A Case for Lean Project Management

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Have you ever heard the phrase, “Death by paperwork,” or “Death by process?” Better yet, have you ever experienced either of these? If you have worked for any reasonable amount of time,  chances are that you have. In this day of red tape  and CYA, paperwork and processes have become the norm and they can really kill your project delivery date. It isn’t always enough to simply schedule  time to complete these tasks. How about you look deep into these processes and determine their actual value and eliminate the ones that may be somewhat superfluous? After all, at some point, the work has to actually get done – and I’m sure you have plenty of it!

For those of you running a PMO with strict process guidance, please hear me out, but give me your thoughts at the end.

Here are a few items to consider: 

  1. Define the project type. It is important to understand what is truly required to complete your project. Software development projects differ greatly from a BYOD initiative or an infrastructure refresh project. Differences may include architecture reviews or design documents that would be appropriate for one project but not another.
  2. Consider the actual size of the project. There are several attributes that must be considered here including number of end-users impacted to size of project team and of course,  project budget and duration. A small project that impacts 100 users and lasts 3 months with a cost of $25,000 should have different document requirements than a multi-million dollar software implementation that takes two years.
  3. Determine actual requirements of the group you are working with. Business facing projects will typically have fewer process requirements than a typical IT project. At the same time, some business entities such as accounting or audit, may require additional processes. If the project doesn’t warrant a process for SOX compliance, for example, why even create a document for it?
  4. Simplify some of the documentation that you will use for every project. Project charters, for example, have a full gamut of length and complexity. In reality, the project charter really should be a simple document that gives a brief description of the project as well as a list of the high level roles and responsibilities that the PM would be accountable for. Anything else really belongs in other standard documentation.
  5. Make some documents standard. Think about a communication plan for a moment. What is defined in the communication plan? Types of communication with definitions of each as well as expectations that each project will have regarding all types of communications. When you think about it, most of these types of communications are the same across every single project. Team status meetings, stakeholder meetings, leadership meetings, status reports, RFPs, etc. will be the same. Sure there is some customization for each one based on the team and requirements, but create a well defined template that irons out each type and basic expectations. Don’t re-write every document every time.

It is time for the project bureaucracy to start swinging the pendulum the other direction a bit. It is possible and smart to cut out some of the formalities for some projects. If it is required, don’t cut it out, but make it a requirement if it has no value. Documents with little to no value that get created are simply expensive time wasters. Resist the urge to require a check box for every little thing. Here are some high level suggestions

Need to define but don’t go overboard:

  • Charter – keep it simple
  • Scope – sometimes a high or medium level scope statement is all you need. Detailed scope statements get very complex and can cause you to get lost in the weeds
  • Schedule – build your schedule so that it is manageable. You don’t need every little detail documented in the schedule. If you aren’t careful, you will spend all of your day trying to keep up with the schedule updates and changes.
  • Status reports – here everyone rolls their eyes. Often times status reports aren’t even read. Keep these simple – and automate some metrics for easy reporting. Hint: use the Unique Task ID in MS Project to export into MS Excel for simple, automated updates. You can also create categories in your financials to report high level metrics as well.

Make some plans standard

  • Communication Plan – meetings are meetings – set expectations here for all projects and stick to it. Remember, sometimes a phone call can take the place of a meeting – meetings are expensive. If you don’t believe me … do the math yourself. I find it very interesting that certain level of employees have limits on the amount of money they can approve on an expenditure but anyone can call a meeting. If you are holding a leadership meeting that runs an hour . . . it can cost thousands of dollars just to have everyone paying attention to you.
  • Change Control – Change processes are important, but are also the same for all projects in an organization. One document for every project will suffice. Simply reference that document in your project management plan
  • Risk and Issue Logs – make a SIMPLE template and follow it for every project. This also helps leadership to see the same type of information across all projects.

Of course, there is much more that can be put here, but I’ll keep it simple myself and wrap this post up. Remember, sometimes, less is more. If you are mired in process, your project is slowly slipping away, or your life outside the office is. Either way, you don’t want that to happen.

Lead lean! Lead smart! Lead on!!

Have a great rest of your day!

I value your opinion and would love to hear from you. What do you think about lean project management? Please comment below.

Why Building Relationships First is so Important

I was scrolling though my Twitter feed the other day when I ran across this post form PMI Mile Hi Chapter (@PMIMileHi)

Sometimes we neglect our most priceless asset — the project team. We focus too much on a project’s deliverables, timeline… #PM #PMP

This struck a chord with me. I was immediately compelled to quote it with this addition:

#PutPeopleFirst and watch the project succeed! #Leadership #PMOT #PMP

We see and hear things like this all the time, but why does this really matter? What is it about relationships that can make or break a project team? After all, these are professionals that have been hired to do a job, right? Well, the answer to that is, yes, but only for a time. If you don’t take the time to build the relationships with your team, they will find someone else, somewhere else, who will.

