Tag Archives: project execution

The Air Boss oversees operations on the deck of an aircraft carrier

“I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.”  Lord Kelvin

 

Do you have genuine insight into your project’s delivery risk? By risk, I mean, do you know the chance your project has of delivering on time or late? By genuine, I mean, something quantifiable?

Most of the time, managers look at task completion dates or schedule compliance to judge the risk. If you’re on planned timeline, your risk is deemed to be low. The problem is that you can’t know if that plan is a good one. You only know it’s good so far. Good, in that your progress matches the plan. What if the plan is padded with extra time? Your team is only going as fast as the plan tells them to. What if there is risk later in the project? Only “so far” won’t tell you if you can speed up, or if there’s an obstacle ahead.
 
Most managers don’t know if their project will be on time, until it’s not.
 
I’ve written before about the most important measurements in projects and the behavior you need to deliver on time: proactive and speedy resolution of problems. These metrics are based on the premise that behavior is the precursor to results. If you want to know if you’re going to get the results, you should measure the behaviors.
 
Managers are at the core, influencers of behavior. What needs to be done, is done by people, behaving in specific ways to accomplish specific results. Managers exert influence to:

  • Increase some behaviors
  • Decrease some behaviors
  • Initiate new behaviors

No matter what you’re doing, whether you’re improving quality or increasing productivity, it’s the behavior that drives that result. I’ve often said the best project managers are the best negotiators. The best project managers are the ones that know what behavior they need and are successful at getting it.
 
Do you know the behaviors that will deliver projects on time?
 
If you don’t know the behaviors, you can’t measure them; you can’t influence them.
 
Any project worth doing is worth doing quickly. Shorter completion times mean more revenue, sooner. If your project is not moving, the risk of late completion is rising. Therefore, the on-time behaviors to watch and measure are geared towards speed and flow
Several people have roles in keep the project moving: Executives, Project Managers, Functional (Task) Managers, and the Resources that are doing the work.
 
In this post, I’m focusing on just the executives. The owners of the projects. It’s the project manager’s responsibility to manage their behavior, as much as it is to manage the activity of the project.
 
The most critical on time behaviors for the executives are around engagement. They are engaged in the process of delivering projects; governing the portfolio schedule, establishing project priorities and resolving resource allocation conflicts to keep the projects moving. They’re directing and leading process improvements.
 
You could ask, “Why should I care about process improvement?” After all, you’re a project manager, you don’t own the work practices of your resources (engineers, subcontractors, welders, etc.). While the project manager doesn’t “own” anything except the project, you do care about schedule risk. You should care about speed (or flow). Speed is a function of the process. That puts you (the PM) in a kind of governance role, overseeing process improvements. You can’t implement the improvements, but you can make sure there’s a process in place to continuously reduce schedule risk.
 
How do you know if the senior managers are engaged? Not by the number of emails you get, that’s for sure.
 
Measure the blocked and critical tasks, the quantity, and the number of days to resolve them. I keep a list of process improvements and watch if the number of items is stable or falling and the rate of the completion of process improvements
 

 
If blocked and critical tasks are languishing, it means someone is:

  • Not watching the impediments to progress
  • Conflicts are not being resolved
  • Resolution priorities are not assigned correctly (for speed)

Each of these are governance responsibilities.
 
If you don’t have the right behaviors at the top, you’re not going to get them in the middle or the bottom. As the person accountable for on time delivery, you must know, measure, and manage the behavior to get what you want.
 
VISUM visual project management software is the only visual project workflow software that measures the behaviors that drive rapid and reliable project completions. go find it here: http://viewpointvisum.com 

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We’ve all heard the expression that time is money, but is it true? I don’t think so.

What does it truly mean? Does time equal money in my project?

If I lose time, I waste money? or If I delay, I get the money later?

If it’s the first definition, you are saying, money is like time. If I waste it, it’s gone forever.

If it’s the latter, you are saying that the delay causes a loss or missing opportunity (during the delay), never to be recovered.

Which is it?

As a practical matter, for a manager delivering a project or results, the main issues are waste and opportunity.

Is all time “wasted” truly lost? How do you know?

Managing Time

Most managers break their projects down into individual tasks with individual deadlines. Like this

Straightforward, isn’t it? Make a list of tasks, estimate durations, link them together and you have your sequence and completion dates. Day to day, your job is to keep those tasks completing on time. To deliver on time, meet all your dates. Don’t be late, each task is important, each resource is important.

