Project Management: Is it done yet?

When I was young and a bit green at project management, I somehow managed to have responsibility for a number of big projects. Some came in OK, some never seemed to get rolling properly, some were late, and some seemed to take on a life of their own. A latter group tended to include projects whose scope was a moving target or had many unknowns.

The worst of these have a way of being the unknowns you never see coming, often gestated from a family tree of assumptions and incorrect or changed information.

Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld famously said that decisions are made while dealing with “known unknowns and unknown unknowns“. Anyone with large project experience knows exactly what he meant. Interestingly, Rumsfeld credits a NASA manager with the terminology.

Project management requires discovery

The software business has a sketchy reputation for delivering projects on time, despite a lot of internally-driven improvement over the last two decades. This reputation is sustained by the memory of failures of very large software projects.

Agile project management and related methodologies have helped a great deal. Many of these methodologies can trace their roots back to Lean manufacturing / management methods taught by Deming in Japan after World War II.

Success with these management strategies depends on early discovery of issues, challenges and changes in the information driving your decisions. This, along with our human tendencies, is why the MVP (minimum viable product) construct works. The earlier the customer sees your work, the earlier you’ll find out if you’re on track.

Usually, you get to decide how this discovery occurs: organically as the project work occurs, or in advance, thanks to discussions of expectations, requirements and manufacturing options during the design phase.

Poorly managed projects are often started without sufficient discovery and discussion. Even today, many projects are started and finished with very little advanced thought. No one would build an airliner as it rolls down the runway. While that sounds a bit ridiculous, this is exactly what happens.

The context of the design is critical as well. Work done in a vacuum, even with the best of intentions, often produces incorrect assumptions thanks to the aforementioned unknown unknowns.  The project’s scope is an known unknown and the unknown unknowns are often a simple matter of lack of experience with the environment where the completed project will be used. The gap between expectations and results matters whether you’re building a crescent wrench, a software program or a Mars rover.

When will it be done?

While you may not have an accurate answer to that question, better design will improve your ability to give an estimate that someone can actually trust.

Better design? How?

The most common problem I see is not breaking things down into small enough pieces of work. Granularity is critical to the design and estimation of highly detailed / technical work. The volume of dependencies and unknowns in this type of work compounds the miscalculations and omissions resulting from a lack of detailed analysis, resulting in inaccurate estimates and missed expectations.

An estimate of days, weeks or months without a detailed breakdown of subtasks is symptomatic of the problem. I find that estimates require subtasks no larger than two to four hours to create a design that’s thought out well-enough to meet expectations, discover obstacles in advance, while producing a reasonable estimate.

But it’s not perfect!

Human nature also creeps into the equation: We like completing tasks.

It’s such a part of our us that people tend to focus on less important tasks simply because we can complete them before the end of the work day. We feel accomplished despite leaving big projects untouched.

If you’ve ever written things on a checklist that you’ve already done so that you could check them off, then you know what I mean.

Rather than fight the fixation on small projects that we can “download” and complete in a work period, feed it with subtasks of your big, important projects that conform to the need to complete something the same day.

Life has a way of being incredibly creative when it comes to finding ways to delay a project’s completion. Build these project management tactics into your design, estimate and build workflow so that you can get better work done faster – even on big projects.

When the smoke clears, will your reputation?

No one in the Pacific Northwest has to be reminded that this is the worst fire season since 2003.

Depending on what you do a bad fire season could be a boon, a bust or a non-issue to your business. Over the last couple of weeks, we had communications and marketing oriented conversations focused on the folks whose businesses are placed at risk by a bad fire season.

There’s a different kind of business impacted by fires, natural disasters and similar events: those who provide things like tanker trucks, field rations and related convenience items, construction supplies (lumber, drywall, tools etc) and so on.

If a scene like this summer means that you will be extra busy for the next year or so, perhaps more, good for you – particularly if you are a trusted member of your community (business and otherwise).

However obvious this may seem, it needs to be said…

A reputation setting recovery

The way you and your staff serve your clients from now until the recovery is over – regardless of what’s being recovered from – will set the tone for your business’ future.

Some will eventually give you a second chance, but for most, this is the one chance your business will get to show its colors. It will seal the reputation of the business, its owner(s), managers and staff.

Captain Obvious, you say? Perhaps, yet we continue to see examples where businesses have behaved so badly that governments feel obligated to put “no gouging” laws into place.