You see, we all have the desire to be appreciated, understood, and maybe even liked. What we don’t want is to be bossed around, micromanaged, and looked down on. As a project leader, or any leader for that matter, you have an opportunity to create a good working relationship with your team. If you do that, you will NOT be disappointed.

What do you do? How do you get there?

  • Make your open door policy is truly open door
  • Talk to your team – often – and in their environment
  • Plan team building outings – even low budget outings make a big difference
  • Introduce a little fun in the office every now and then
  • Show your appreciation when the team performs well – again, even low budget appreciation awards work

What you can expect

  • Even a team with low morale initially will start to transform
  • Attitudes will improve
  • Project performance will increase
  • Your team will become coachable
  • Your team will work harder than they ever have and will accomplish more than they thought was possible

What are some ways that you can show your team your appreciation? How do you relate to them? Please share some of your thoughts and success stories below.

Navigating Traffic: How your daily commute can help you solve problems

What does your daily drive to and from work look like? Is it very far? How long does it take? Do you go the same route every day?

I ask these questions, because I had an epiphany the other day as I was driving home. The distance was only a few miles, but sometimes, it could take me 30-45 minutes to go those few miles. I was navigating my way through traffic when I noticed that I was making the same adjustments every single time I drove. Those adjustments were saving me time. I knew, when traffic started to back up, that if I switched lanes, I would keep moving forward, even if at a slow pace. I also knew, that if I actually exited the highway and tried to go the back roads, it would take me longer. As I pondered, this epiphany, I started to pay closer attention to my route. I noticed if I made a few additional adjustments, I could save even more time. I was managing a problem to navigate in such a way that I could have the best possible outcome.

Problem management in the office is a lot like navigating rush hour traffic. If you take the time to really think about the issues, you can navigate the problem more smoothly, and efficiently. At the same time, you can work to avoid the knee-jerk reactions that so many people are plagued by. Think o f exiting the highway to avoid the traffic jam only to be plagued by stop lights and the other drivers who thought the same way you did. Swift can have it’s advantages, but only in the short term and only if done smartly. If you take the time to really solve the issue, then that resolution can have long lasting effects. Pay attention to what is going on around you. What are some trends you are seeing, good OR bad? Take the time to think about what little adjustments you can make in your behavior or your team’s behavior to make a positive impact.

I had a problem in that I wanted to spend more time with my family. My kids are only going to be this age a little while and I want to give them as much time as I can. I estimate I saved over 40 hours a year by putting a little extra thought into my route. That is more time with my family … and less time getting upset at the long line of cars that are not paying attention. That, of course, is another topic on its own. Wow, it looks like I solved two problems . . . see what I mean?!?!

What do you think? How do you navigate problems at work or with your projects? Do knee-jerk reactions hurt you organization?

Do You Know What Your people (Are Supposed to) Do?

What kind of people do you have below you that you made decisions on or have influence over? I’m not talking about introverts vs. extroverts, but rather skillsets. This is an age old question. Do you really know what your people do? Sounds like a potentially silly question, but it is very real, and is a problem in Corporate America these days. Think of it this way, you are giving your personnel evaluations for the year (hopefully not for the first time since LAST year) and you have to tell them how they are doing. Sure, you can tell if they’ve accomplished what you told them to accomplish, but … let’s forget the evaluations, let’s take a step further back for just a minute back to goal setting. Let’s paint for just a minute . . . .

If you remember, you sat down a little over a year ago and started to sketch out goals for every one of your employees. You know most of them fairly well but you may only have your own, limited knowledge of what their job descriptions actually mean. You don’t pay much attention, though as you know what your peers say each of the job descriptions mean to them so you go with it. As you map out your team’s goals, you feel confident that they are going to succeed and also be a great contributer to the company’s bottom line.

Fast Forward >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> You are back at your evaluations, and even though your direct reports may have “succeeded” they aren’t truly excited about what you have to say and you, yourself, find something just a bit off. It almost feels like . . . you both actually lost! Time to dig in a little.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<< Rewind a little more – even before you did your goal setting, and go back to your hiring process. Let's take a look at what you could have done, perhaps from the very beginning:

As you are working on your staffing plan (you do have a staffing plan, right?) jot down all of the employee types you are going to have under your direction. If you are inheriting a team, you need to do this retroactively. Now that you have your list, go do some research yourself. Don't call your buddy at your last job and ask him what he thinks each function serves – chances are, he's doing it wrong! Do some research yourself and find out what the industry standard is for that position. Look into professional organizations and what they say about the position. Only then, can you do yourself, your company, and your employee a service as you will hire the right person.

