Project problems can’t be solved with an operational focus


loves distance by peggyopal

Straight from the Project Management Institute’s web site (and the PMBoK) is this definition of a Project

It’s a temporary group activity designed to produce a unique product, service or result.A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources.

And a project is unique in that it is not a routine operation, but a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal. So a project team often includes people who don’t usually work together – sometimes from different organizations and across multiple geographies. 

 Unfortunately, very often, projects are assessed by using metrics that are not about identifying unique & temproary activities.  Rather, persistent, on-going measures such as average weekly costs or hours worked or material dollars spent are used to determine if a project is running as it should.

Unfortunately, these sort of measurements are more attuned to understanding operations because they establish linear costs over time.  Project have peaks and valleys, spikes and low points, periods of tremendous activity and periods when they have very little at all.  Whether or not they should is a different question – there’s certainly plenty of room for levelling out the workload in projects and avoiding these ups and downs on the individual person, however, there are still times in the life of a project when you  may have multiple people working simultaneously on different sub-projects, and times when only 1 or 2 activities need to be going on.

As such, run rates for a project are erratic, as they should be.  Attempting to smooth costs on the entire project is dangerous.  It leads to people lingering on the project with little to do, just to keep the expenses constant.  Individuals or the departments they report to in a matrix need to keep spending flat.  Projects, however, are characterized by their temporary nature, and the ramping up and down of expenses can be considered an indication of efficency, not inefficiency.

There is, of course, much merit to the argument that bouncing people on and off a team leads to a loss of learning, mometum and flow – so it is better to have folks on the team continue to add cost, even if there is little for them to do.  I agree – right up until they begin producing work just for the sake of producing it.  If there is nothing of value for them to contribute, but disassembling the team creates a long-term problem, then look for learning opportunies within the project.  Have people sit in on working sessions outside of their functional area.  You might find people are adaptable to lots of different tasks, and this type of cross-training is invaluable when you need a pinch-hitter for an unexpected crisis.

Nonetheless, even when analyzing the cost reports for these activities, be very aware of who is doing what, such that you can distinguish between time spent adding genuine value through the transformation of work products and time spent in learning & watching.  Doing so will prevent assessing projects as the outcome on-going costs and, instead, allow you to determine the specific costs that create specific results which, in turn, allows for investigations into better methods for producing the same results.



Do you envision the ideal?


clear by mrszeldalink

Do you have a vision?  If you have no picture in your mind of the ideal state, either for yourself or your organization, you will stagnate.

An envisioned ideal helps you to constantly progress in the direction of a desired outcome – even if it is, for all intents and purposes, and unattainable ideal.  The Lean community refers to this as finding “True North.”  Even if you are unfamiliar with Lean’s philosophy, or think it’s a load of hooey – it’s hard to deny that imagining what the future ought to look like helps to orient everything else towards that perfect vision.

If, as you encounter problems, you are simply responding to each one in turn without much sense of how to learn and grow from it, you will only find yourself meandering from problem to problem forever.  In fact, you will likely find the same problems keep popping up – to be countered with the same solutions. Consequently, a boring, mindless do-loop results.  In the end, this dynamic leads only to activity for the sake of activity – and not for purposes of driving towards some goal.

In many cases, there’s not even a problem to tackle with an old, tired solution.  Often times, people will get busy just doing anything – since the demonstration of activity it what’s prized the most, far above actual accomplishment.  This is short-term thinking at its finest – a mindset that worries only about whether or not work of any sort is being done and not about what that work is bringing to bear for the future.

Activity for its own sake will, inevitably, be revealed as a waste.  People who seem to master the corporate game with connections and politics but produce nothing are, eventually, sniffed out.  Organizations that churn out products – even expensive, shiny ones but bring nothing of value to the market will, similarly, die out.  These entities do things for the sake of doing them, but have no understanding of why.

Developing that ideal vision for the future is fundamental to finding purpose.  Once you have that purpose – that guiding, inviolable sense of why you’re doing what you’re doing – you will begin to orient all your activities towards reaching that ideal.  You can only hide activities that go nowhere for so long.  To achieve any goal, personal or professional, you must first create your vision, define your purpose, and align every activity towards making that purpose a reality.


Why your PMP prep doesn’t feel like reality (and why it shouldn’t)

A Break in Reality

A Break in Reality by xetobyte

I am in the midst of a PMP prep examination these days, diving deeper into the project PMI’s methodology for project management than I ever have before.  Despite more than a decade of working on nothing but project & program teams, I’ve never gone after PMI certification.

True to my affinity for Lean thinking, I don’t put much stock in these type of certifications.  The class is bearing out that the intent is simply to pass the test, not build better project managers.  Everything is about the test, the test, the test – and there is very little about the development of the principles taught and how they came about.  Just. Pass. The. Test.  The test is also intentionally deceptive – minor turns of a phrase mean different things in “PMI Land” as the instructors like to call it.  A big part of passing the exam is tuning your eye to catch these clever little interpretations and usages – a skill which is useful for only 1 project: passing the test.

It is easy to understand why so many fellow students get frustrated and jokingly state that the exam does not reflect reality.  Unfortunately, what seems to get lost, is that it’s not supposed to.


As I study the guidebooks for this class that are introducing us all to the PMI concepts, I am harking back to my Lean training and the years I’ve spent contemplating Operational Excellence through my writings on this blog.  In my mind are the oft-repeated Lean-thinking mantras: “Theory guides practice” and “There can be no improvement without a standard.”  Thank you, Dr. Deming and Mr. Shingo (and, please, OpEx gurus out there – correct me if I am quoting them wrong.)

