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The truth about Gantt charts

Patrick Weaver
January 25, 2012

Henry Gantt (pictured left) is famous for the wrong reasons. He did not invent bar charts that simply show the time work is planned to occur: these were invented more than 100 years before Gantt’s work (see: A Brief History of Scheduling) and were in regular, but often ineffective, use: “Many shops have a very nice schedule system; they plan their work beautifully—at least, it looks very pretty on paper; but they have no means of finding out whether those schedules are lived up to or not.”

Gantt’s focus was on increased production through the use of effective measurement and planning. The charts he used (there were many different types) were only a means to an end: “The man who undertakes to introduce scientific management and pins his faith to rules, and the use of forms and blanks, without thoroughly comprehending the principles upon which it is based, will fail. Forms and blanks are simply the means to an end. If the end is not kept clearly in mind, the use of these forms and blanks is apt to be detrimental rather than beneficial.”

The innovations introduced by Gantt in the early 1900s, which are still very much the focus of modern project management, included team motivation, change management and the effective use of control systems. While the focus of his work was in manufacturing, with the advantage of repetition and standardisation, many of his ideas and processes are still valuable in today’s projects.

Henry Gantt’s standout contribution was his innovative approach to workforce management—today we would call this ‘team’ management—overlaid with a strong sense of industrial democracy. It was focused on the efficient utilisation of labour and a fair division of the rewards from any improvement in productivity between the workers and the owners of the factories.

Scientific management

The starting point of Gantt’s work was the idea of scientific management, introduced by Frederic Taylor. The best way to understand a complex task is to break it down into its component parts, scientifically study and optimise each part and then synthesise the optimum way to complete the work from the optimised parts. What made Gantt’s work uniquely valuable was the way this information was used to motivate workers.

His method involved scientific investigation and careful standardisation of the work into tasks. Once a task had been set, individual instruction was provided to each worker, and once they had learnt to perform the task in the set time and to the required quality, a bonus was paid in addition to their daily wage.

Gantt recognised incentives are a far more powerful motivator then penalties. He described his approach as a system of education for the workforce, with a bonus for those who learned! It proved highly effective generated sustained productivity improvements well in excess of 100%.

His system also interconnected the reward paid to the supervisor with the rewards paid to the workers. The foreman received a bonus for each worker in his team that received a bonus, but the foreman’s bonus was doubled if all of the workers in his team achieved a bonus. This encouraged the foreman to work with and support the least effective members of ‘the team’ to bring everyone up to standard.

Importantly whenever a bonus was not earned, the cause was investigated and the cause of the failure removed or remedied: Gantt wanted everyone to make their bonus every day! When this was achieved, the plant as a whole was working to its optimum productivity and generating the maximum profits, a win-win outcome.

When introducing his system to a new factory, Gantt recognised that a “system of management requires all of its parts to work in harmony if it is to be effective” and that “in every workroom there is a fashion, a habit of work, and every new worker follows that fashion, for it isn’t respectable not to”.  Consequently, “the changing of a system of management is a very serious matter and cannot be done by a superintendent in his spare time”.

The change needed to introduce a new system requires a high degree of skill, takes time and needs planning. The challenge is getting senior management to actively support the change that brings better systems into use to the benefit of the organisation.

Henry Gantt recognised the problems introducing his systems that demonstrably increased production by more than 100% and massively increased profits. Here are a few of his grumpier comments:

  • The changing of a system of management is a very serious matter and cannot be done by a superintendent in his spare time (Work Wages & Profits, 1913).
  • The most casual investigation into the reasons why so many of the [WW1] munition manufacturers have not made good, reveals the fact that their failure is due to lack of managerial ability rather than to any other cause (Organizing for Work, 1919).
  • Our most serious trouble is incompetency in high places. As long as that remains uncorrected, no amount of efficiency in the workmen will avail very much (Organizing for Work, 1919).
  • Our industries are suffering from lack of competent managers, which is another way of saying that many of those who control our industries hold their positions, not through their ability to accomplish results, but for some other reason (Organizing for Work, 1919).

By the way, Henry was also less than impressed with the bankers of his time as well: “No … laws … have so far been framed that restrain the ‘high financier’ who, without giving anything in return, taxes the community for his own benefit to an extent that makes all other forms of acquiring without giving an adequate return seem insignificant.” This seems a thoroughly modern sentiment.

Patrick Weaver
Patrick Weaver is the managing director of Mosaic Project Services and the business manager of Stakeholder Management Pty Ltd. He has been a member of both PMI and AIPM since 1986 and is a member of the Asia Pacific Forum of the Chartered Institute of Building. In addition to his work on ISO 21500, he has contributed to a range of standards developments with PMI, CIOB and AIPM.
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