Monthly Archives: June 2013

The sooner you start, the sooner you finish, right?
Perhaps you remember the tale of the tortoise and the hare.  Sure, the hare is fast, but in the end, it’s the tortoise’s steady progress that wins the race.  In a project management sense, it’s not the speed of the individual project that matters; it’s the speed of all the projects that matters.

The problem with the “start early, finish early” approach is that when you’re dealing with several projects, everything starts early and the system becomes clogged.  The project management system looks like the freeways during rush hour (2 analogies in 2 paragraphs!).  The system becomes bogged down, slows down, and projects take longer and longer.

From a resource view, there’s a stack of work to be done.  How to choose the right task?  The one I enjoy most?  The one that we discussed in the project meeting today?  The small task I can wrap up before the weekend?  So many choices, each resource choosing the correct sequence.

Undoubtedly, the “wrong” work will be done.  Tasks will be started with incomplete information, resulting in starting and stopping, waiting, and rework.  The project team spends its time sorting through the piles of work for the resources, and then resorting as new information arrives.  Then the resources are forced to stop and start again, because the teams never quite get it exactly right.

The result?  A loss of productivity.  Increasing project lengths.  Expensive expediting efforts.  More management attention required.  Unhappy customers.  Unhappy people.

What can you do?   Certainly the synchronization task is complex when you have many projects, but you can clear the road a bit so you can see the way.  Manage and limit the amount of work in the pipeline.   Simple, yet difficult.  Still, it must be done.

Managing the WIP:

Reduces the multitasking.  With less work in the system, there is less sorting and resorting, less stopping and starting due to priority errors

Reduces management attention.  Less work, faster progress, no more managing the piles.

Reduces rework.  With less work in the system, attention can be turned to emphasizing clean starts

Reduces average project lead times.  Fewer queues, less wait time, more time spent on the project.

A couple things to keep in mind as you set your WIP level:

You can make gradual reductions; reduce by 25% if you’re worried about something bad happening.  I’d start a with 50% reduction.

Watch your resource engagement; sometimes there is work in the system you’re not even aware of, like customers calling your engineers or developers directly.

Make sure it’s clear who sets the priorities for work.  Controlling the release of new work into the system is both a capacity and priority management task.

To read more about the unlimited “progress” and other invisible threats to managers, read our new eBook Blindsided! Five Invisible Project Threats Successful Managers Must See.

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Ugh.  Another project meeting.  We’ve all been there, annoyed when our reminder goes off (if you still use them!) reminding us of our 8th meeting of the day.  We’re annoyed because there are so many meetings and these meetings never seem to get anywhere.  The same stories, the same excuses.  Well, at the close of the meeting, at least we know where we are.  Or do we?

There are lots of ways to make meetings more productive, but I won’t bore you with them.  Rather, I’ll pose a question: why have them at all?  You could also ask, why are there so many of them?

Death by meeting to manage a project is a symptom.  It’s a symptom of a project management process that is out of control.  Most project team members don’t even see frequent meetings as a problem; they are simply a fact of life.  The reality of the situation is hidden.

Meetings themselves are not the problem.  They provide a useful function of forcing communication of important information. They synchronize resources, allocate activities, and highlight the project’s delays. At least, that’s what they’re supposed to do.  We see other things happening in project meetings: status updates, defending turf, defending original commitments, giving reasons why things haven’t worked out – a laundry list of missed expectations.  Projects executed looking through the rear-view mirror.

With this kind of management, the project team never gets a clear view of what’s ahead and what action to take.

There are two (main) reasons for this kind death:

1.  The project team does not know the real status of the project (where we are, where to go)
2.  The project team’s measurements are not in alignment

I’ve written a lot about our ViewPoint visual project management approach that essentially solves the first problem.  Essentially the approach creates a shorthand (visual view) for the project (similar to KANBAN and Agile) and its status, which helps the project team move forward.  You can read more about it on the Visual Project Management page here.

The second issue is a bit more complicated, as there are often conflicting measurements among the players on the project team.  We see conflicting measures all the time, but the biggest are between resource utilization and project velocity.  During the execution, the team is making constant trade-offs between keeping people “productive” and maintaining the velocity of task completion.   I’ve written about this issue before, and will again.

