Management of a project, regardless of the specific intent and outcome, can generally be accomplished using fairly universal tools and techniques with a significant amount of focus and discipline.
A team approach has been shown to gain ‘ownership’ in the project and a consistent and uniform means of communication allows participants and stakeholders to stay abreast of the project by providing feedback to the team and the project leader(s). As a business leader, you frequently find yourself faced with the dilemma of having to define, justify, and implement a significant project or program, that at its conception, is generally just a collection of ideas, proposals, ‘back of the envelope’ calculations or benefits.
To bring these together takes the focus of a program manager and at some point in the life cycle, a team, to bring the project to fruition. Programs and projects come in a variety of shapes and sizes: From small projects such as adding a piece of equipment or extending the life of a product by some incremental change to large projects like an international greenfield construction and startup. Whether large or small, these projects use many of the same approaches and tools.
Regardless of size or complexity, a project will include the following stages:
Project scope and expected results must be defined. Key milestones, project ‘gateposts’ as some would call them need to be estimated. Whether it’s a new product rollout, business expansion to new markets, major quality or specification upgrade to an existing product family, major facility expansion or build, a series of cost improvement initiatives, or some other major initiative – all projects require definition: expected team resources, a timeline, and key issues and mitigation alternatives. Also important is an initial estimate of costs – capital and expenses, time phased for cash flow needs. In one program that I managed, this phase took over six months, and seven updates, as ‘scope creep’ occurred and the project grew in complexity.
This is not unusual, but the better the definition at the outset, the better the probability of successful completion on-time and in-budget
Most enterprises have Capital Project Models or Capital Funds Appropriation Models. The program manager will lead a team to state the business case, refine cost and capital estimates, identify savings and profit opportunities and refine this model to show key milestones, cash and capital outlays, and the expected payback for the investment. Key risks and mitigation alternatives need to be laid out.
Also, the justification model should be ‘stressed,’ that is, key variables such as costs, pricing and margins, timing, contingencies, et cetera should be flexed in a positive and negative direction in the model, to give the business a sense of consequence should the project move off its original scope in one or more of the variables identified.
Team Creation and Responsibilities:
I cannot stress enough, how important the team is. In one of the programs that I led, entire product lines were being moved to China and Mexico. The project had a scope of more than $20MM in capital and expense, moving more than $150MM/year in sales, requiring expansion of facilities in the receiving locations, training of technical and operations teams, establishment of new or expanded ERP systems, inventory builds to avoid customer downtime, and a myriad of other details that had to be managed. Using a baseball analogy, I established a team of ‘pitchers’ and ‘catchers’ for each key element and location of the program. These teams communicated and worked together constantly to resolve the inevitable issues that arise in a complex program.
My task was to make sure that the teams worked together, issues and conflicts were resolved, that the individual projects stayed on track, expenses and capital were managed, and that the program stayed the course.
One of the benefits of using these local team members was that it gave them valuable experience for future projects, using a set of consistent and transferable tools. A key element to the successful completion of any program is having a solid team in place as early in the process as possible. Frequently I’ve seen a project manager who has a ‘day job’ and his project management activities are an afterthought. This may work for smaller projects or where such projects are a normal part of (say, for example) a manufacturing engineer’s responsibilities.
For larger projects and programs, dedicated resources become a necessity. There is no substitute for full time participants in a ‘make or break’ project. In reality, one can manage only three things: time, money, and people. Think about the project as a balloon: squeeze the time, and money and people need to expand; squeeze the people, and time and money expand; squeeze the money and time and people expand. The successful program manager learns to optimize resources available to the project, or if a critical situation arises, alerts the business and prepares an updated business case with new information.
Once a project is approved by the business, and frequently even beforehand, implementation commences. The implementation start may involve only paper studies of the project consequences, or it may include some initial expenses for long lead-time items. All too frequently, the calculated completion of a project is later than the business or the customer expects. Parallel activities during a project are a prerequisite and require careful planning to achieve the expected result.
Some key tools used here are:
Have a clearly defined project plan, in a form easily understood by all, up and down the organization. This may be in some form of project software, or at a top level, just a spreadsheet document, showing key actions, dates, responsibilities, and progress to completion.
Initiate a report card on issues and actions that the team can use in routine discussions to give feedback across the group on any items that may need attention. These can be prioritized any number of ways, using codes, colors, or some other means to bring focus to the critical issues faced by the project team. ‘Dashboards’ and action matrices need to be used to keep the program in synch. Plan to have a clear, understandable means to communicate expenses and capital outlays against the plan.
One of the keys to success for a 5 site worldwide rebalance of production capacity project that I managed was to have a senior finance manager as part of the team. He understood the need to not only track but also to effectively communicate project cost status to the leadership. Have a means to update the business and corporate leaders about the progress of the program, the current issues and actions, next critical steps, and any actions or decisions that may be needed from them to keep the program on track.
