The 80 / 20 Rule

June 13, 2009 at 5:40 pm Leave a comment

The 80 / 20 rule states that it takes 20% of the time to do 80% of the work, and 80% of the time to do the remaining 20% of the work.

I often get phone calls about ‘full-time’ jobs where the initial task will take about 5 to 6 weeks. The scenario goes like this: we have finished phase 1, but we are concerned about performance; or we have a Spring application running but we need someone who is an expert in Spring to do some ‘fine tuning’.

What they mean is: We completed the project, within budget and on schedule. Although the system looks OK, it continually breaks. To fix it will place us behind schedule, and we need someone who really knows the framework to ‘fix’ it immediately.

It can also be stated as: We used the cheapest labor possible to do what was most visible. The hard stuff such as design or error handling was ignored because it would hinder progress. Now we need to do that as fast as possible within changing what is ‘complete’.

Remember the Tower of Pisa. Lovely building. Looks great. Pity that no-one ever spent enough time on the foundations.

This is a problem common in poorly managed agile systems. To show progress, what gets done first is what is most visible. If only the simple stuff is done, it is not a product, it is a prototype without a proof of concept.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper has major damage. Even when da Vinci was painting the wall, the wall was deteriorating. He finished it ( sort of ), but the foundation was bad. He got 80% of the job done. The missing 20% was stabilizing or finding a suitable wall as a foundation for the painting; that he ignored.

Michelangelo was meticulous in preparing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and employed assistants who knew how to prep a wall ( Michelangelo had never done a fresco before ). He spent a lot of time in finding the best people to do the 80% of the work up front. The 80% of the work was the wall preparation. Once the wall was prepared, he could paint it. The prep is why the ceiling survived.

So, if you want a completed project, it is essential that you spend the 80% of the time up front to be ready for the visible work that follows. No matter how good the result looks, if the prep is bad, it will crumble, or lean.

The problem is that managers and clients want to see progress; they would rather see you working on the visible 80% than the foundation 20%; they want to see measurable progress; this is a customer management issue.

The issue is determining how much time to spend up front. The infrastructure has to be done up front without urgency as opposed to at the end of the project, when all that happens is a poor restoration job.

No matter how much work is done on da Vinci’s last super, if the basic structure is poor, the painting will never survive.

Interestingly, the most succesful method now used to restore frescos is to actually physically remove the fresco from the wall i.e. to separate it from any underlying problems, or rebuilding the foundation of the work.


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Setting a palette. Software Frameworks and Creativity

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Creative Time Management.

June 2009
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