We worked with a manufacturer’s engineering department and discovered that all the designers were working in isolation within their own cubicles, not able to see the big picture.  The projects were not moving.  The meetings were not productive, in turn frustrating everyone involved even further.  By changing the way the team managed the projects, they were able to clear a six-month backlog of work in less than 90 days.  Read the case study here

To read more about the hidden threats that project managers must face, read our new eBook Blindsided! Five Invisible Project Threats Successful Managers Must See.

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This week, I am starting new series of postings that showcase some of the most common blind spots to successful project execution.  I call these the blind spots because most managers are not even aware that these menaces are the true problem.  The symptoms are obvious, but the root problem is hidden.  The first cause is dealing with task priority.

In a perfect world, all resources would have one project to work on and one project manager.  But of course, that is not reality.  Most people are tasked to several projects, many with different project “managers” who all think that their project is obviously the most important one.  They cannot see other projects or other priorities.

This means that the resource is forced to choose, with limited insight, what priority task to work on.  The most frequent result is that rather than working on project tasks that are a true priority, they choose projects to work on based on which manager asks the most, yells the loudest, or flatters the most.  Even worse, some people will work on whatever is asked of them at the moment, immediately switching to the most urgent.  The result of both is that there are many tasks started, but few are being finished.   The workflow becomes filled with unfinished work, slowing progress for ALL projects.

As a further result, the work of managers is reduced to expediting and negotiating resource availability.  And of course, they are quite creative!  However, this creativeness is not fun or particularly productive if you want to accelerate all of your projects.

The solution is to create a single priority system for all resources.  This significantly reduces multitasking and increases resource productivity and project velocity.

As you set up your single priority system keep the following in mind:

Choose priorities that are determined by the overall goals and deadlines of the organization, not for a specific department.  As you create one priority, focus on what is best for the whole company, focusing on the big picture.  This may mean a renegotiation of service level agreements or other local measurements.

Centralize assignment of priorities.  Establish one gate to the workflow where the priorities are designated.  This is a single manager or analyst who manages work priorities for the resource group.  This person becomes both the voice of the organization to its customers and a voice of the customer to the organization; the “conductor” to your organization.

Focus on one priority task at a time.  The single priority system must be managed by the task managers to ensure resources are not multitasking.  Do not allow outsiders (you know who they are!) to “help” with task assignment.

Use a priority system that everyone understands.  The key to an effective system is transparency and simplicity.  The goal of the system is to understand the most important work and engage people to work on it continuously.  Don’t be concerned about precision, a simple scale of 1-4 is simple enough.

Creating a single priority system is critical for effective project execution and is at the heart of our visual project management approach, ViewPoint.  Learn more about the ViewPoint approach here.

To read more about the conflicting priorities and other invisible threats to managers, read our new eBook Blindsided! Five Invisible Project Threats Successful Managers Must See.

Schedule a Consultation

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I’m continuing my series on the Achieving Top Performance: 7 lessons learned in a Disaster, an elaboration on the work we did during the Gulf oil spill.  This week covers the final lesson, communications.  In my last blog post, I wrote a little about the performance standards.  This post continues that discussion and I’ll get into the communication and feedback process of those standards.

As an organization grows or changes, so does the complexity of managing the performance and processes. Unfortunately many organizations’ communication and performance management processes suffer from one of two conditions as a consequence: underdeveloped and fragmented or bloated and burdensome. Either way, the result is ineffective and misaligned performance systems and processes that do not support – and frequently work against – your ability to diagnose and direct performance towards your goals.

Often, the performance management systems are focused on functional performance (reflecting the organizational structure).  The problem with this approach is that “functions” do not equal “processes” and fail to account for the interdependence among functions.  The result is that one function can do well while other functions’ (and the organization’s) performance suffers.

We can validate what we know intuitively by a small experiment.  Add up all the performance indicators in various functions.  Do they sum up to the organization’s global numbers?  Of course they do not.  We know this intuitively, as we are witnesses to mangers gaming the system to make their numbers.  The implication is that managers at various levels know the performance management numbers are at best, an approximation of organizational performance and at worst, making the numbers actually harms the business.

It’s in this environment of mistrust of the numbers that we expect managers to perform well and deliver bottom line results.

