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Archive for October, 2009

Project Vaccination

October 20, 2009 2 comments

“What does not destroy me, makes me stronger”
Friedrich Nietzsche, 19th Century philosopher

It’s flu season here in North America, time for many people to get their annual precautionary flu shots. Vaccination, of course, allows the body to “learn” from other infections and to build its own defenses in anticipation of being attacked by the real thing.

Projects can be treated in the same way, improving their resistance to risks and allowing them to perform more consistently and at a higher level.

The vaccine in this case is first-hand feedback on the successes and failures experienced with other projects: How the addition of a new customer checkpoint allowed them to be better prepared for delivery; how rearranging a sequence of tasks reduced the overall project schedule; how rescheduling user training helped reduce help desk calls; etc. etc. Capturing these Best Practices and re-using them in subsequent projects avoids re-inventing the wheel or repeating past mistakes (mistakes will still happen, but hopefully they will become unique!)

Repeatable and consistent project delivery across the portfolio has benefits beyond the success of any particular project: it leads to more accurate forecasts of overall income and resources, which then feeds a virtuous cycle of more stable investment and employment, which in turn leads to more engaged employees using their cumulative knowledge to further improve delivery performance.

At the same time, capturing project feedback also creates an environment of continuous improvement and adaptation resulting from real-world experiences and trends in the market.

Informal project feedback can work in small teams, where word of mouth spreads easily and individual reputation provides natural selection for the best practices. However, this does not scale up well for larger enterprises, where the number of staff makes individual learning haphazard at best. Instead, more formalized collaboration networks must be formed, with owners assigned to capture and filter the Best Practices into standard checklists, templates and boilerplate documents that then form the starting point for all new project plans or proposals.

It all sounds simple and obvious. Yet, despite their well-publicized benefits, it’s amazing how each year so many people skip getting a flu shot.

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Being the Biggest Loser of Service Delivery

October 14, 2009 Leave a comment

As I sat and watched the Biggest Loser with my wife last night, it occurred to me that a lot of the lessons being taught on the show were also relevant to service delivery and ownership.

Contestants learn the importance of proper diet and exercise, and how just starving yourself and exercising 24×7 are not sufficient to lose weight in a healthy, sustainable, way. Instead, precise calorie counting and controlled exercise programs compatible with each contestant’s physical condition are the staples.

The same is true for service delivery where instead of calories, accurate and consistent performance data on the human, physical and financial resources consumed (ie the service inputs) are monitored. Matching that level of consumption with the expected activities is then required for optimum performance to occur without burnout.

Just as the contestants go from struggling to walk up a flight of stairs to running marathons, successful delivery of a service also increases its long-term potential. As customers make the service an indispensable part of their everyday needs they begin to look for more ways to use it, request more capabilities, or simply tell others about the benefits of the service. Each activity grows the service capacity.

The unexpected part for many competitors, however, comes in a third ingredient to the menu. That is, the trainers’ role in understanding the emotional reasons why the contestants became overweight in the first place. “How did you get to be over 400 pounds?” a contestant is asked. “One mouthful at a time” they seem to reply. So it is with service delivery, which often loses its performance one incident at a time until a culture exists that poor performance is the norm and that the service has such insurmountable obstacles that it is not worth improving.

Without addressing this underlying culture, any bloated, slow or unhealthy service is only going to achieve short-term improvements (think crash diets or New Year’s resolutions).

It is the job of the two trainers to guide the contestants to making the right choices in their diet, push them outside of their normal exercise comfort zones, change the value systems that lead them to becoming overweight in the first place, and take personal ownership and accountability for their recovery.

I wonder if Bob and Gillian would make good Service Owners?

The Jell-O cup PMO

October 12, 2009 Leave a comment

Have you ever got frustrated at the kids opening a pack of Jell-O cups just enough to extract one item, then struggling to tear back the pack a little more a day or so later for the next one? Or how about eating the last granola bar and leaving the empty box on the shelf so no-one knows to buy more? I know every parent turns off at least one light switch a day in the playroom or garage.