Opportunity Time

The problem is that not all task sequences are the same. So, you manage the critical path; if you’re sophisticated, you’ll manage the critical chain. Certain sequences will dictate the overall duration of the project. You’ll give higher priority to one sequence over another.

Here’s the thing about time. By declaring one sequence of tasks more important than another, you are choosing some time to be more crucial than others. Losing time on a non-critical sequence is less important than on the critical sequence. Therefore, in some cases, time is not money. In other cases, time lost is a loss of a LOT of money; the value of the entire project!

During the life of a project, the manager makes tradeoffs between time now and time later. Completing the project delivers a certain value; the value of rental income for a building, the value of a new capability, the value of entering a new market, the value of a new feature, etc. Every project worth doing, is worth doing sooner.

When you’re the project manager, to make an educated decision, you must determine the value of a day. What’s a day worth? And, is the task on the critical chain (which is the shortest time to complete the project)? IF your task is on the critical chain your decisions could be very different than if your task decision is off the critical chain.

Time is Expensive?

You could argue that wasting time on the non-critical tasks costs money. Maybe.

Let’s pick a resource. Let’s say your engineer completes 2 tasks this week, but she can’t do more because she’s waiting for some information. The week before, she was much more productive, she completed 4 tasks. Does that mean that the week where 4 tasks were completed your expenses were lower? Your expenses change only when her pay changes. Only if she was paid less the week 2 tasks were completed. Time equals money only if the expense varies in direct proportion to the work delivered.

For most of us and for most resources, time lost does not equal money lost. People are not paid to produce work; they are paid to show up. The view of the enterprise is that expenses are a function of the number of people on the payroll, not the amount of work that is done. Payroll costs are fixed costs, not variable. Expenses are related to hiring decisions, not production. We can never say time = money when it relates to work, because expenses don’t vary with production. Time = money when look at how many people are on hire per day, week, month, etc.

So, time equals money, sometimes. Not all time is equal. Not all time is costly. Some time is worth a great deal. The cost of time is not the same as the value of time.

Most lost time is simply lost, because most resources are not on the critical chain. And that’s ok. Some lost time affects the critical chain and it’s not ok. What matters is the effect of lost time on the completion of the project, not the completion of an individual task.

The skilled manager must know the difference.

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Two Sources of Project Uncertainty

Projects, by their nature, are uncertain, but not all uncertainty can be treated the same way. Knowing the where your project’s uncertainty lies will help you pick the right approach to managing your project and delivering the best outcome for your team, your customer and the project owner.

Many projects are time bound, with specific dates that must be met. There are known parameters to the project outcome, but how you’re going to execute are uncertain. If you your project is software or product development, which is iterative, most uncertainty lies in the deliverables; you’re not sure exactly what the deliverable will look like. In essence, you don’t’ know what you don’t know until you develop a prototype; you’re learning as you go. In these types of projects, there is little uncertainty in the process, but a lot of uncertainty in the outcome. This is different than say, construction, where the deliverable is quite well defined. What is most uncertain is the events (like weather or errors) that lead to the deliverable. The process has the most uncertainty, the outcome has little.

Two Approaches to Managing

Scrum and Agile methods that focus on iterations to reduce the learning cycles and reduce the uncertainty. The problem with these projects is when there is a date attached, it’s difficult to effectively manage schedule risk without significant time buffers.

If the uncertainty is in the process, what most project managers do to reduce it is create more detailed plans or (attempting to) closely managing the details in the plan. These projects have many moving parts and lots of detail to manage – along with the normal uncertainty they cannot manage, like the weather and mistakes. So – with all this comes complexity.  That complexity is difficult to manage. Project managers lose control of their schedules. Project owners lose visibility into schedule risk. Project run late, firefighting ensues. It’s difficult and messy. Deadlines are missed. Costs go up. Customers are unhappy. Business is lost. Profits suffer.

Detailed Planning is Not the Cure-All

So, the solution is not in the direction of more detailed planning, but in the direction of improving management effectiveness. This is what ViewPoint and VISUM does. Stripping the project plan to its essence. Doing simple things that leverage what we know about process behavior (little’s law, priority control, etc.). Making the process visual to communicate the critical items quickly. Providing feedback on the project AND the delivery process to allow the team to act early on risk and improve their delivery effectiveness.

Taming complexity.

With ViewPoint, the team always knows the most critical items to work on. They are focused on those items. There is less chaos in the project, so less stopping and starting. People can focus on the work, not on the next meeting. Tasks get done quicker. Project durations are reduced. Costs go down. On time delivery goes up. More projects are delivered. Revenue goes up. Profits go up. Project owners have visibility into the schedule risk so they can intervene when they must. Customers are happy. Project Managers are happy. The CEO is happy.

