Why that great plan on paper never quite pans out.
You’ve been in that meeting. A project is starting to run off the rails so the project manager calls a “How Do We Right the Ship?” gathering. Gantt charts are at every desk and red pens are feverishly working. Ideas pour in and a new plan is unfurled. Smiles abound and verbally backslapping fills the room. The project that looked like it was destined to ship in June has been pulled into April.
Flash forward to June and everyone is scrambling to make delivery by the end of the month. What happened?
What gets measured gets improved.
Ensuring on-time project delivery is too often left at the feet of a project manager only. A project manager typically relies on a weekly status meeting and brute force efforts of banging on every discipline leader’s door. Here’s the problem of relying too much on that diligent project manager:
A project manager, by definition, is managing via influence. A functional manager, by defintion, is managing via authority.
When these two management influences collide, the functional manager always wins that war. But in a matrix organization how can the functional manager be empowered to meet the required schedule while respecting a project manager’s needs? Too often that functional manager is managing by the greatest urgency, moving from project to project as noise is created by the responsible project manager.
In most organizations there is a weekly gathering involving the functional manager and team. However, plans shift drastically, and daily, regimented check-ins may be just the cure for the madness. Does a daily measure sound too extreme? An exhaustive study by the American Psychological Association shows that daily monitoring of schedules clearly improves outcomes. Furthermore, additional benefit can be obtained by publically reporting progress.
This is where tools like a daily GEMBA walk prove their usefulness. Psychologically humans are wired to take action on what is visible. Putting too much onus on the project manager for keeping a schedule overstresses a single contributor unnecessarily and is not a substitute for a functional team that has daily awareness of their goals.
Estimates are based on the Most Likely Scenario
Few are foolish enough to sit in a meeting and advocate for every single task to be expedited and defend a schedule based on that math. Here’s what typically happens: The team thinks it will take an engineer 8 hours to run and deliver calculations. In most situations, it WILL take the engineer 8 hours. However, if everything goes right and the engineer has a lot of coffee and is feeling good about life she could get it done in 6. But, let’s imagine the flip side. In the bid stage, transport loading was overlooked and that part will need to go to a specialist. The specialist takes an additional 4 hours. Plus the guy in document control is new and takes several hours figuring out how to submit the drawings in the new system. That 8 hour estimate easily turns into 16 hours of actual time.
The fallacy of estimates is easily exposed by this example. If everything goes right, a few hours can be saved. But a few flies in the ointment and a task can easily push out days or weeks. This scenario sounds way too familiar to those who manage projects.
The Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) was developed to shed light on this fallacy. PERT takes a typical estimate and weighs it according to the most likely outcome. The calculation is as follows:
Pert Estimate = (Optimistic + (4 X Most Likely) + Pessimistic)/6.
In the engineering calculation example, the 8 hour task under PERT becomes a 9 hour estimate. This is a subtle, but highly important difference. A PERT estimate, whether roughed out by hard or done via software, will return a better result than the typical “most likely case scenario”.
Linear Efficiency Gains are Never Linear
Let’s put a night shift on! Or just five more welders! That’ll solve it. Aside from the painful operating costs of spooling up a night shift, efficiency dips when more resources are placed on a project. Let’s imagine the scenario of putting five guys on a skid to weld. The limited room to work creates more people standing around and/or reducing the efficiency of workers who are used to a bit of elbow room. Furthermore, each additional welder’s skill set may see an incremental drop-off and therefore, reduced efficiency gains.
Painting a picture with too broad a brushstroke is usually nipped in the bud by a well-seasoned shop foreman. However, his voice is too often drowned out by well-meaning engineers or managers. The high efficiency of top workers and physical limitations that prevent optimal work are too often overlooked.
Risk Registry is Absent
“My cousin runs that machine shop and he won’t let me down.” That may be true, but what happens when the cousin leaves for a better job? A project naturally engenders dozens of assumptions and risk as well. Understanding, quantifying, and mitigating that risk puts a project in a durable position to overcome scheduling hurdles.
A Risk Registry never has to be an elaborate tool, and simpler is usually better. Simple Risk Registries allow any team members to contribute possible impediments during a project. Risk Registries at a minimum should include detail of the risk assessment, probability of occurrence, severity should it occur, and mitigation strategy. Download an Excel-based registry that Momenta Tech uses for all of its engagements.
Poor Executive Engagement
Too often, executives will howl at the slight slippage of a schedule, but stay hands-off on helping solve any problems. Monthly meetings to track project progress and supply assistance where needed should be a bare minimum requirement. Most typically, engagement is a reactive approach where schedule slippage dictates additional attention.
Executives can quickly refresh and inspire their team by patrolling the halls and asking project managers a simple question, “Is there anything I do to help you?” The answer from staffers typically will be “all is good” out of politeness or deference. That’s when it is time for the executive to dig deeper. “What is one thing our organization can give you to ensure your success?” The famous businessman Arnold Glagow once said:
“One of the true tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.”
This is no truer than in the world of project management. Balancing dozens of stakeholder expectations and navigating countless project impediments to deliver a project on time and on budget makes project management extremely challenging. A great project manager that is properly supported by executives is a boon to a company’s bottom line.
So the next time pulling that delivery date in seems so easy? Think about these five killers of on-time delivery. And before the temptation sets in to issue congrats on a project nowhere near shipment, take a deep breath and have the vision to know the next page in the story.