Faster Project Manager, Kill Kill

The wartime origins of your favorite PM'ing tool

Hey friend. Every Sunday (or so!), this dispatch helps you make better creative and strategic decisions, or talks about the innies and outties of independent consulting, or dives into projects I’m working on. Sometimes that means brief essays. Sometimes that means resources. Last time it was a history of The Cannonball Run on the event of its 50th anniversary. This time it’s a story about the Gantt chart was perfected, in part, to help the U.S. military kill people more quickly. Anyway, hello, it’s good to see you. -Steve

All novel technical inventions tend to begin their lives as ways to kill people more efficiently.

That’s not my idea. That’s Wernher Von Braun. He should know. He invented rockets. 

Today, NASA and Elon and Jeff can send rockets to space because Hitler and Göring and Bormann wanted to send missiles to Britain.

And it’s thanks to missiles that we can read articles using our iPhones: In its great wisdom, the defense department redirected funds from missile defense to create this place we are right now, together, reading this—the internet.

Cotton t-shirts were invented for the Navy.

Bug spray was invented for the Marines.

Super glue was invented while making gunsights for both the Navy and the Marines, and anybody else who was likely to point a rifle thitherward.

It also happens to be a true and curious and rather obscure fact that the popular methods we use to manage projects are also derived from the government’s need to kill a lot of people, and quickly.

If you were to stop by your long-suffering project manager’s desk and inquire about the provenance of their Gantt chart, it’s unlikely they would explain that it was popularized during WWI to import explosives materials and ship guns and bombs more quickly. This is a true fact. 

It’s equally unlikely that your head engineer is aware that a phrase she uses to describe a series of important dependent tasks, I.e. the critical path, originated in part from maritime logistics in the Pacific theater during WWII and, later, from the U.S. efforts to launch nukes from submarines.

In other words, the ways we manage our people to be more efficient in the office were created so we could kill other people more efficiently on the battlefield.

On some level, I am sure you’re entirely not surprised.

On another level, this is an excellent rationale for disliking your workplace, and I encourage you to deploy it. 

Students of project management literature will tell you that these PM’ing tools—the various methods we use to organize developers and marketing VPs and etc.—revolutionized the way work was done, making the planning and execution of large scale jobs more feasible and efficient. 

In many ways they did! 

I love project managers, their murderous implements save me from my own less than savory collaborative tendencies.

But the origin of those implements is quite a bit messy. And, without proper leadership, they’re worth less than the crystals they’re pixelated on.

By way of explanation, here’s a brief and diverting story about The Gantt chart and World War I.

Henry Gantt was born in Maryland in 1861 at the beginning of The Civil War 

If this seems like an unnecessarily remote moment to begin a “brief and diverting story”, rest assured it’s only intended to reveal how must-and-mothballs old our methods for organizing projects happen to be.

Young Mr. Gantt liked charts. 

Like, really liked charts.

The creation for which he is best known, the Gantt chart, is a form of stylized bar chart. If you’ve never had the occasion to encounter a modern Gantt chart, be acquainted:

This chart represents a project to build a house, but every type of project can be organized in a similar way.

Each row is a task.

Each task is assigned a start date, an estimated time to complete, and any dependent tasks.

By way of example, when building a two-story structure, you can’t begin to install drywall (9 days) until after you’ve installed the insulation (11 days).

On some charts, especially those found in service professions (advertising agencies, for example), you can even assign specific workers and man hours to completion per tasks. You can see what tasks need to be done, the time allotted to each task, who’s working on it, and how much of any one task (and the project as a whole) is complete.

This is a great way to make a project legible! That was one of Gantt’s goals: to display complex workflow data in ways that allowed managers to quickly comprehend it.

So just be aware that the direction this brief and diverting story is headed is not “project management is bad”. 

For the moment, simply be aware that Gantt charts are ubiquitous.

But you should know that Gantt wasn’t a “project manager”

He did not practice “project management”, a term which didn’t exist before the 1950s.

Gantt was a management scientist. He worked in steel mills and armories. He was concerned with throughput and the efficiency of workers.

He was more interested in identifying the areas of actual production that needed improvement—rather than predicting future activities—and make those areas and the efficiency of those workers visible to management.

Gantt didn’t make just one chart. He made several. The Machine Record Chart was a record of how machines were used. The Man Record Chart was a record of how personnel performed. The Load Chart was a record of how much of a shop’s machinery was used each day. Taken together, the charts allowed management to see the difference between the promise of production and their actual performance.

All of this is to say—when you look at a software dashboard, you’re looking at an idea that was basically created by Henry Gantt.

For example, here’s a “Bonus Chart” indicating whether a worker performed well enough to earn a bonus at the end of the day.

And here’s a “Load Chart” showing planned work over time for each piece of equipment:

It’s worth noting that, pre-Gantt, this type of retrospective analysis simply wasn’t done.

Recall that this was the turn of the 20th century.

There were no assembly lines. There were no standardized methods of production. Tradesmen learned their craft by literally watching another worker. The resulting work product was inconsistent, and not a terribly reliable or fast way of producing vast quantities of anything.

