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The Last Hour Problem

Friday, July 8, 2011 by Slaughter Development

The telecommunications industry often talks about the “last mile problem.” But just about every industry has a process and productivity issue that might be called “the last hour problem.”

If you’re building a enormous nationwide telephone system, the “last mile problem” refers to the fact that the most expensive and difficult part of the network are the endpoints. These bits of infrastructure only service a handful of people and are often in remote locations. Putting in these “last miles” is incredibly costly, perhaps much more so than high-density areas near the core of the overall system.

Likewise, there’s a very old joke about computer programming by Tom Cargill of Bell Labs.

The first 90% of the code accounts for the first 90% of the development time. The remaining 10% of the code accounts for the other 90% of the development time.

So what is the Last Hour Problem? It’s that the most time-consuming, nerve-wracking, expensive and painful hour of almost any project is the final hour. In fact, the last hour is rarely actually an hour! Have you ever found yourself on a project where the math works out as:

5  hours of writing + 1 hour of editing = 10 hours of work

There are two main reasons why the last hour is the worst hour of all. First, the farther we get into a project, the more we become a perfectionist.  We start to see the possibility of the final result, and we keep tweaking and tweaking and tweaking. The second issue is simply fatigue. After staring at the same material for a long period of time, we start to make mistakes more easily. These errors become harder and harder to detect, which is especially difficult considering the rising problem of perfectionism.

The solution to both of these problems is smarter process design. If you have other people in your organization, divide up duties to avoid perfectionism and fatigue. If you are working alone, adjust your schedule so that you take breaks and switch to new projects. Wherever possible, define your standards and your expectations before you begin. That way, you are more likely to be on time and on budget with your projects.

Watch out for that last hour! If you’re not careful, it can keep you up all night.

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Like this post? Here are some related entries from The Methodology Blog you might enjoy:

Paying by the Hour - These days, dropping $4 for a cappuccino or two grand for a fancy flatscreen television is a considered a typical purchase, not a wasteful extravagance. Tipping waitstaff 20% or slipping a few extra bucks to a skycap is standard practice. Popular opinion on billable hourly rates for professional services, however, varies from begrudging acceptance to outright mockery. Should we open our wallets or raise our fists? Read on »
The Facetime Paradox - The essayist Paul Graham likes to point out that productivity is not about appearing productive. He writes, “If you work here we expect you to get a lot done. Don’t try to fool us just by being here a lot.”
Read on »

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