If all projects are different, what is the best way for integrators to keep a project on course?
Yes, all projects contain uniqueness and uncertainty. But there is also a lot of similarity, with many repeatable activities that can (and should be) standardized.
If we understand that performing an activity in a standard and repeatable manner will always have some variation, then our measurement process must allow for variation.
This concept was described in Part 3 of this discussion. As an example, we used a drive to work that should take between 5- and 9-minutes 95 percent of the time, depending on various factors.
Here, we’ll use that same commuting example to study status, progress, and forecast.
Let’s say that our target time for this commute is 7 minutes, but no more than 8 minutes. We determine our key assumptions, milestones and potential risks, and color code the possible outcomes based on measurable increments:
- Blue: Anywhere from 5 minutes to 5 minutes and 59 seconds
- Green: Anywhere from 6 minutes to 7 minutes and 30 seconds
- Yellow: Anywhere from 7 minutes and 31 seconds to 8 minutes
- Red: Anywhere from 8 minutes and 1 second to 9 minutes or more
Now we can begin measuring. Before the drive occurs, we can check against pre-drive assumptions that might factor into our status, such as the time of day, day of week, weather, and whether or not school is in session. For instance, if it’s 7:30 a.m. on a rainy Tuesday and kids are heading to school, and if we’re honest with ourselves, we are looking at a Yellow or Red commute that day, even before we leave the driveway.
But that’s not normally how this works. We start by hoping things will get better.
We don’t want to disappoint anyone. So we start dissembling the truth (a.k.a. lying) and creating false expectations.
A Status Tale
Let’s break down this scenario, in hopes that you can extrapolate directly into your work environment. Let’s make Joe our commuter. I’m his peer at work and we’re meeting with the boss this morning. I’m a little obsessive / compulsive, so I’ve asked Joe to call me when he leaves his house and at his three key milestones.
Joe checks the time (a little before 8 a.m.) and weather (rainy) and knows in his heart the drive will take longer than the 7 minutes required to get him to our meeting on time. Still, he calls me to say, “Leaving now. Shouldn’t be a problem. See you soon.”
Joe reaches the first milestone — a school bus stop — and, sure enough, there’s a bus stopped there. He’s frustrated, weighing whether to break the law and go around the school bus, with its flashing red lights and stop sign, then speed through the school zone to make up time.
He calls and says, “Progressing well. Looks good.” The bus turns and Joe accelerates, almost hitting a kid on a bike (don’t they realize he’s in a hurry?). He reaches the next milestone unscathed, but now he’s 5 minutes into a commute he’d planned to do in 7 minutes, and he has at least 4 minutes to go.
Joe calls. “I’m a little behind,” he tells me, “but I’ll catch up — still green.” Now he’s speeding, zipping around traffic, endangering himself and others, causing one car to run off the road and up onto a curb — causing the potential risk event to occur to someone else. He gets to the last milestone before reaching the office — a busy intersection where (you guessed it) the light is red. From a status perspective, he’s now in the Red Zone and I get this call:
“Brad, there’s an accident and traffic’s backed up. I won’t make it there in 7 minutes. Probably not 8 minutes, either. But you can count on me at the 9-minute mark.”
Our meeting starts in 90 seconds. I’m heading down the hallway to our boss’s office. I call him 8 minutes and 45 seconds into a commute that was supposed to take 7 minutes. “You won’t believe what just happened,” he says. “The car in front of me got a flat tire. I’m gonna be a little late. I’m really sorry.”
I now must stand in front of the boss and weave my own tale of woe, making excuses for Joe, and tainting our credibility.
He does finally show up. “There was a truck turned over in front of the building,” he explains. “What a mess.”
Keep a project on course by asking the right questions
How many of you have heard something like this or been in Joe’s shoes?
What really happened here?
Joe became fixated on creating a myth about achieving a time target because he thought the target was more important than the truth. What he should have done was communicate proactively so that others could shift things around or help him achieve the intended result.
After all, when did Joe know the timeline for the meeting was in jeopardy?
Before he even left the house.
Based on past experience, he knew 7 minutes was impossible, and even 9 minutes was risky.
Focusing on status amounts to Joe telling me how many minutes he’s been driving. That’s data, but it’s not useful information.
A crisis can be defined as the instantaneous end of a delusion, and the delusion is based on people’s desire (sometimes they feel a threat) to paint a picture that matches their client’s or manager’s expectations.
So how should status, progress and forecast work?
We want to stress to our project managers and team members that we want the truth early.
A project color-coded Yellow or Red early in the implementation process can often be managed differently with little or no impact — or visibility — to the client by reallocating resources, changing interdependencies, reprioritizing other projects, etc.
The reactive, chaos-driven nature of most AV companies does not come from being behind; it comes from not informing other people the moment you know the project is in trouble, which can sometimes be before it’s even started (i.e., at the initial kick-off meeting).
In general, we need to be asking the following questions:
- Are we fulfilling all of the planned tasks?
- Are we measuring performance and variance against the scope, quality, schedule, and cost baselines? (Each of these can be color-coded Blue, Green, Yellow, Red.)
- Are there circumstances (assumptions, risks, issues, clients changing their minds) that have caused the project’s parameters to change?
Specifically, we need to ask project team members the following question on a routine basis (hourly for hang and bangs, daily for other projects):
Did you start on-schedule and how much effort is left?
Notice that we’re asking for the effort remaining, not the amount of time already spent. When there is variance (either positive or negative) from the baseline plan (whether scope, quality, schedule, and/or cost), then we should ask:
- Were you actually working on the activity or were you pulled off on another task or project? This will highlight a prioritization/ resource management problem.
- Were all of the supplies and inputs available for you to start effectively? This highlights a process problem with regards to preparation and/or staging.
- Did we under- or over-estimate the amount of effort required? Are the original assumptions still valid? This can be used to address estimation assumptions and become lessons learned.
- Were you building to the prescribed quality standard? This reveals any problem with standards, training, competence, or behavior.
- Did any risk events or surprises occur during the activity? This will be used to better mitigate and manage risks, contingencies, and become lessons learned.
- Do you feel confident about completing the task? The answer could indicate a training need.
There will always be variance when it comes to the effort required to complete an activity. And most people have a pretty good idea of the effort remaining by the time they’re about 20 percent into the activity – or sooner.
When we listen to team members’ answers to the right status/progress questions and look for the root cause of any variance — and not judge the resulting color — keeping a project on course actually becomes easier.
And forecasts give us insight to take proactive preventive and/ or corrective actions. When we judge a team member’s answers (and judge the color) and blame the individual for telling the truth early, then that’s the last time we’ll hear the information we really need and soon all we’ll hear about the activity’s status is, “It’s all good.”
When you want to keep a project on course, seek out the three key pieces of real status reports — status, progress, and forecast.
And the truth must always be rewarded, even when it’s not pretty.
Project Managers, what do you do to keep your projects on course? Let us know in the comments below.