Point of fact, the prevailing practice of the time was to schedule work using a bar chart but disregard whether those schedules were maintained. Factories were interested in how much was produced, but not how efficiently the work was being done.

In effect, by creating his charts, Gantt was saying “here’s all the value you’re leaving on the table”.

So it’s worth being super clear on this point: Gantt’s charts were not originally designed to be forward projections of activities against time.

Which implies at least two interesting revelations:

Interesting revelation one, the “Gantt chart” that we’ve just been talking about isn’t technically a Gantt chart. It’s a fancy bar chart.

You can thank Microsoft for the confusion.

When Redmond’s Dorkiest launched Microsoft Project in 1985, they used the term “Gantt chart” for its bar chart view. Microsoft Project went on to control 90% of the PM software market. 

Et viola, so-called “Gantt charts” are everywhere.

Interesting revelation two, the way many practitioners use “Gantt charts” is only half correct.

That is, they’re used to forward project activities in time but rarely used to understand exactly why work isn’t being completed as efficiently as possible. Our talent for creating perfectly logical plans is surpassed only by our talent for not following those plans whatsoever.

I defy you to work on a project and not have that experience. Nobody can finish a project on time.

Gantt knew this problem well.

“Many shops have very nice scheduling systems; they plan their work beautifully,” he said. “At least, it looks very pretty on paper; but they have no means of finding out if those schedules are lived up to or not.”

I promised a brief and diverting story about World War I, so here it is

Prior to WWI, the United States had proven to be quite shit at making weapons.

In the Revolutionary War, colonists fought with arms borrowed from France.

In the war of 1812, Americans fought with family rifles.

In the Civil War, the Union fought with old-fashioned muzzle loaders, while Cartridges, balls, and powder were made by small shops scattered across the country.

So when WWI was on the horizon, the Army realized it would need to ramp up production, and fast.

That’s where Gantt came in.

Gantt had developed his charts over decades, but they found their most widespread application in the Ordnance Department, the Navy, the Emergency Fleet, and the Shipping Board during WWI.

For the Ordnance Department, Gantt coordinated production across six government arsenals and a vast network of private contractors. His method: apply his trademark charts to determine where bottlenecks were occurring, and fix them.

But it was his work for the Shipping Board that was most unique, complex, and graphically compelling.

Even before the U.S. entered the war, shipping was under duress. There was the German sub problem. Allied food production had also decreased, leading to greater import demand. Europe was producing more war materiel, and consequently needed more ships to carry the raw materials. Finally, the concentration of millions of fighting men along French battle lines concentrated shipping to that point of the world, overtaxing the docking facilities of the day. Everywhere ships were delayed.

So the United States needed more ships. And they needed to commandeer civilian ships. And they needed to know where all the ships were at any one time, so that they could import materials for making gun and bombs, and then export those guns and bombs to far flung battlefields.

This is where Gantt came in, again.

Gantt created ship movement charts to reveal where ships were located at any one time. He created Harbor performance charts that revealed how long ships were spending in dock.

He made charts tracking commodities, charts summarizing trade regions, and charts summarizing all imports.

The consequence of Gantt’s efforts were a substantially strengthened war production effort.

These accomplishments were later popularized by Gantt’s partner William Clark in the book The Gantt Chart: A Working Tool of Management, which was translated into eight languages, opens with an account of Gantt’s work for the Army, and closes with an account of his work for the Shipping Board. It’s largely thanks to the popularity of this book that we remember Gantt charts today.

Of course, you’ll notice that these historical charts bear only a passing resemblance to the Gantt charts of the day. But they show facts in their relation to time, emphasize movement through time, and compel workers to take action based on the facts shown. They make it necessary to have a plan. They compare what is done with what was planned. And, if you’re a capable manager, they can show the reasons why performance falls short of the plan, and fix responsibility for the success or failure of a plan.

It’s for these reasons that today’s Gantt charts can be powerful tools, if only they weren’t so often created, socialized, and then blithely disregarded as scope begins to creep. We all have our trauma. That one’s mine.

Anyway, a few years after its publication, The Gantt Chart: A Working Tool of Management formed the basis by which the Soviet central planners implemented their Five-Year Plans.

So good lord, man. I guess there’s that, too.


Patrick Weaver. “Henry L Gantt, 1861 - 1919 A retrospective view of his work.” PMWorld Journal, December 2012.

Patrick Weaver. “Where did the Misuse of the names Gantt and PERT Originate?” PM World Journal Vol. II, Issue IV – April 2013

Frederick Taylor. “The Principles of Scientific Management”. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1919.

Wallace Clark. “The Gantt Chart a Working Tool of Management”. New York: The Ronald Press Company, 1922.

Henry Gantt. “Organizing for Work”. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Howe, 1919.

Constance McLaughlin Green, Harry C. Thompson, and Peter C. Roots. “The Ordnance Department: Planning Munitions for War”. Center of Military History, 1990.

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