Stump the chump and the art of accountability

business relationships teams friendsThis past Thursday night I delivered a presentation on understanding the 7 Wastes of Lean and how they are manifested in project management.  It was the largest gathering I’ve spoken to yet, and presented some interesting audience dynamics that were far different from when I presented the same topic to about 50-60 people at the New Hampshire chapter.  Overall, the presentation was fairly well received, however, and I think I delivered my point.  It was good speaking experience and gives me some time to reflect on how to work a larger room.

At the end of the presentation, a question was asked of me by an audience member:  “How do you make people accountable?”

It was clear that the situation this person was in had caused a great deal of frustration and difficulty.  As I pressed for details, it appeared that the situation was one in which a project had been assigned in typical “responsibility without authority” fashion.  Supposed team mates who needed to be a part of the project simply weren’t complying and, it also seemed obvious to me, the naming, blaming and shaming had begun.

My response?  A very unsatisfying quip that the project was doomed before it began.   The truth is, it looks like this project was sponsored via edict, by someone with no ability to grasp the difficulty of the situation or, even worse, someone who had and decided to place the responsibility for it upon the shoulders of an underling.  Also, I asked why people are resisting the change?  The answer was that they were afraid to change.  So, in my estimation, they were in an environment of disrespect because, lets’ face it, if you are fearful you are being disrespected, given the way things at work tend to go.

While likely accurate, those observations don’t really help the poor project manager who must deal with such a lousy situation.  The truth is, it’s always easy to blame management (which I also stated), however, you can influence from your own level on down.  So, I am sorry to say, that while the environment this Project Manager was in was entirely toxic and the assignment was probably doomed, there was a lot more that could have been done to make the situation better.

So, upon reflection over the course of the weekend, I have come up with some other advice.  Now, I won’t bore people with the usual rhetoric:  Approach the sponsor for additional support, lay out ground rules for the project team, establish tasks and task owners.  Those things are fairly simple and rely on utilizing tools rather than getting down into core people-centered concepts.  My best advice, then, is this:

Make friends.

I am as guilty as the next person in relying too much on being right and too little on being liked.  While all those smarts turn up evidence that is undeniable, people will still tend to go the other way, preferring to be wrong with friends than right and alone.  If you spend time making friends with people, they will do more to help you and be sympathetic when you are handed that miserable dog of a project.  Having those relationships does, indeed, make things easier and, therefore, enables the participation and experimentation needed to bring about success.

Now, people will say that such things ought not to be necessary and, if you are dedicated to a task or a company, that people should put aside their personal feelings and get the job done.  True.  They should.  True, also, that they won’t.  If you establish personal ties, however, people will choose to help you, they will choose to work on things they don’t want to just to spend time with people they like, they will choose to do a good job in order to make you look good, and they will choose to hold up their end so that they do not let you down.

In short, they will choose to be accountable.

Project problems can’t be solved with an operational focus

loves_distance__by_peggyopal-d41wf2f

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.

 

 

Dad tells a story of inefficient communication, and truly wasteful meeting management

steelwork_by_roodpa-d4xunzm

steelwork by roodpa-d4xunzm

On a recent trip home for the Holidays, I was railing about such-and-wuch workplace goings on, when my father shared a story from his days managing projects in the construction industry.

His experience was in steel fabrication – the guys who take standard bpieces of milled steel beams, bars and plates and cut it into the pieces necessary to erect buildings and bridges.  As such, he worked closely with the erectors who took those custom-fabricated bits of steel and turned them into the skeletons around which the rest of the structure was put together.

Often times, he told me, he would have to report to the job site for a project status meeting.  The general contractor, or whatever entity was in charge, would require all the leads of the various teams to report out and hear what was happening and where the project was, and establish any hand-ins and hand-outs that had occurred, or needed to occur.  None of which sounds too terrible, of course.

That is, until Dad also let me know that, as the “steel guy,” most of his work was done fairly early in the life cycle.  The steel was cut, fabricated, delivered, erected, corrected, charged back, and his end of the project entirely signed off.  Nonetheless, he was bound to attend these hours-long meetings at times, just to hear how the electrical inspection and finished carpentry was progressing.  His activity on the overall project was long since done and over with, nonetheless, in the name of communication, he was required to attend.  The fact that the meeting would never include any information he needed to hear was entirely lost on the meeting’s organizer.

