Defininition, planning, avoiding rework and getting 40% savings in projects

On my travels I spotted a hotel advertising “lounge food”. That obviously means something to them. For me, it is something to label “jargon” and wonder what they mean. Do they mean nibbles to eat relaxing on a sofa? Or would it be dainty sandwiches, cup cakes and cream teas? Are they recreating historic banquets lounging in Romanesque opulence? Is this a reflection of the modern habit of eating in front of the TV rather than at a dining table?

As project managers our use of jargon can cause issues we could avoid: “stakeholder management” is a defined process which doesn’t mean the same to some. The need for precision in language is more important in defining the measures by which you know something is complete – project or product.

What does commissioned, usable or handover mean? How do you define acceptable performance or customer satisfaction? By carefully defining the detailed qualities and aspects of what you are delivering, and how you will measure that and when. This is work that often gets forgotten in the “just get on with it” cultures of some organisations.

It is worth remembering that the Olympic development projects used a 2:4:1 approach. Two years planning and defining, four years of delivery and a year of testing. Late delivery or failure would have been catastrophic for the organisations involved, so planning was seen as vital. I know from the discussions with some of the project managers that the planning and defining was not all done first but very little was started without being fully defined (including handover and legacy). There was also very little waste or rework.

By comparison, I have worked with a number of organisations that use a ratio of 1:6:3 (and they are not the worst). Their lack of planning means they do at least 50% rework, have to spend considerably more on testing to make sure the errors don’t get out and retesting after rework. Defining what you are doing, how you test it is complete and the measures you’ll use are worth the investment; about a 40% saving on the overall cost of the project.

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Lessons Learned are worth the effort!

The Canadian charity Engineers without Boarders is learning the way in looking at their projects openly, admitting what went wrong and sharing the lessons they learn through that process. That is a level of maturity many organizations don’t have – even if they have a process that says they do retrospectives or lessons learned. They say they have made more impact and reached more lasting goals because of this.  And they encourage others to do the same on http://www.admittingfailure.com

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Now that was a Surprise

When a surprise or bad news hits your desk as a project manager, how do you deal with it? “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” is the old saying but the smart leader only acts when action is needed. Read more of this post

Project in Trouble: Don’t Panic!

Something about the current debates about English secondary education (age 11 to 16 years)  has reminded me of a project that didn’t go well.

The debate about introducing a new qualification before completing a review of the system (http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/education-committee/news/ebac-report-substantive/) is beginning to look like someone with power was making a big decision based on opinion and a perceived need to act quickly and not a more objective view – and after a few weeks the situation looks starkly different.

Sometimes, a manager must make a fast decision based on the information available because there is no time left to contemplate. However, often waiting for your team to give more information or think of alternative can mean a better decision. Action is vital when a project hits a problem but panic reactions and instinctive firefighting can lead to more trouble.  Unfortunately, that a problem has been found can build a desire to take decisive action fast.

I was in the meeting when Joe (the project manager) realised that his team had discovered something that was going to put him wildly over schedule and put a huge hole in his project budget. We talked about how he could calmly take this forward and rescue best value from the project for the stakeholders. He had some ideas but realised he needed more information from the team and had to test out some potential solutions.

He had a real sense of urgency about him when I left that meeting: he was telling his team that they must get all the work they had in hand to a sensible point to leave for a few days. The project team would need time to work on what to do about this issue. They agreed a good place to start was a workshop about the facts of the problem before they left that evening.

I knew Joe had a regular lunch meeting booked with the Mark (the senior manager responsible for the project) the next day. That seemed like a good opportunity to talk about the issue, bring some early information and ideas, and ask for support and guidance from Mark. It all sounded like a plan to get to a new plan.

I went on a business trip for a few days. When I got back, I could only wonder at what had happened.

The project team were running in various directions with panic written across their faces, Joe looked downtrodden and Mark appeared to be the new project manager issuing instructions to everyone but there was no sign of a plan.  Everyone was in firefighting mode but without the calm disciplined approach I know trained firefighters have. That didn’t seem to be an improvement.

I had a quiet coffee with the very stressed Rob (PMO consultant assigned to the project) and got the story. Joe had done all the things he and I had discussed. The team had defined the problem sensibly and had some ideas that might work but these were not complete before lunch with Mark.  Once Mark had heard the details of the problem he quickly knew how important it was.

However, just as Joe was about to discuss his ideas and plan, Mark got a phone call from his boss who demanded why he hadn’t taken change of the problem as 24 hours had already passed.  How the boss knew about the problem we never found out but Mark’s expression changed as he was berated and he was heard to say “I am already on it … I’m meeting with Joe now … I am confident we can find a way to satisfy this customer …of course I’ll take charge myself”. Now Joe and Mark are both trapped in a senior manager’s “Just Get On With It” pronouncement from afar.

