“Every task has a story.” I liked the concept. And I admired the way one of the managers in the room had used, let’s call it, “strategic probing,” to draw it out from the subject matter experts gathered in the room. In the course of just a few minutes our understanding of the risks associated with the task in question coalesced, our understanding of the task grew and, not incidentally, the estimate of the work and time required to accomplish the task changed.

This took place recently when I was at a client’s site working with them to develop a plan for the annual shutdown of their plant in order to perform repairs, upgrades and maintenance. If you’ve been involved in planning for what’s called an “outage” or “shutdown” you know that planning and successful execution to the plan is critical. Money is being lost because product isn’t being produced and shipped while the plant is down, the work itself can be expensive, and contractors with special skills typically need to be brought in from distant locations to perform the work making adherence to schedule all the more critical.

We were in the midst of a three day session in which we were scrubbing the tasks, their relationships, and their estimates in Microsoft Project. You’ve been in these sorts of meetings. They’re unexciting (being charitable about it), keeping participants from other work and, particularly toward the end of the day, it’s easy to give short shrift to the tasks being reviewed, to not skeptically question how long it’s going to take to really get them done. We had just done that when one of the managers present began to ask questions about a task we had just glossed over. Isn’t that a new employee assigned to that task who will be being trained as the task is being done? Isn’t the technician from an out-of-town firm also assigned to the task on a limited schedule meaning that he may be unavailable if needed for a longer period of time? Doesn’t our past experience with one of the individuals assigned to the task demonstrate that, due to the individual’s productivity, it will take longer than expected to complete the task? And so on. Summing up, the manager said, “Every task has a story.”

Are you getting the story for each task, or at least the critical ones, in your schedule? Are you assertive in your questioning, drawing out considerations that have a material impact on the estimate for the task? Are you making an effort to get subject matter experts to state and document what they know, but which might otherwise remain unstated? Your schedule success rate will be the better for it.