 

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When your project is in trouble, you must change the way it’s working. Change the behavior of your team. The most important project measurement is not whether it is arriving on time; that train has left the station. To arrive on time, you must stop losing it. To stop losing time, you must change the behavior of your team. The right measurements will drive the right behaviors.

Stop Losing Time

One of the biggest challenges in project that is behind schedule is stop falling further behind. So the first priority is “stop the bleeding”. Preventing things from getting worse has little to do with the plan, no one’s using it anyway. Rather than re-baselining the plan, focus on the process of execution first. Change what people are doing. This is where you’re losing time, so let’s focus on the things that will make the biggest difference in the least amount of time.

  • Get your team looking and working forward to get out in front of any problems
  • One team, one goal to speed decision making
  • Control task priorities to reduce multitasking and boost productivity
  • Go faster by systematically leveraging the bottleneck of the project
  • Set your execution tempo and quickly respond to problems

Once you have accomplished these things, you can turn your attention to regaining time.

Looking Forward; Visualize Your Project

A visual representation of the project helps your team: they can see where they are, where they’re going, and the major obstacles to moving ahead. Making your project or portfolio process visual prevents information overload, exposing previously hidden process problems. This is not a substitute for your project plan; the basics of a plan or process is required to build to your board. The visualization is a summary of your plan, to be managed by the team.

A visual project board (VPB) provides tangible feedback that everyone can see and understand. If there’s a bottleneck or a gap, team members don’t waste time finding the focus areas, they’re obvious.  They problems are visible, no longer hidden. It solves the “living in the past” problem because the VPB points the way towards completion. It helps get the team out of the weeds and into sorting out only the biggest problems that block progress.

Present your project visually – so your team can quickly communicate and grasp the project status. It eliminates the debate about where things really are, so you can move into action. It sets the stage for the next thing you must accomplish: active collaboration.

Check out this video and this video to learn more about visualizing your projects

Build the Measurements that Reinforce the Behavior You Want

When your project is in trouble, you typically have only a few concrete measures of success.  Delivery date – you’re late! Budget – it’s out of control! Scope – it doesn’t work! These outcome-based metrics are not very helpful in telling you what’s wrong. After all, if you know what to do, it would have been done already!

Going back to the early warning signs. These are the problems; you must find solutions. How can you know if these behaviors are occurring? If these behaviors are happening, your project will continue to lose time. To refresh your memory, the early warning signs are:

  • Living in the past
  • Conflicting Goals
  • Shifting Priorities
  • Wandering Bottlenecks
  • Slow response to problems

Turning your troubled project around begins with deciding what you want to see, every day. To stop losing time, you much change the team’s behaviors to the opposite:

  • Focus on the future – proactive management
  • Alignment with the project goal
  • Stable priorities – less multitasking
  • Focus on the project bottleneck
  • Quick response to problems

Focusing on the Future – Managing Proactively and Promptly

The project team that spends all its time on status updates and fighting the fire of the moment has little time or ability to manage what’s coming. To manage what’s coming, the team must be able to see what’s coming. That’s why visualizing your project is important. Once the project is visualized and broken down to its deliverables, you can measure your team’s future focus.

To know if your team is focusing on the future, you must identify on what they should be focusing. Focusing on the future could mean they look forward to the weekend. I want my project team to focus on risk. What could go wrong? What could create a delay? What is not known?

Once they’re identified, are they being mitigated? Resolved? When your team is focused on the future, risks are systematically identified and resolved before they affect progress.

Focusing on the future has three elements:

  • Identification of risks
  • Mitigation or resolution of those risks
  • Before they affect the project

To measure the behavior, you can simply count risks and how many of those risks never become obstacles. In other words, they do not delay the project, (within limits, because risk mitigation is not free) increase costs, or sacrifice project deliverables.

When we visualize the project, we use a red dot on cards to identify tasks that are stopped and yellow dots that are risks.Red & Yellow D

Your measurement of this behavior is the number of yellow dots per week versus the number of red dots. If people are systematically identifying risks, yellow dots will be rising or will be stable and red dots will be declining or stable. Managing your project team’s ability to focus on the future is as simple as that.

Risk Mitigation Graph

To measure promptness, we measure the duration of a red dot. What we want is quick response to any problems that stop project progress.