Mark saw Rob and I return from our meeting and called us into his office. That at least gave the project team some respite. Sometimes, I just say the wrong things: “I see the solution to the issue isn’t progressing well – what does your plan look like?” After Mark described his frustrations for about 10 minutes, Rob started to relax and there was silence. What now? The only thing I could say was, “why don’t we call Joe in and see how far we’ve really progressed and what ideas his team has now?”

By the end of the day, we concluded that

  •  all the activity had made some progress but not as much as we could have done,
  • we had learnt some lessons and gained some valuable insights into the solution,
  • we could see a logical plan to solve the issue by the end of the next day,
  •  Mark was paying for the team dinner that night as they agreed to work late to make up the time he’d lost.

That dinner was considerably more elegant than the pizza the project budget might normally have yielded. The team was as good as their word and produced the solution the next day. They also had some other ideas which improved the project as a whole, made money for the organisation and delighted the customer.

Will the education debate end so happily? I do hope so. When I think of that team, they were all very intelligent and able – partly thanks to their education.

So what make the difference to success?

That is the big question for a project manager: how to turn a delivered project into a success. With a clear understanding of the objective, good planning, team management skills, an eye on quality, effective financial and risk management a manager can bring a project in on time.

Even then, a few things will not be perfect. Think of the projects you spend years planning and working towards: your graduation, wedding, winning a major sporting event or building a new company headquarters. Do they happen without a glitch? Something will go wrong at some point.

Two of my friends just got married. They have been planning this for about two years. One has had to move countries to do it. They had a plan of all the things they needed to do and worked through it. Everyone wants a perfect wedding and they did all they could to make that happen. They had all the normal stresses that putting on such an event means. They made sure they had a team around them to help with the practical things that needed to be done and that these people understood the flow of the day. It was the best day of their lives and at the end, they were exhausted but ecstatic.

There were glitches: shoes that looked great for the ceremony were not good for dancing, luggage in the wrong place, running ahead of schedule and arriving at the reception a little before the venue was really ready. None of this mattered in the end because the team understood what the outcome of each part would be and could do what was needed to make that happen. Things were fetched from the hotel, some last minute shopping got missing essentials, transport was rearranged and bar staff were alerted before guests got to the venue.

That autonomy to fix the problems meant the team (without fuss) made the adjustments needed to keep the day on track. That team were fully engaged in the efforts to meet the day’s objective. They served that objective not through checklists but by being considerate of the stakeholders. The stakeholder’s opinion is the final deterimination of success and they had a great time.

A project manager does not complete the project alone. To be a truely successful project, the team has to be part of that success. Success is fun and it is habit forming. Most importantly, success is achieved by being thoughtful and having an awareness of what is important and what can be changed to make it so.

What are we trying to achieve?

Setting the objective for a programme or project is something that some managers and organisations give too little analysis. The instinct is to say “make me widget X” or “make this new organisation structure happen”.  That simply defines the solution that seems obvious at the time. For some projects that is enough but for many that is like saying “go to Plymouth” without say why or what you need to be ready to do when you get there.

For a project team to be successful, it helps to know what the end state needs to be and why you need that end. Read more of this post

The risk of success

Risk management in projects is often seen as the work done to avoid something going wrong: risk management methods, review plans and products for failure, identification and documentation of the risk, the analysis of costs and impact, contingency plans in place for when things go wrong.

Are you looking for the risk of success?
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What is risk management?

Risk management identifies possible events that may have an impact on a project and provides a framework process to manage those.

There are a number of methods and approaches to risk management. While there are differences in terms ways of reporting and management approaches, the processes for what happens in a project are similar in practice they tend to follow these steps: Read more of this post

IT Project failure: can we blame the techies?

The business commentators have noticed: IT is not giving most businesses the benefits they claim IT should.   The projects themselves bring change that the businesses and their people aren’t handling properly.  IT projects lock wasteful practices into new systems. The dream and the promises have been broken.

It is so easy to throw stones at IT people. Read more of this post

Humbled by a Compliment

This isn’t a self-help channel, don’t switch off!  Skip to the fourth paragraph if you must.

Sometimes the most unexpected things happen to you and you revert to type: you become the person you are when you are not being the professional you.  At least that is true for most people: there are some wonderful expectations who “are all that they are” in or out of the office. They always seem to be so successful and over the last few years the business press has told readers to “become authentic”. Read more of this post