Christmas Project Management: Santa’s Elf Speaks

Christmas is approaching, and that means preparation at the North Pole is at fever pitch. Santa delivers to approximately 526 million children under the age of 14 on Christmas Eve.  This takes a lot of work! From manufacturing the toys, to the distribution system, and who can forget the Naughty Or Nice list – the elves at the North Pole are working their tails off. We sat down with the Director of Project Management at Santa’s Workshop, Shinny Upatree, to discuss the Christmas efforts and his project management techniques.

A peek behind the scenes at the North Pole
A peek behind the scenes at the North Pole

Hello, Shinny! How is this year’s Christmas project management coming along?

Hi guys, it’s great to be here. This year’s Christmas efforts are going. We’ve had some hiccups along the way, and those new Apple products launched gave us a real headache, but the project remains on schedule. And on budget. I am very proud of that.

Tell us a little bit about how you run Christmas. What has changed over the years? 

A lot has changed over the years! I can remember Christmas from a thousand years ago. Toys were simpler, for starters. We were able to knock out the entire production run in just a few months! Christmas was a simpler time, back then. Christmas project management was a breeze. Some toys, a quick run…we used to plan the whole operation in two months! 

For years, we had a confectionery running here at the North Pole, run by my friend Sugarplum Mary. Back in the good old days, most of the kids would ask for sweets! This made planning much easier, in a way. We had two output streams, Sweets and Toys. The best part about this was, we could always utilize the one with spare capacity when dealing with the Non-Requests. Demand patterns have changed a lot since those days. We still run the confectionery for old times sake, and it still doubles as the workplace cafeteria.

Hey, I bet you didn’t know this. If you don’t send Santa a letter, it’s up to his staff’s discretion what present to give you. We call them “non-requests” and there is an entire team of elves who try to match the right presents to the right children.

What is different today?

Nowadays, we’ve switched to a more robust factory system. And yes, we use Kanban sorting for the workflow. Our output streams are Electronics, Toys, Clothes, Food, and Jewelry. We contract out to a remote team of South Pole Elves for kitchenware, gift cards, and furniture. They also do the new car bows, the big ones you see on TV. Those guys do a great job with production, but their heart isn’t in it like ours. We make sure to keep the heartfelt gifts in our workshop, where we can imbue each gift with love. Santa is very clear on that. It’s part of our mission and is the number one core value we have. Gifts should come from love, and that includes their manufacture!

happy christmas

Give us an overview on Christmas project management at the North Pole. 

Christmas project management is nearly a ten month long project, at this point. Once the delivery run is completed, everyone gets a two month holiday break – except for me, and Santa Claus. We sit down to unpack the data from the previous year, looking for what went right and wrong, and generating the lessons we need to learn to make the next year more effective. This takes about a month. Santa goes on vacation with Mrs. Claus when we finish, and I get to planning the upcoming Christmas.

Planning the next Christmas project management wise kicks off in February. We start with gathering the data we need from last year. Based on the previous year’s numbers, we allocate gift production across anticipated demand, and set the factory lines to work. I track each production line during the manufacturing phase, tracking capacity and output, with an eye on meeting the targets both weekly and overall. Santa oversees the numbers. Bushy Evergreen is the elf in charge of production. He worked his way up from being a toy maker! That’s a happy Christmas project management story, right there.

“We start by planning our project around elves, not tasks.”

There are also utilize some dark arts in preparing, too. When the production run starts in February, we need to know what new toys are hitting the market this coming year. We had a disaster one year, I remember, when a new toy reached the shelves Thanksgiving time. There was one month to suddenly generate something like ten million widgets from scratch. I don’t think I slept the entire month! Nowadays, we keep on top of future trends in advance.

How long does all this take?

What I described takes us out to June-July time. Once we reach July, the production run is compared against the early data on the Naughty and Nice list, compiled by my good friend Alabaster Snowball. Alabaster has some amazing AI he has rigged up on the North Pole Network, and he is top of the game when it comes to predictive data analysis. Alabaster was first to notice the greed trend in the early ’80s in North America, for example. We want a little buffer in case some kids have some second thoughts come Christmas time, but here is where we measure output against predicted demand.

We also begin to plan the Christmas run around that time. Wunorse Openslae is the elf in charge of the reindeer and sleigh. He’s the engineer of the sleigh, by the way – he invented it! He’s always coming up with new features, especially safety features. You know that NORAD Santa tracker? That’s one of his safety features, although today it is a fun way of knowing when Santa is coming to town. He needs to calibrate the engine for the demands of this year’s run. This requires a lot of input, believe it or not. Magic transmissions are notoriously unreliable, I’m told. I mean, the sleigh has to be designed for moving something like 650 miles per second, all while supporting a payload of something like a half a million tons. That’s craziness.

Designing Santa's sleigh is NOT easy!
Designing this thing is NOT easy!

Not everyone believes it’s even possible!

Gizmodo tried running the numbers about the physics of Santa’s run, and they decided the physics would kill Santa, although they come to some good counterarguments in the end. I’m not going to reveal Wunorse’s secrets here, but suffice it to say he needs this data at the July-August mark for his mechanics team to get the work done.

So how do you manage such a wildly complex project? It sounds like Christmas project management must run on magic!

Oh, I wish it did. But it doesn’t. It’s all run by me and my project management team. We devised a system a little while ago based on the best project management practices we’d found.

Firstly, we start by planning our project around elves, not tasks. There is no way we could accurately create a Gantt chart that would cover such an enterprise! We decided the best way to do this was to build around the team, empower them to do their work, and manage the cross-team handoffs. Our project management timeline looks a little different, but not by much. Our left hand side lists what we call “workstreams,” and we build those workstreams around teams. It looks a little something like this.


Santa Christmas Project management

Wow, that visual speaks for itself!

You can see the project at a glance, here. Everything I described above is mapped out here in a way any elf in the project can understand. We also only track dependencies across workstreams, as you can see. Everyone working on the same workstream knows exactly what’s coming next. We don’t need to worry about those dependencies. Where we do want to put our attention is when one team is handing off to another. You can see the allocation meeting with Santa determines the individual production lines’ resource allocation. You can also see how Alabaster Snowball’s Intel/Analytics team affects the production lines. That’s where I, as the project manager, want to put my attention.

The best part about planning a project like this is the clarity it brings to Christmas project management. A Gantt chart is just tasks, presented as a bar chart schedule. With this, we can see the project structure, the risk points where one team hands to another, and our plan has us centered on the elf teams instead of the tasks.

Your chart looks a little familiar…

I bet it does! I told you we are always aware of the new developments coming over the year ahead of time. When Proggio itself was still in the planning stage, we made sure we could get it as a gift for Santa himself. And Proggio has definitely helped streamline our operations at the North Pole.

Wait! I notice you don’t have the last minute Naughty Or Nice List adjustments listed on your diagram. As you have it listed, the final list is completed in October! What happens when someone changes their mind and behavior a few weeks before Christmas?

Good question, and eagle eye there! The map I shared with you is a general template. I couldn’t possibly share the real Christmas project management plan with you. Santa would have a meltdown! Have you ever seen Santa without his snow? It’s a frightful sight.