, had called me.

At moments like this micro-planning comes into play and you set goals and milestones that are very short, such as deciding that you will work for an hour and then see where you are to give you some measure of what you can do in 60 minutes. That gives you a feel for what you can do in a day and from that you can build some sort of plan, even if you are doing it on the move. The next hour helps validate and refine the plan and on you go. Working the weekend gives two extra days, which is 40 per cent more time in this case and at close of play yesterday it looks like we can be close to where we need to be by next Thursday at close of play.

It is a fact of life that operational people get a buzz from fire fighting; we love a bit of chaos to sort out and love the adrenaline rush that situations like this provide, but as much fun as a good crisis is, we all know that the quiet life is easier and more efficient, which is why we value the Plan, Do, Review cycle from which we learn and refine our future planning.

You learn more from the things that go wrong, but the one lesson you should always be looking for is the one that teaches you how to avoid making the same mistakes again.  Yes, you can make something work making it up as you go along, but planning it well first is a much better way to do it. 

John Bowen is an FM consultant