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Project Management - Case Study
Thursday 24th May 2018
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Project Management, starting with how not to do it!

The company paid lip service to Project Management, but were terrible at it.

On a project whose benefits exceeded all our expectations, we needed a way to coax them towards a different approach.

This is a hugely delicate area. Another organisation, until then holding the crown of 'worst ever', uses 'auto denial'. They respond to every SNAFU by denying it happened. As a result the simplest of fixes takes about a year. By way of comparison, politicians (who use the same technique - just listen to Radio 4's Today) are positively dynamic.

We needed a way for them to realise what was happening for themselves. If they felt threatened things would get worse not better.

On reflection, every Project Management mistake I've ever seen or unravelled has been a mistake in principle not detail.

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The Barium Meal

I'm indebted to a professor who worked in a public sector monopoly for the analogy - "let's issue instructions and measure what happens". [1]

We issued a series of very trivial (yet necessary) requests, none of which would take more than 30 minutes, and watched what happened. Or, as often, what didn't happen…


Along the way we found some very consistent patterns. These led to a 'crib card' to help managers spot the warning signs early.

The card paints a black and white picture of some differences between line and project behaviours. Clearly the real world is shades of grey. Nevertheless, if your projects tend more to the left than the right, get help.

Line Behaviours

Project Behaviours

Refer tasks to other departments, where they join a queue.
Rarely defines a required outcome, leaving this to the professionalism of the other department.
Delegates tasks (including Cost and Schedule and Performance) e.g. "By Friday, spending no more than 15 minutes, tell Joe your estimate of the average pick cost"
Rarely specifies C and S and P, since they aren't relevant for routine, repeating tasks. Always specifies C and S and P because every task is a one-off.
An experienced resource will ask if one is missing.
There are some shortcuts which can be used with experience. For example, "By tomorrow" implies a cost limit (it can't cost more than 1 day) and - rather more dangerously - a quality limit. Sort of 'if it takes longer you overcomplicated it'.
Shuffles the queue after a deadline is missed and the lapse noticed or pointed out. Take one of a variety of actions before a deadline is missed. Might alter C or S or P, or some mix.
Waits for the customer to complain. May only hear of the failure after it happens. Tell the customer before the failure. Always knows before it fails; constantly replanning.
Thinks forwards from the start of the task. Thinks backwards from the required result.
Runs close to maximum workload. May feel more comfortable with a queue of work.
Reluctant to upsize or downsize the department too quickly.
Keeps some contingency in reserve. When needed, deploys the reserve with little delay.
Blames the last (most recent) point of failure.
"The PO is 3 months late because of last week's (2 day) postal strike"
Might make no attempt to fix the problem at source.
Blames the first point of failure.
"It's 3 months late because we didn't plan and resource the project up front"
Will have actively considered whether fix the problem, or live with it.
Defence focus when things go wrong Resolution focus when (and before) things go wrong
Uses memos and eMails Uses phone and face time
Sends eMail saying "I'm confused", inviting the reader to guess what is needed.
The management equivalent of walking into A&E and asking them to guess your illness.
Asks for the information they need to get their task done.
"What is an average pick cost?" "How might that alter if I doubled the pick quantity?"
Publicly assumes competence elsewhere (whatever their private view!). Displays loyalty to colleagues Constantly reinforcing the project objectives, always as C and S and P. Shows loyalty only to the project.
Trains, encourages and protects staff Uses people.
We might add that none of these traits are 'good' or 'bad' unless they are PM traits over-used in a line role, or vice versa.


This feels horribly familiar. Please contact us


  1. At the time (over 30 years ago) his results were truly depressing. In roughly equal mix, the instruction, its opposite, or nothing happened.
If Gladstone fell in the Thames, that would be a misfortune; and if anybody pulled him out, that would be a calamity. Disraeli
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