Red dot report

Reinforcing the future oriented behavior will transform the dynamic of your team. Rather than excuses, they’ll bring solutions. Rather than surprises, you’ll find alternatives. Fewer obstacles, faster progress. You’ll stop losing time because your team is looking ahead. They’re solving problems. Systematically. That’s what you want!

The visual project management solution I’ve invented, VISUM, has the metrics already built in.  Have a look at VISUM here

Next up: More Measurements to Drive Good Behavior

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In engineering offices and construction trailers all over the world, promising projects suffer delays, cost overruns and missed output projections. In response, the collective finger of blame points to everyone’s favorite excuse: “bad planning.”

If bad planning is responsible for failure, it stands to reason that “good planning” should be the savior. And by “good planning,” conventional wisdom means “more planning”: more pages of tasks, more lines of specifications, and many, many more details.

But after 27 of years as an operations analyst and process consultant on some of the most complex production systems in the world (think automobiles, airplanes and off-shore drilling, for example), I know that good planning – at least as it’s commonly understood – is not the answer: it’s the problem.

The devil really is in the details

What goes wrong? Most planning is based on an earned value systems model of work breakdown structures that make it relatively easy to assess cumulative costs. But the granular level of detail that’s good for accounting is not so good for project managers. By nature, work breakdown structures are linear, hierarchical – they do not reveal (or account for) the dependencies or “hand-offs” among plan elements, the things that must be done before subsequent steps can be fulfilled. While “good” planning does define the work, it doesn’t define the relationships or – just as perniciously – it attempts to define all of them.

But relationships are precisely what a project manager manages. Excessive detail creates a needle-in-the-haystack situation that inhibits corrective action by obscuring the truly relevant. The more details in the plan, the more difficult it is for people on the ground – project managers and their teams – to make the on-the-fly adjustments that are absolutely necessary for successful implementations.

Just as no one would advise commencing a project without planning, I am not advocating planning without details. But I do believe in setting the right level of detail: only as much as an organization can manage. Much of the project detail should be defined in simple checklists and work instructions – and not much more. When the level of plan detail is appropriate, project teams can anticipate the consequences of any change in a given line item; when projects are over-planned, consequences are impossible to forecast and managers become incapable of responding effectively. They become (to borrow a metaphor) lost in the forest, incapable of finding the right trees. As problems arise, the project becomes susceptible to delays. The project team can’t see the right course of action. Deadlines are missed, and to compensate, project meetings become long, tedious affairs in which managers defend past actions to deflect blame. The planning everyone once praised as “thorough” is now exposed as “unmanageable.”

Forget “plans” and focus on “plays”

In reality, project problems are not a possibility, but an inevitability. Things go wrong, and the more “things” there are in a plan, the greater the likelihood that small failures will lead to larger ones. That’s why more planning, in itself, can never lead to timely and efficient project completion. Burdened with details, large plans become boa constrictors that squeeze the air out of any given process, suffocating hopes for success.

The path to success, therefore, is not more planning, but a focus on effective execution that anticipates problems and has the flexibility necessary for addressing them. Consider football: no amount of planning can dictate success on the field; in fact, excessive adherence to a plan would constrain a coach, not help him. What the coach needs is the ability to implement plays – intelligent execution – appropriate to the immediate situation on the ground in front of him.

In order to execute intelligently, the coach needs:

A clear view of the situation: What is core to the status of the project? Good coaches/managers make the work and the obstacles to progress visible. When the project flow is clear to the team, they are able to direct resource time and effort to that smaller subset of activities that make a meaningful contribution to the project goal.

Common goals: There is no room for players trying to pad their “stats” when you’re trying to win the game. Success means perfect alignment among all team members. In a project, there is no such thing as a “balanced” scorecard. Replacing tactical metrics (productivity by discrete tasks) with one metric concentrated on the overall output aligns everyone’s work with the ultimate project objective.

Collaboration: The team must agree on the general strategy of action and their role in it. Instead of pursuing individual agendas, the team cooperates toward the common goals through transparent communication of the project’s status, and the necessary next steps for moving the project forward.

Planning for dynamic action

Planning will not, and should not, go away. But good planning doesn’t mean more planning. More planning defeats its purpose by burying the project team in detail it cannot manage. If we are to replace frustration with success, then smart project plans must fit the size of the team that drives the execution of the plan and manages the uncertainties of execution. Planning is not an objective in its own right, the plan’s sole purpose is to enable and guide execution. Better planning anticipates problems and gives project managers the tools they need to take corrective actions as they are needed. By substituting dynamic execution for static adherence to overly detailed plans, project managers acquire the power to make workflows work.

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