Musings on Management of the Planning Kind


The ‘Learning Curve’ Conundrum



By Dr. Kenneth Smith, PMP

Honolulu, Hawaii
& Manila, The Philippines


As an introverted ‘only child’ — with a father away at “the War” and a mother at work most of the time – I learned to read at an early age and spent innumerable hours alone as a ‘bookworm.’  Intrigued by many varieties of puzzles – anagrams, crosswords, cryptograms, syllogisms and the like – I endeavored to solve mentally; as well as physically disassembling then re-assembling jigsaws and mechanical objects with no pieces left over!  With a limited supply of ‘hardware’ to play with, whenever puzzle-solving, I repeatedly disassembled and reconstructed items faster and faster each time until reaching a plateau and/or tiring of the challenge.

This penchant for problem-solving proved advantageous when — as an English Grammar School student – I encountered algebraic equations.  Moreover, after being armed with my math master’s step-by-step methodological mantra: “Figure; Given; Required-to-Prove; Construction; Proof”, I was not particularly perplexed ‘Proving’ geometric theorems (such as Pythagoras’ right-angled triangle[1]) especially when supplementing them with graphics.  Repetitive puzzle practices also honed my manipulative motor abilities, which served me well when I served a stint as an enlisted man in the military and was called upon to disassemble, then rapidly reassemble a variety of small weapons — under duress.

Still later, analytical proclivity and potential were a springboard to my selection as a Management Intern[2] in the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Weapons (BUWEPS) where – amidst other rotational short-tours — I wallowed in their Management Engineering Office (MEO), and Special Projects Office (SPO).[3] Then, after an extended assignment as a management analyst in the Navy Management Office (NMO) I acceded to a faculty position at DOD’s PERT Orientation & Training Center (POTC) as a management systems specialist.  That, in turn, – fortuitously — led to a career in the Foreign Service as a project management advisor, manager and evaluator with the US Agency for International Development (USAID); and ultimately as a Project Management consultant.  Thus, while I continued to enjoy solving puzzles in many different forms and contexts throughout my varied career roles and responsibilities, systematic analysis was a core competency; while as an adult I continued to enjoy solving puzzles in many different forms and contexts, systematic analysis was a core competency throughout my varied career roles and responsibilities.

The Learning Curve

One of the production planning tools & techniques to which I was exposed during my US Navy management internship was the Learning Curve Theory, and its application to planning the scheduling of production contracts for materiel procurements.  Conceptually related to the ‘Practice Makes Perfect’ concept, the learning curve figuratively and graphically imputes improvements in time duration and level-of-effort — as well as concomitant cost reduction — of processes that repetitively produce products in quantity.  So far, so good.

However, the theoretical aspect of the learning curve concept bemused me; namely that the pace of improvementwhatever it happened to be — was systematic: i.e., a constant rate, rather than haphazard!  Recalling my own varied empirical experiences – (including learning touch-typing by repetitiously fingering “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” pangram which, albeit, I had failed to record systematically) — after familiarity with a problem’s objectives, many factors other than gradually-emerging awareness had affected my rate of learning to improve the process.  So rather than systematic experimental solution-solving, most of my progress was through highly erratictrial & error.[4]  There were also occasional ‘out-of-the-box’ innovations that could not be completely discarded.[5]

But ‘Who’ said a constant rate was a predictable approach for forecasting?

Well, two principal proponents of learning curve theory were prevalent; each with slightly different formulas.

The first, known as Wright’s Law, was developed by Theodore Wright in 1936 based on statistical correlation[6] during his experience in aircraft manufacturing. He noted that for every doubling of airplane production the labor requirement was reduced by 10 to 15%.  From that finding, Wright generalized that for every cumulative doubling of units produced, the time [cost, &/or level-of-effort] required declined predictably, and linearly.  Wright’s algebraic formula abbreviated “CUMAV” – is deceptively simple, as follows:


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How to cite this article: Smith, K.F. (2021). Musings on Management of the Planning Kind: The ‘Learning Curve’ Conundrum; Commentary, PM World Journal, Vol. X, Issue XI, November. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/pmwj111-Nov2021-Smith-the-Learning-Curve-Conundrum.pdf

About the Author

Dr. Kenneth Smith

Honolulu, Hawaii
& Manila, The Philippines

Initially a US Civil Service Management Intern, then a management analyst & systems specialist with the US Defense Department, Ken subsequently had a career as a senior foreign service officer — management & evaluation specialist, project manager, and in-house facilitator/trainer — with the US Agency for International Development (USAID).  Ken assisted host country governments in many countries to plan, monitor and evaluate projects in various technical sectors; working ‘hands-on’ with their officers as well as other USAID personnel, contractors and NGOs.  Intermittently, he was also a team leader &/or team member to conduct project, program & and country-level portfolio analyses and evaluations.

Concurrently, Ken had an active dual career as Air Force ready-reservist in Asia (Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines) as well as the Washington D.C. area; was Chairman of a Congressional Services Academy Advisory Board (SAAB); and had additional duties as an Air Force Academy Liaison Officer.  He retired as a ‘bird’ colonel.

After retirement from USAID, Ken was a project management consultant for ADB, the World Bank, UNDP and USAID.

He earned his DPA (Doctor of Public Administration) from the George Mason University (GMU) in Virginia, his MS from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT Systems Analysis Fellow, Center for Advanced Engineering Study), and BA & MA degrees in Government & International Relations from the University of Connecticut (UCONN).  A long-time member of the Project Management Institute (PMI) and IPMA-USA, Ken is a Certified Project Management Professional (PMP®) and a member of the PMI®-Honolulu and Philippines Chapters.

Ken’s book — Project Management PRAXIS (available from Amazon) — includes many innovative project management tools & techniques; and describes a “Toolkit” of related templates available directly from him at kenfsmith@aol.com on proof of purchase of PRAXIS.

To view other works by Ken Smith, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at https://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/dr-kenneth-smith/

[1]The square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides”.
[2] The 1960’s was an era of intense interest and activity in systematic program and project management; culminating in the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) founding in 1969.  At the outset, in 1961, Secretary McNamara imported a band of ‘Whiz Kids” from the RAND Research Corporation to apply economic analysis, operations research, game theory, and modern management systems within the US Defense Department (DOD).  The US Navy also hired neophytes as in-house Management Interns; inculcating them with contemporary management tools and techniques to facilitate logistical workflows in support of Fleet operations.  I was fortunate to be one of those chosen few.
[3] Where I learned the PERT/Critical Path Method (PERT/CPM) & just-in-time Line of Balance (LOB) Technology ‘in-class,’ as well as on the job.
[4] Which today’s project management practitioners have corralled, embraced and legitimized as the “Agileprocess.
[5] A notable ‘out of the box’ event was my experience with the Rubik’s Cube.  Despite numerous efforts from time to time to solve it, success had always eluded me, but I retained one as a colorful artifact on my bookshelf.  Then one day my pre-school granddaughter Desi — who was visiting — asked me what it was.  I told her it was a puzzle where the objective was to get all the small same-colored squares together on the sides; demonstrated how to rotate the pieces, and left her to play with it.  A few minutes later she astounded us all by handing me the cube; completed!  After years of frustration with the thing, this was phenomenal; undoubtedly a little genius! When I asked her how she did it so quickly, she said it was simple – she just pulled the stickers off the little squares and replaced them on each side by their color groupings!
[6] Processes which I learned later; including my mentor’s methodological ‘eliminate, combine, rearrange and simplify’ mantra for conducting time & motion studies for predicting and planning process time & cost reduction.