So, let's go back to the present. What do you really know about what your people do? Let's look at project managers. This is a title that has many different meanings to many different people. I know what it means to be a PM according to PMI. I have a good understanding of the industry and know what "industry standard" processes are but I am not sure that everyone in my industry does. I once heard someone say "I am a PM, I don't plan things. I get things done, I don't have time to plan." OUCH I wonder how much additional cost was involved in THAT project??? The truth is, that PMs are truly planners, not "doers". If you, as the leader of that PM resource understand that, you are setting that PM up to win and the company to win, and ultimately yourself to win.

I challenge you to do your research before you set your goals for the next go-round. If you find that you've had it all wrong, you are now armed with the right information to help make positive change in your organization. Give your employees their goals utilizing this information . . . if they are willing to accept this challenge, you have a winner on your hands. If not . . . well, I'll let you decide what their new job title should be.

By the way, if you want to know why a PM is a planner and not a "doer" I'll be writing on that very soon.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you have employees that have a "mystery job" that you might need to get in front of?

Thanks for reading and have a productive day!

–Jim

Dealing with Risk

What is risk? Risk is defined as an exposure to the chance of injury or loss; hazard or dangerous chance.  There are probably other words to describe it, but this works pretty well.

 I recently went on a cruise to the Caribbean. There were two things instantly working against me mentally: the recent sinking of the Costa Concordia in the Mediterranean Sea and the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Don’t think for a moment that my friends overlooked these two facts prior to my departure. They took every opportunity they could to rib me about it. Add to these the fact I have never been on a cruise before and this was a seven night adventure and the fact I was going to countries known for disliking Americans (Honduras and Mexico). Friends also kept telling me how sickness spreads on these ships quickly. Some might say I was taking a huge risk.

 Do you think it was risky?

Perhaps, but I say no. The reason I think it isn’t is because I practiced risk management techniques to minimize these risks or the affects. One, I did research on current vessels to ensure they are safe, looking up sailing to accident ratios. I wasn’t worried and we were not headed into iceberg infested waters. Two I familiarized myself with the ship’s layout including where life vests were located throughout the ship. I knew where to report to in an emergency and how to report one if I noticed it first. I also participated in the ship’s muster drill to find out how I was to get on the lifeboat if anything did happen. I wore a motion-sickness patch and washed my hands often to minimize other smaller risks. I also took into account that even though I was going into countries that were not necessarily great for Americans, I knew we were not going near hot-spots and would be protected fairly well. The consequences could be dire, but the likelihood was low so these were acceptable risks to take.

What does all of this mean and how does it relate to project management? Risk Management is an often overlooked part of project management. This brings me back to the definition or at least part of it: hazard or dangerous chance. Yes it is dangerous! It is dangerous to overlook such a simple process that doesn’t take much time or effort, but can save you time, money, or even your job if things go really bad. Negative things WILL happen and if you do not prepare for it, it will sink you and your project.

So how do I do it, how do I practice risk management? Follow these simple steps and at least get started. There are tons of resources available for purchase or even free in various places on the Internet. But whatever you do, don’t overlook risk management ever again. Enough with the doomsday talk, let’s get to it.

 Step 1: Brainstorm a list with your team on every negative thing you can think of that might happen. Sure, this list can be long and sometimes seem a bit trivial, but believe me, it is not. By practicing step one, you have gone beyond what most will do in this arena and it has already prepared you somewhat for what might happen simply by thinking about it.

Step 2: using a scale from 1-10 (or use whatever granularity you wish) rate how big of a deal that risk is. For example, if dealing with a paper cutter at the office, you might rate a paper cut as a 1 (no big deal). Conversely, you might rate losing a finger as a 10 (HUGE deal).

 Step 3: using the same scale as step 2, rate how likely that risk is to occur with 1 being unlikely and 10 being highly likely.

 Step 4: use some sort of math (I add the numbers together) and determine a threshold for what is acceptable and what is not. For example you can have numbers ranging from 2-20. So, you could rate any activity with a total number of 10 or under as minor risks. Likewise, you would consider anything over 11 as more severe risks needing more planning and perhaps scrutiny. Again, create your own thresholds here.

Step 5: Create your action plan. You can:

  • Accept the risk as it is, taking the chance and dealing with whatever consequences might arise (not recommended for risk totals on the higher end of your scale)
  • Avoid the risk altogether, change your plan so that this risk doesn’t even come up on the radar (these are recommended for the risks with totals on the higher end of your scale)
  • Mitigate the risk, how can you make the impact less on your team or project
  • Transfer the risk to another stakeholder or third party to deal with

Step 6: Train your team on the warning signs. Knowing what to look for is another critical part of minimizing the impact from a risk-turned-event. This step is often overlooked as well. Keep in mind, if you don’t train what to look for, the team might miss the risk coming to fruition.

However you decide to put together your plan, the bottom line is do it. I went on my cruise and had a wonderful time. I stuck to the plan, stayed safe, and enjoyed the great vacation with my awesome new bride. We got home safely and brought some amazing memories and photos with us.