This may take the form of weekly, monthly, or quarterly updates to the senior team. It’s all too easy to neglect this or to have it postponed for some competing reason. The senior leadership’s most precious commodity is time; respect it by being succinct and focused on the issues at hand.
A key responsibility of the program manager is to assure that the team, its sponsors, and the leadership stakeholders have sufficient information to understand where the program/project is and what decisions and actions need to be taken to keep on track. There are a large number of tools that an effective program manager can use to communicate throughout the organization during the life cycle of the program. The Internet allows organizations to effectively communicate through the use of net meetings, data repositories and project management systems. These tools avoid the problem of unread emails, missed voicemails and document and report ‘version control’.
Currently, project managers are using tools that allow all stakeholders to participate in the management of a project by being able to see the status of key project elements at any time and any place, via the internet. They can see where various project tasks stand and how the project financials are performing.
Effective project management tools allow the group to communicate through discussion threads, store documents and assure routine updates that are automatically dispersed to interested parties via the internet. These types of highly secure systems provide an organization the ability to stay on top of complex programs and projects which require this ability. Timely and successful completion of a project requires judicious and timely follow up. Complex projects have many cross functional interdependencies, and the tools noted above provide a way for all to stay abreast of progress.
Post Project Analysis and ‘Lessons Learned’ Most programs/projects will have some key lessons that result from the experiences and challenges that the manager and team members faced during the project. These lessons can range from the technical, the environmental, the managerial, all the way to the societal effects of starting a new enterprise in an international location.
For example, I built a large manufacturing facility in Central Europe. One of the lessons learned there was that EH&S (environmental, health, and safety) requirements were driven by both EU and national regulations, compounding the task of documenting and receiving the various approvals needed. In the end, our document stack, tied in a colored ribbon (a local requirement) was more than a foot thick! Whatever the lessons, it is important to document these for future improvements as well as having those hard lessons learned to avoid their repetition.
Every program faces challenges. As noted earlier, these can be time based, expense based, or people based. Most organizations do not have experienced program managers just idling on the payroll. Such folks are generally knee-deep in the activities involved in growing a business, or executing planned cost improvements, or expanding / rebalancing capacity. One possible source of internal program management talent is to consider individuals who show promise to move into senior leadership roles. They can come from any function.
A stint of ‘learning by doing’ can enhance their skill set, and give them the exposure to managing complex projects with a lot of responsibility and little authority. These types of assignments provide a significant career enhancing opportunity and identify those who are capable of moving into business or general manager’s roles.
Training effective project/program managers is a big challenge. Many of the tools that were talked about earlier make if easier to train a project manager and also provide the ability for a more experienced project manager to mentor them.
Many companies are using consulting resources for big projects. This offers some unique advantages:
- If the organization is short handed, a trained consulting program manager can teach and inculcate tools and techniques into the organization for developing future project managers
- A consultant can bring a multi-industry approach
- Consultants are not encumbered by the day to day requirements of the business, likely leading to a more timely completion of the program.
- The outside program manager’s task is to complete the assignment to the satisfaction of the business stakeholder. Once done, that expense does not burden the payroll.
- The outside program manager can bring new tools, fresh insights, thinking, and techniques to the situation, avoiding the ‘Not Invented Here” syndrome that occurs in many situations. Independent program managers can cut through those issues.
Effective project/program management is a discipline and a key skill required in every organization. It is important to remember that ineffective management of major programs and projects burden the organization with incremental costs and lost opportunities. Delays in significant cost improvements, new products and new processes hurt the organization, its stakeholders and customers. Over my career, I have seen projects not achieve their expected results due to ineffective project management.
In some cases, delays have caused the project to be scrapped, because it is no longer viable. Enterprises that effectively use their internal management talent or hire experienced project managers, maintain a competitive advantage in their markets and business segments. When utilizing project management as a stepping stone for internal resources, companies are rewarded with more knowledgeable and effective executives.
The effective use of tried and proven tools and techniques are a prerequisite to complex projects and programs. Modern project management tools utilizing cloud based techniques enhance the ability of the project/program manager to continuously communicate to everyone in the organization no matter where they are.
Adaption of these tools is not only a productivity enhancement, but it allows the project schedule to be compressed as a result of the availability of continuous communication to all interested parties, which in turn will result in a project that is on time and in budget.
About the Author: David O’Connor is a Senior Consultant with Group50 Consulting [www.group50.com], which provides interim executives and project resources to its manufacturing and distribution customers. Mr. O’Connor combined his 30+ years of running large organizations and small companies and managing complex global projects with inputs from his collaborators at Group50 a project management consulting firm.
For further information about Group50 or our project management expertise, contact Jim Gitney, CEO of Group50 at (909) 949-9083 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
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