The challenge in managing organizational performance is to have local managers align their functionally oriented behaviors and decisions with organization’s goals.  For example, in a for-profit entity, managers must make decisions that will produce favorable outcomes based on the same measurements to which the stockholders and customers hold the organization accountable for.

Additionally, managers and system owners must be able to predict and accurately measure the effect of decisions that are made deep in the organizational structure and see their effect upon the goals of the organization as whole.  With the current processes, they are simply unable to get an accurate picture of how well the processes that lead to the results are operating.

There is also the issue of timing.  Having the right information in the hands of the right people at the right time enables managers to capitalize on opportunities and be prompt in remedial actions.

Budgets Offer an Incomplete Picture of the Business

In most organizations, the main performance management system is linked to the financial aspects of the organization – local budgets.  I am not arguing against budgets, they just offer an incomplete picture.  The main driver of budget behavior is based on dividing the organization into functional areas.  They measure the financial effect of the decisions made in the past, but do not make a decision model.

Good for allocating expenses, but difficult to judge a particular decisions’ impact.  Especially when a manager has accountability for process decisions that affect expenses in other silos (For example, the sales function could make promises to customers that cause operations to spend excessively to meet them.).  Most importantly, budget management assumes a fixed revenue source, over which local managers have little or no control.  The reality is, that local managers, being part of the system, have a significant impact on the revenues of an enterprise.

Additionally, revenue is not a fixed thing; it’s a projection – a forecast.  The result is that local management decisions become one dimensional – based on expenses and local optimization of a revenue level that may or may not reflect the current state.  The result is often a sacrifice of revenue and market opportunities so the budget will be right.

The solution is not a balanced scorecard, but a focused set of process–based measurements and diagnostics that illuminates process behavior – the predecessor to results.  These measurements, carefully calibrated to system and process behavior are then linked to reinforcement mechanisms to ensure alignment at all levels of the organization and across process boundaries.

These measures must then have a communication process that ensures the rapid response organizations require.

This was the problem we faced during our work with the vessel cleanup operation. BP had contracted thousands (yes!) of different teams of vessels and crews.  We worked with them to create a process to manage the cleanup operation and the performance of the many remote vessel cleaning operations. Without coordinated communication between the clean up sites and the command center, the constraint of the entire operation – the dock space – often stood idle or full of vessels waiting to be decontaminated.  Each morning, there was a meeting to discuss progress, but there were there were as many communication methods as there were contractors (and there were plenty).

Mistrust and confusion was common.  More importantly, the command was unable to understand the status of the project and the decontamination sites were operating independently, out of sync with the global objectives.

Managing the Performance

We implemented the following principles to accelerate the performance management communications of the teams.  They weren’t the ONLY things that were done, but the most critical:

Have the right information.  Focus on the constraint.  Since the constraint determines the overall process capability, it becomes central to the communication strategy.  We reported things like dock utilization, lost time, vessels waiting to assess the health of the process.  These weren’t the only things that were reported, as we were concerned about safety, too.  But the constraint performance information was central to knowing the progress and developing action plans.

Have timely information.  This is a discipline for the reporters of the information in terms of accuracy and for the managers using the data; regular (daily!) reporting and regular (daily!) cross functional reviews.  Having the all reporting on a common time front helps decision makers assess the quality of the information.  Having it as recent as possible gives a clear view into the process at the moment.  We had daily reports and weekly reviews of the aggregated performance.  These performance reviews were active – where are we, what do we need to do and short – less than a half hour a day.

Have templates for communication.   Making consistent, standardized communications helps everyone understand the information and the process.  By having a prepared template, meeting preparation time is reduced as everyone knows what is needed, how to present it, and with repetition, where to find the required information and what is critical to the process.  Standardized communications greatly increased the effectiveness of the management process.  The meetings themselves improved in terms of focus and quality of information discussed.  The process became more transparent, so everyone involved remained informed and could make better decisions.


Read how these changes to accelerate communication greatly impacted the results in lesson 7 in our eBook, Achieving Top Performance Under the Worst Conditions: 7 Lessons Learned from a Disaster.

Also, have a look at some of our thought leadership on performance management here.

As always if, you have questions or comments please feel free to contact me by emailing me.

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