So it goes with most meetings.  Well-intentioned people will often, in the name of completeness or the feel-good sensation of having shared information with the entire group, call large all-hands meetings and blurt out every bit of info under the sun, just so everyone is “on the same page” and can understand the “project environemtn” and “paths to success.”  Unfortunately, what gets lost is that the project is made up of many, many mini-projects and, just as the PM does not want to waste time and cost by speding effort on anything not relevant to his or her project, so it is with the leaders of all the mini-projects, too.

Communciation for the sake of driving a necessary decsion, from the necessary decision makers, is valuable.  Communication for the sake of team building and understanding is valuable, too.  Communication for the sake of adhering to formal or informal protocols or because “this is what we’ve always done,” or because of a single-sided belief that people want to hear what you have to say is misguided.  People like to know what’s going on if it helps them to get a job done.  Otherwise, all that communication is just a hindrance to some actual accomplishment.

Stranded by the tide, and the return of the water

Stranded by the tide
Stranded by the tide

…stranded by the tide…by federstern

Those of you who follow this blog regularly…yes, both of you….are well aware that I haven’t done much with the blog for a while.  In fact, I haven’t done anything in over two months.  Let’s just say, life’s been busy.

  • My older son, not yet 8 years old, has had an intestinal problem that, while temporary, is difficult and a lot to deal with.  He’s also had problems with kids and teachers at school socially, and self-esteem and confidence and just plain belief in himself have all taken massive hits.  We’re working through all of that and it sure isn’t easy.
  • My P.o.S. car died, necessitating finding a newer, cheap slightly less P.o.S. to run around in for a while, straining the family budgets.
  • I was enrolled in a Project Management Professional class, which concluded in November and I had the exam date set for December 9th
  • The usual Holiday time running around that will make anyone crazy.

So, there’s been a lot going on and, truth be told, I had lost a whole lot of enthusiasm with the blog.  It wasn’t scratching the itch anymore personally, and I was at something of a crossroads professionally – which was brought to a head by the PMP prep course.  You see, for all my affinity for Lean and Operational Excellence as the foundations for improving the workplace, and life, my experience with them has primarily been intellectual.  My professional day job resists Lean thinking significantly, and gives me little opportunity to practice.  The vast majority of my professional background is in project management and, as I contemplate career moves, I simply don’t have enough resume fodder to get where I want to go by using Lean as my primary driver.  This realization, more than anything else, led to my absence from the blogosphere for a while.

Truth be told, I had no idea where I was going with this thing, and although I didn’t want to give up, it seemed I had no ability to move from where I was.  I felt like a ship, stranded at low tide.

During this time, however, there were a number of positives occurring that began to set the stage for better things.  First and foremost, I was contacted by an acquaintance with an entrepreneurial opportunity.  While it is challenging to find the time to work on that endeavor, it’s remarkably interesting and, if the idea comes to fruition, it is potentially quite lucrative.  Being a part of concept development in the early phases of a start up endeavor is incredibly satisfying.  As a part of that opportunity, I created my own LLC.  I’m not exactly certain where that is going, (it will be some sort of speaking or writing of articles kind of thing), however, contemplating what I can do with it is also a great project.  Here’s my logo and banner:

 

I’m not a wizard with the graphics just yet, so cut me some slack as I work those things out.  Nonetheless, I think it’s going somewhere.  I have a URL reserved for it and will be building out that site in the weeks/months ahead.

 

By the way, I did pass the PMP exam and I am now a certified Project Management Professional (I’ll have to update my profile).  That designation appears to be opening doors already as I’ve had a couple good conversations with people in companies I am curious about already.  What I do, and when I do it, are still up in the air – but the future is looking brighter.  Additionally, just this past weekend, I was presented with a speaking opportunity out of the blue, which should give me a much-needed opportunity to help launch the LLC.

What all this reminds me of is that we very often don’t know where we’re going, or even how we got where we are, and when we hit these low times it tends to feel as if we’re going to be stuck there forever.  What is most important to remember when things get this way, however, is that sometimes the best thing we can possible do for ourselves is to simply endure.  Stay in the game, last as long as it takes, don’t back down and don’t get ahead.  Just simply stand there against the things that attempt to pull you apart and prove out that you can last longer than the troubles that surround you.  When you give up, you start down the long spiral ofnever feeling fulfilled.  When you endure, you keep yourself prepared for better things.

Because, eventually, the water will return.

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.

What?

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.