It turns out that applying the principles of project management to Thanksgiving dinner is a thing. Who knew? A number of vendors (including us) have released various project management and workflow templates to ease the preparation of what is traditionally the biggest, most complicated meal of the year.

By taking a project management approach to Thanksgiving preparation, you can apply a work breakdown structure, a bill of materials, dependencies, and critical path. This will prevent you from attempting to cook the turkey and the pies in the oven at the same time, at different temperatures, when there’s only room for one or the other anyway.

Project management will also help you sidestep the biggest Thanksgiving angst: Timing the various components of the meal to be ready at the same time. “Now, if you have ever made a traditional Thanksgiving meal, you would probably agree that the individual items served, (i.e. turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, etc.) are not that difficult to make,” writes Geof Lory, who blogs at ProjectConnections. “It is the coordination and timing that is the trick. Getting everything to come together at the right time requires some planning.”

The first step, Lory explains, is a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). This can be a noun-type WBS, focused on the various menu items (turkey, potatoes, gravy), or a verb-type WBS, focused on the activities (roast turkey, cook potatoes, mash potatoes, collect drippings). Having chosen a noun-type WBS, Lory and his wife first outlined the courses of the meal, then listed the individual dishes, and finally further sub-divided those by the ingredients until they had a complete list. “It resulted in an exhaustive shopping list (project bill of materials), and reduced our shopping time substantially,” he reports. In addition, going through that list helped the two of them ensure they were both on the same page in terms of the scope of work.

After that, Lory actually used project management software to create a list of tasks, build in the dependencies, and create a schedule to ensure that all elements of the main course were indeed ready to be served at the same time.

What are the dependencies for a Thanksgiving dinner? Before you can put the turkey in the oven, you have to have made the stuffing,” explains Faye Newsham in Govloop. “To make gravy the completed turkey is necessary to provide the pan drippings. These are ‘dependencies’ or tasks that depend on the completion of another task in order to begin. The length of time required to complete these three tasks is known as the ‘critical path.’”

Elisabeth Bucci, who blogs at The Passionate Project Manager, plans her holiday dinners using the “Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), the standard for the Project Management profession.” Bucci doesn’t go overboard with process, she assures us. After all, PMBOK defines project management as 42 processes, in five process groups. “But, does every project need every single one of those 42 processes? Of course not. That would be silly. As you can see in the detailed Table of Processes for ‘Turkey Dinner for 18,’ I only used about 24 processes, and of those, only 12 are documented.”

Documentation, however, is important, Bucci notes. Her Turkey Dinner for 18 includes the Project Charter / Scope Statement, Stakeholder Register, the WBS, detailed Schedule, and Lessons Learned.

Bucci also reports that she and her husband do a post-mortem of their holiday dinners to discuss what did and didn’t work and how the meal can be improved next time. “During our post-mortem of last year’s dinner (what? you don’t do a post-mortem on all of your projects?), we noticed that we were still spending too much time in the kitchen in that crazy period when the turkey comes out of the oven and it is time to get everything on the table,” she writes. “Our resulting schedule was a complete re-engineering of the Christmas turkey dinner.”

That rethink did not include one of her husband’s ideas. “I am a very open-minded person who embraces change,” she writes. “Except when those ideas are totally ridiculous and silly. Like cooking a turkey one day before, cutting it up, putting it in a shallow roast pan, and pouring chicken broth all over it.”

To rationalize the rejection of this idea, Bucci employed business methodology. “According to Kotter’s 8-step model for organizational change, I certainly saw no urgency in trading off the beauty of presenting a roast turkey against the questionable convenience of this cook-cut-reheat approach,” she concludes.

This leaves us wondering just how the Christmas turkey dinner was re-engineered. Because as open to change as Bucci proclaims to be, we all know that change is hard. Here’s hoping that she shares the new and improved Table of Processes for the PMBOK in time for the next round of holidays.

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