A Thanksgiving WBS

by Geof Lory

One of the things I like the most (and the least) about Thanksgiving is that it only comes around once a year. A pretty obvious thing to say about an annual holiday, duh! It's not that the calendar day only comes once a year, but that the celebration is only enjoyed annually.

I love the flavors of Thanksgiving, yet I don't deliberately recreate them any other time of the year. Therein lies what I like most—the anticipation. The gradual imbuing of the house with the smell of sweet potatoes, turkey and homemade pumpkin pie evokes a Pavlovian response that is worth the 364-day wait.

Also, I love the project of the Thanksgiving meal and look forward to making it every year. Unlike Christmas, with the distractions of Santa and gifts, there is nothing but the meal at Thanksgiving. The meal is the reason everyone gets together, to give thanks for all that we are blessed with.

As much as I love making the meal, I'm not that thrilled with the planning of the meal, and most often prefer to just wing it in the kitchen and trust my creative culinary skills to produce something edible. After all, if the parts are edible, the whole must be, too. This approach has served me well for small meals with little risk and less exposure, but as the meal gets larger and the exposure greater, so does the risk that the outcome will not meet expectations. You are probably beginning to see the analogy I'm going to draw here. As I said, to me, making the Thanksgiving meal is a project.

When the girls were younger, all they cared about was getting a drumstick and some mashed potatoes smothered in butter (hold the vegetables and gravy, Dad, they're gross!); the risk associated with the meal was minimal, and the planning was, too.

Several years ago, my wife suggested that we host her family for Thanksgiving dinner. This was a very generous offer on her part, mostly because she does not cook, or at least so far has been successful at convincing me she doesn't.

Beth comes from a family of four girls, each of whom has hosted this meal in the past, and each of whom is much more comfortable in the kitchen than she. So, being the great project manager she is, she pulled in contract help: me. The risks were high here. Her image as a hostess was at stake and she wanted to make sure everything came off well.

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. It is the coordination and timing that is the trick. Getting everything to come together at the right time requires some planning.

The gravity of this event was obviously wasted on me, because on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving all I had done to prepare was buy and thaw the 24-pound turkey. This, of course, was not leaving Beth with a high comfort level, and probably rightfully so. I had seen that look of mixed confusion and mistrust before, not on her, but on the faces of some of my business customers. There was FUD: fear, uncertainty and doubt that I would be able to pull it off. Actually, she didn't question my ability to cook the meal, or even to get the timing right, she was worried that at noon on Thanksgiving day she would be running around trying to find a grocery store that was open to get a critical ingredient I had forgotten to buy. Based on history, I couldn't argue with her.

When backed into a corner like this, my true colors come out and I resorted to project manager mode. I told her not to worry, this happens all the time on projects and we have a foolproof method to assure everything is covered. It's called a work breakdown structure - a WBS. "A what kind of BS?" she asked. "Very funny" I replied, "even at home a project manager gets no respect."

I explained that if we created a WBS for the whole meal, down to the smallest ingredient, not only would we be sure that everything was on hand, but in the process we would confirm mutual expectations about what she and I thought the meal was going to look like. To my surprise (remember, I'm the one who isn't a big fan of planning) she said, "Let's do it." Obviously, I had underestimated the importance of this meal.

After a brief discussion on the advantages of a noun-type WBS to assure all ingredients were identified versus a verb-type WBS to understand all the tasks necessary to cook the meal, I saw her eyes were starting to glaze over. I told her to trust me on this one; we'll go with the noun-type WBS. She quickly outlined at the highest level the courses of the meal, appetizers, salad, main course, dessert and drinks. Under each course she listed the individual dishes, further sub-divided those by the major and minor ingredients until we had a complete list of everything needed to cook the meal.

Not only was this exercise useful in putting Beth's mind at ease, but it also gave us a chance to clarify exactly what was going to be served as part of the meal so there were no surprises. It resulted in an exhaustive shopping list (project bill of materials), and reduced our shopping time substantially. Time well spent.

As we were unpacking the groceries she looked at me, as only a nervous wife can, and asked, "Now, how do you know when to start cooking what to make sure you can get it all done at the right time?" I thought she would never ask. I dragged her to my computer, fired up Microsoft Project and started to show her how to enter and estimate each of the tasks, create the dependencies, and build the schedule. I was barely through the appetizers when I smelled toast burning in the kitchen. Beth had left to make her dinner. OK, maybe I had gotten a little carried away, you think?

In case you were wondering, the meal turned out great. Beth even proudly showed her sisters the WBS we had created. And everyone, including the girls, is now certain we are crazy.

I can't wait to pack for vacation next summer.

Editor's Note: In a strange twist of scheduling which was not planned (but should have been) our new template for this week is a WBS Example for a Holiday Dinner. Enjoy!

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