Project management through the 1950s

Alan Stretton
February 10, 2011

In the 1950s

Project organisation

Further developments of ‘project office’ approach in US Defense establishments
Morris records that by 1952 joint project offices had become common practice in the US Air Force. Then the 1956 Robertson Committee report recommended that procedures and methods for the development of manned aircraft weapons systems be organised on ‘product’ rather than ‘functional’ lines, and that there be a general elevation of the project manager function/office within the USAF management.

In another establishment in the US Defense complex, in 1955, the US Navy created a new organisation, the Special Projects Office, under the command of Admiral Rayborn, specifically to develop the Fleet Ballistic Missile: Polaris. One of the important project scheduling developments from Polaris was PERT, to be discussed shortly.

Establishing single undivided responsibility on construction projects

Stephen D Bechtel records that the Bechtel Corporation first used the term ‘project manager’ in its international work beginning in the 1950s: “This use didn’t entail a project manager operating in a matrix organisation as we know it today, but rather the assignment of a great deal of responsibility to an individual operating in a remote, strange and often hostile environment, usually with a self-contained autonomous team.”

He also states that the 1951-53 Transmountain Oil Pipeline in Canada was the first project in which Bechtel, as an organisation, actually functioned as the project manager. Although it wasn’t called project management then, “the approach and organisation was a forerunner of what was to come”.

Management of project design processes
Civil & Civic (C&C), which later became a recognised leader in project management in the Australian building industry, was formed as a construction company in 1951, and broadened into design and construct (1953) and property developer (1954). It came into project management in a somewhat similar way to Bechtel. At that time in Australia there were no established concepts or practice of managing the design process, or value analysis, design efficiency/effectiveness, or the like.

In a 1976 seminar Civil & Civic stated: “Consultants, particularly architects, enjoyed a powerful almost God-like position. Teamwork and performance to time/cost criteria were virtually ignored.”

In 1954-55, C&C first project-managed the design of a major subdivision project that the company itself was developing. “By persistent analysis and investigation of design aspects, a 40 percent reduction was achieved in site costs [based on consultants’ designs and projected capital expenditure] and the project converted from a marginal investment to a successful venture” (Civil & Civic, 1969).

From that point, C&C appointed its own ‘project engineers’ to manage the design phases of all its own development projects. It was a natural extension of the above for C&C to then market itself as a project manager to external clients, taking full responsibility for the execution of all phases of projects, from inception to completion. This move was initiated in 1958, but really substantial market penetration was not achieved until towards the mid-1960s.

Project tools, techniques, processes

The development of the Program Evaluation Review Technique (PERT)
According to Morris, work on PERT formally began in January 1957. By July 1957, the first PERT procedures had been published, and PERT was being run on computers that October. Admiral Rayborn and the Special Projects Office public relations machinery began publicising PERT in mid-1958.

As Russell Archibald records: “The US Navy Special Projects Office, under Admiral Red Rayborn, working with the consulting firm of Booz, Allen and Hamilton … developed the basic concepts of PERT. The objective was to create a management method for handling the hundreds of contractors who would be designing, constructing and testing the POLARIS submarine and missile systems … The Navy laid the PERT requirements on the POLARIS contractors early in 1959.”

In the PERT network, the emphasis was on achieving project milestones (events) rather than focusing on the project activities involved, which were often unknown, or highly uncertain. The timings of such achievements were expressed in three probabilistic estimates, namely most optimistic, most likely, and most pessimistic. The overall project result then appeared in the form of a Bell curve, indicating probabilities of achieving an overall project result in terms of timing.

The development of the Critical Path Method (CPM)
What came to be known as CPM was developed from December 1956 to February 1959, by think tank Integrated Engineering Control Group in conjunction with a group at Remington Rand Univac headed by John Maunchly. This effort specifically addressed Du Pont’s “construction scheduling problem” in their very large engineering business (over $90 million in 1956 dollars). According to The Origins of CPM: A Personal History: “The CPM development was capped with the results of applying it to turnarounds at du Pont’s Louisville plant …by cutting average turnaround downtime by some 25 percent through CPM, production to sales was increased enough in the first year to more than underwrite the CPM development.”

The CPM network focuses on activities represented by arrows. This configuration came about as a direct consequence of the initial development of a parametric linear programming model to tackle Du Pont’s construction scheduling problem.

CPM was first mentioned publicly in March 1959 in an article in Business Week but official presentations by the developers did not take place until the final two months of 1959. In early 1959, James Kelley and Morgan Walker left Du Pont, and joined John Maunchly to form Maunchly Associates. Their first public presentations of CPM were in a five-day workshop in Philadelphia in November, and a paper to the 1959 Eastern Joint Computer Conference in Boston in December.

The development of the Precedence Diagramming Method (PDM)
The networking method, later called PDM, was initiated on 1 July 1958, with the award of a research contract by the US Bureau of Yards and Docks to Stanford University’s Civil Engineering Department, essentially tackling the same type of ‘time-cost trade off’ problem as Du Pont and the US Navy. However, Stanford University’s John Fondahl, who led their effort, did not become aware of these other efforts until mid-1959, by which time his ‘circle and connecting line’ model—later called ‘activity-on-node’ networks, which describes their configuration—had been developed to a point where he assessed that it was simpler than the other models.

John Fondahl’s report A Non-Computer Approach to the Critical Path Method for the Construction Industry was published in November 1961. In the proposed time-cost procedure, he featured the use of ‘Precedence’ matrices and used the concept of ‘Lag’ values. Fondahl’s method came to be termed the Precedence Diagramming Method (PDM) from around 1964.

As noted above, the development of PERT and CPM started around the same time, and each group was unaware of the work of the other until they were effectively completed. As the CPM developers Kelley and Walker observed: “The fact that PERT was developed independently of CPM, shows not only that the time was ripe for CPM, but given the opportunity, any number of different people might have invented it.” PDM was also well advanced before Fondahl became aware of the other developments.

Finally, Morris records that in the Harvard Business review of May-June 1959, P O Gaddis published an article on project management. This was evidently the first time that project management had been specifically recognised as a distinctive management discipline in its own right in this highly regarded management journal, which certainly encouraged project management academics.

The end of the 1950s

Project offices, which had their origins in the 1930s, were being well established in the 1950s in two US defence establishments. The need for individual responsibility for project results was starting to be embraced in the construction industry. The independent development of three different network planning/scheduling techniques, which were later to become so important to project management, highlighted the end of the 1950s. In a broader context, we see the beginnings of a rapidly accelerating development of project management, and of its aspirations to being recognised as a distinctive discipline.

Author avatar
Alan Stretton
Alan Stretton's decades-long career in project management includes a stint as chairman of the Standards Committee of the Project Management Institute, upgrading its PMBoK. He is a Life Fellow of the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM).
Read more