 Remember, asking “What if” can help keep you from asking “What do I do now”!

 What do you do on your projects to prepare for risks? Comment below and tell me!

Project Communications

Project communications are perhaps the single most important aspect of your project management plan. It is also one of the most overlooked from a planning perspective. This could be because project managers have a tendency to think they know what to communicate to whom and when. The truth is, communication is something that has to be talked about and planned in advance.

The PMBoK Guide – Fourth Edition (A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge) breaks communications management down into five sub categories:

  1. Identify Stakeholders: Identify all people and organinzations that will be impacted by the project as well as their specific involvement and impact on project success
  2. Plan Communications: Determine what each person or group actually needs to be made aware of and in what form. For example, you will perhaps send daily detailed communications to the project team via electronic communciations, but only a weekly wrap up via staff meeting to a project sponsor or executives
  3. Distribute Information: This means that you actually do what you said you were going to do in the previous item.
  4. Manage Stakeholder Expectations: Pay attention to your stakeholder’s needs. You don’t want to give them too much or too little information. Give them only what they need which may mean removing or even add to the information identified in step 2.
  5. Report Performance: Periodic analysis of baselines versus actuals during the project. This includes analysis of performace, risks and issues, work completed, upcoming tasks, summary of the approved changes, and others.

Communication is a critical piece of the project health. We are always communicating with our teams and other stakeholders. If we neglect to plan the communciations up front, it is almost guaranteed that something will get missed. When things get missed, we lose out on opportunities to make vital corrections, learn of a new direction, or even a pat on the back every now and then.

I know I have simplified things a bit, especially as they relate to the PMP exam, but for daily business, these are the basics. Sometimes, the projects are small and greatly simplified. This doesn’t mean that these steps should be overlooked. It merely means that the steps are that much easier to follow.

Happy Communicating!

Earned Value

I use EVM (Earned Value Management) on all of my projects. The project stakeholders love the real-time look at actual progress acheived.

There is a difference in what percent complete really means . . . Do you want to know more?

If you don’t mind, please take this short poll so I can see where we all stand.

[polldaddy poll=5773997]

Leadership vs. Management: Part 2

Ok, this ended up being a multi-part series. Here is more on leadership versus management.

Question: Are you a project manager or a project leader?

I’m not asking what your actual title is, but rather what is your project management style? Do you lead, or just manage? What is the difference?

If you look at my first post (Leadership vs. Management: Part 1) you’ll notice that there is a big difference between the two. This post is more of the same theory, but more pointed toward project management work rather than being so general.

First, let’s define a project manager and a project. Wikipedia states a project manager “has the responsibility of the planning, execution, and closing of any project.” PMI adds two other process groups to this, Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring/Controlling, and Closing. Projects are defined as a single, unique effort with a definite start date, definite end date, and specific budget.

So, how does leadership vs. management come in to play here? Well, the answer is pretty simple. A “simple” project manager can follow the guidelines and processes of any project management methodology. There are good, even great project managers all around the world and their work is commendable. A powerful project manager, however, is one that is more of a project leader than a project manager. As I mentioned in my previous article, leaders can inspire greatness in any situation. Leaders have the mental tools to take their project teams to the next level.

Project leaders equip their teams with all of the tools they need to get the job done on time and under budget. Andy Crowe in his book The PMP Exam: How to pass on Your First Try mentions the project manager being “large and in charge” which is an important part of the leadership recipe. Being large and in charge means having the mental toughness and ability to make decisions. What it also means, however, is something that many leaders forget. Project leaders empower their teams to do their jobs.

Let me repeat that. Project leaders empower their teams to do their jobs.

Empowerment is vital to the success of a good project team. Each team member must be trusted to perform their own jobs and be given the ability to make decisions in order to do so. This does three things for the project: it frees up the project leader to focus more on the threats and opportunities the project faces, it speeds up the decision making processes so that red tape does not get in the way of the day-to-day work of the project, and it also gives the team member additional confidence knowing they add real value to the team.

One thing that cannot be overlooked is the selection of the actual team. Project leaders have done their research. They look for team members that produce consistently and know how to do their jobs. They get the folks that are the best in the business (whatever business that may be) and take advantage of their availability. It is important, however, to bring up less seasoned team members, or even educated rookies, with the veterans so their experience can grow with the best in the business.

Overall, leadership is a vital portion of the project management experience. Those with leadership capabilities have the ability to take their projects to a higher level of productivity. As a hiring manager, you don’t have to hire someone with leadership abilities. You can hire a competent project manager and make a good hire. If you are given the choice, however, a project leader is worth the extra money.

Do you want your project to be good or great. The choice is up to you.

Thanks for tuning in.

Jim Shaffer, PMP