Process Transparency

As parents we often take on the responsibility of cleaning up these little items by taking the 30 seconds it requires to toss the boxes in the trash and add it to the grocery list, or by tearing the complete Jell-O package apart and placing all the cups loose back in the fridge. It makes life easier for everyone. However, if done properly, no-one realizes it’s being done – they just go right ahead and get the Jell-O or granola bar.

It’s part of our make-up as parents. Just like driving the family on vacation, or cleaning out the Guest Bedroom before Grandma comes to stay.

So it is with an effective PMO – the tools, processes and procedures it puts in place should be transparent to the normal operation of the organization. If they’re too “heavyweight” they will burden the core activities being performed. Too lightweight and they will leave too much to chance and never achieve their goals.

Getting a process wrong will also – at best – be wasteful of everyone’s time and energy, never a good thing in today’s resource constrained business environment. At worst it will cause people to find workarounds or avoid doing certain process steps at all, which creates inconsistency and variation in execution – the single biggest cause in operational waste according to disciples of Six Sigma.

It takes more than education

There also comes a point in any parent’s life when they decide it’s time to educate the rest of the family on proper refrigerator etiquette or energy saving. So we sit everyone down and explain. Younger ones nod. Teenagers roll their eyes. Everyone agrees to try to do better. However, several days later – weeks if you’re lucky – you’ll feel the need to sit them down again because it just didn’t seem to stick. And so it goes on over a lifetime until those kids have houses, mortgages and grocery bills of their own.

Only then do parents become smart.

On occasion, though, parents get a break: Consider when someone (probably a parent) at a soda can producer looked at how people use and store their products and discovered that if they laid the cans down in a box on their side rather than on end, and provided a tear-off corner for the box, they could create a little bit of storage excellence for families – the Refrigerator Pack.

Embedded Tools & Documentation

The lesson here for effective PMOs is that you can’t rely on process education alone. People forget, particularly if they use the tool or process infrequently. Instead, any tool has to be embedded completely in the process such that the task is made easier by its use and that it can’t be completed without it.

Process Documentation also has to be inherent in the tool or process itself, both at an overview and step-specific details. This can be done by using on-line Workflow maps which guide the user through key steps and provide easy access to specific Best Practice examples and how-to’s, or by building reusable templates and check lists that form the basis of the required project plans, process activities or data collection.

Just like the Refrigerator Pack, the PMO infrastructure needs to provide easy visibility to people’s use of it including the status of each item and overall flow through each process, and creates enough structure to ensure proper usage, yet enough flexibility to allow innovation and improvement in the process as the environment grows and changes.

Hopefully that’s some more Food for Thought (all be it Jell-O and Granola bars) to consider when creating your PMO.

Similarly Different

October 12, 2009 1 comment

“One ship drives east, and another west,
With the self-same winds that blow;
‘Tis the set of the sails and not the gales,
That decides the way to go.

Like the winds of the sea are the ways of fate,
As they voyage along through life;
‘Tis the will of the soul that decides the goal,
And not the calm or the strife.”

Ella Wheeler Wilcox

I’ve had that quote on a plaque in my office for many, many, years to remind me that even given the same exact environment, different people – or teams of people – can produce significantly different results based on the way they read the environment, make adjustments, and coordinate the resources at their disposal.

The delivery of projects is no different.

And that’s what I hope to contribute with this blog:  To look at the delivery of projects as a holistic service is potentially quite similar to many other contributions to the industry. This one, however, is hopefully a little different in its focus on the environment supporting the projects, rather than the project delivery per se.  ie The Process of Projects.  Similarly Different.

At the same time, I’ve always been charmed by metaphors and analogies that help illuminate complex topics by shining a light on them from an unconventional direction. I hope that my posts will do the same. Time will tell!