I feel lucky to have the benefit of my time spent trying to understand the Lean paradigm because it is offering so much insight into what the PMI framework is trying to do.  It is establishing a standard.  It is offering a methodology for managing projects against which all other management styles, and outcomes, can be measured.  In a way, it depicts the ideal – if all projects, everywhere, operated in the way the PMI describes, then all projects would deliver on time, within budget, and with inputs from all stakeholders at every level of the organization – including customers.

Is that reality?  No.  Of course not.  If the standard was reality, there’d be no need to set up a test for it.  A standard is not meant to depict reality.  What it does do, however, is give us an ideal scenario against which to judge and measure the current state.  How far from this standard are we?  Did we make an intelligent deviation, based on detailed analyses of how our environment differs from that depicted in the standard, or did we simply throw up our hands and say, “But this is the way we’ve always done it?” (Or words to that effect, such as “I’ve never seen that” or “That just won’t work here.”)

When theory doesn’t match reality, there are 2 options:  Change the theory to match reality, or change reality to match the theory.  Those who argue the PMI framework just isn’t reality will be the ones trying to change theory in order to better align with their expectations – nearly all of which demonstrate a daunting tolerance for inefficiency & waste.  On the other hand, if you accept that the “theory” is really just a depiction of the ideal – you instantaneously give yourself something to work towards.  It is the “true north” of the program & project management world – to have a perfectly managed, documented, planned, monitored, tracked and executed set of activities that are completely understood and performed by all stakeholders.

My advice for those who are poo-pooing the PMI framework as nothing more than an academic exercise designed to pass a test (which, to some extent, it is), is to think of the methods provided within the framework a bit differently.  The tools and techniques they teach are not  a set of instructions on how to effectively manage projects.  Think of them, instead, as a depiction of a perfect universe – and use that depiction to begin thinking about the gaps between your current reality and the PMI’s idealized scenarios.


What to do when you don’t know the way to go

plot a course for home
plot a course for home

plot a course for home by wildwinyan

My 3-year-old is following in his 7-year-old brother’s footsteps and taking an intense interest in Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer.  After a couple years of not having to listen to the theme song ad nauseum, we’re back into the thick of things.

For those who are not familiar with the show, Dora frequently goes on adventures and isn’t certain which way to go.  In those situation, she calls upon her trusty map, which shows her the way.

If only we were all so well prepared.

In business and in life, we all need a map.  Too often, we move without thinking or jump in without looking.  We buy into the paradigm that says we ought to fail fast, but we don’t bother to ask, “Fail at what?”  Failing for the sake of failing isn’t the path to enlightenment, it’s just stupid.  Even if you’re prepared to accept failure – that failure needs to be leading in the direction of some intended destination, meandering as the path may be.  Otherwise, the exercise never ends and nothing is ever learned.  It’s just activity for the sake of activity.

Activity without planning at any level is just folly and entirely wasteful.  Planning is the result of consulting the map  –  we can see the current location, the destination, and the obstacles in between.  Without a destination in mind, and a plan for getting from here to there, all that results is misalignment of goals, fits and starts, lost momentum and, quite frequently, situations where people are more than happy to clear an entire forest just to deliver a toothpick.  The purpose, after all, was to show activity over and above the value of delivering the end product.

The guiding principles of an organization are what the people working within that organization turn to when they don’t know the way to go.  Those principles align people and, even if there is no certain way to go, will at least tell you which way you should not go.  In effect, they become your map.  They let you know where the terrain is flat and clear, or rocky and overgrown, and allows you to see all the other route options to help you adjust course and still reach your destination.

Any organization, regardless of size or complexity, needs to have guiding principles (see the Shingo Model for more elaboration on the impact of guiding principles).  When all else fails, adhering to these principles will offer assurance that people are still operating within the spirit of your organization.

You are at the mercy of your analysts (and you don’t even know it)


Analysis by 0HerMajesty0 on

I have a question for all those in leadership positions, who spend some amount of time on a weekly, monthly, quarterly or annual basis reviewing reports and presentations to get a handle on their business.  My question is this – For all the data you review – how was it put together?

I am of the opinion that the vast, overwhelming majority of those who review charts and graphs have no idea how the data was collected, downloaded, analyzed and ultimately converted into a presentation.  How much fudging, adjusting, hide this, don’t show that – goes on?

Here’s a fundamental truth: If you do not know how the number was constructed, you do not understand the number.

Anyone who has worked for any amount of time doing staff-level analytic work invariably knows that, when reports are presented, people will glance over the numbers looking for anomalies but never bother to understand the computation leading to what is in that report.  Any attempt to explain the methodology results in blank stares, glassy eyes and, in many cases, utter disdain for wasting time explaining the math.

Unfortunately, what matters more than the number is the methodology.  Information can be excluded and massaged.  It can be changed to put a positive spin on the situation.  As such, acting on information you don’t fully understand can lead to a disaster.

You can’t just focus on the “results” – meaning the data that you are presented in some pre-formatted set of documents.  Focus, instead, on the process that gets the results, the planning that creates the process, the knowledge and experience that develop the plan, the personalities that shape the knowledge and experience…..this is where the foundation for the performance you hope to see begins anyway.   The complex interplay of personalities is what drives team and group performance.  If you have the wrong mix, or a homgenous no-mix-at-all situation, then you’re clearly never going to get to a sustainable good result.

Instead, what you will get is a hodge-podge of suboptimal processes and broken business operations.  You’ll never know it, however, because the way the data surrounding those deficiencies is presented will be mashed into presentable form by an army of analysts, and that process will result in truly useful information being obscured, eliminated and misinterpreted.