The thing is, pricing is the least of your problems. People understand that pricing gets a little crazy when resources are constrained. Supplies are often harder to get, and they’re often competing for scarce transportation facilities including berth time at port, dock time at warehouses, much less truck drivers or semi-trailers to haul those supplies. Qualified people are in demand, which tends to create overtime hours.

Do your clients want to wait or pay overtime-related costs? Ask them.

Communicating the challenge

When these situations occur and drive up your costs, communicate the situation as frequently, quickly and clearly as possible. Communicate what you’ve done to try and work around the situation. Ask your clients for ideas and connections in their network that could help you serve them a bit better.

You never know when a client might have access to resources or connections that could solve a problem that’s simply “killing” you – and those things may be out of reach without a little insider help. Even worse, if these clients know what’s blocking your progress and they know their resources / connections could help but you keep telling them you have things under control – how could that damage your relationship / reputation?

It’s OK to ask for help.

Resource problems aside, be sure that any abnormal delivery timeframes, costs, staffing challenges or other potentially damaging issues are communicated well. Transparency works. Small businesses use it as a competitive advantage vs. larger, better funded competitors during good times, why not use it during challenging, resource-constrained times for the same reason?

Call volumes are unexpectedly high, but your call is important to us…” – something you’d never say to a client before putting them on hold. Yet you only get this greeting when reputation damage is most likely to happen.

We don’t remember that the cable internet met their 99.9% uptime goal last year, but we remember each of the 43.8 minutes of downtime per month that this uptime goal allows for – and that the downtimes happened at inopportune times.

We remember when we consistently get a transparent answer or explanation.

The mindset that risks it all

The “they have no choice, I will get (and keep) the business no matter how I act” mindset can infect everything from sales and service to receivables and delivery. Once observed in one part of the business, it’s a matter of time until it crawls elsewhere.

I won’t belabor this, because the kind of business owner or manager who would let this behavior happen wouldn’t likely read my work. Despite that, check out the short 30 seconds it takes Vince Lombardi to describe the obligation that team members have to do their best on every play of every game.

Print readers, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKN3rvrWyvg&feature=youtu.be&t=0m50s

 

Consistency drives word of mouth business

Last week, my wife and I went to a place we’d been looking forward to for some time.  Our 31st wedding anniversary dinner was the perfect occasion to try a new (to us) place, so we went to a local Cajun restaurant whose entree price ranking is $$ and name includes “Orleans”.

Long time readers know I rarely name poor performers. I’ve made note of the theme, price range and part of the name to set the expectation you’d expect to find there.

Expectations vs. Reality

The combination of Cajun, $$ and Orleans implied white tablecloths, a Bourbon Street vibe / atmosphere and good Louisiana cuisine prepared to order, perhaps with an emphasis on seafood.

The menu’s broad selection of Cajun seafood dishes nailed that, but expectation delivery faded from there. There was little to tie the ambiance to New Orleans. The table settings resembled something you’d find in a pizza joint. This created a bit of disconnect with the pricing, menu and the restaurant’s name – which implied fine Bourbon Street dining.

Despite arriving at about 7:00 pm on a Wednesday, the place was empty. Warning bells went off, but we figured we’d give it a shot anyway. After being seated, I noticed the floor was filthy. It seats 30-35 and on a busy night, I can see how the staff might not be able to get to the floor between turns. However, the dining area has a tile floor and the place was empty except for us, so finding it consistently dirty throughout the restaurant was pretty surprising.

The chef arrived at the restaurant at the same time we did. Rather than going to the kitchen, the chef sat down in the dining area with a couple of web site consultants and discussed the menu, photos and what should be changed on their site.

At no time during our visit did the chef enter the kitchen – including from the time we ordered to the time we received our food. Likewise, neither the waiter or cook staff approached the chef’s table for guidance. I suspect that the chef has their hand in their sauces and general guidance of the kitchen, but in a place this small in this price range, I expect direct chef involvement in the food and perhaps even a table visit on a slow night in an otherwise empty restaurant.

Instead, there was no welcome, no eye contact, no thank you and no time in the kitchen. Nothing from the chef.

Speaking of empty, it was quiet enough to hear the microwave beeping just before my wife’s étouffée arrived. Despite the microwave, the étouffée was surprisingly tasty and easily the best part of her meal. Oddly enough, the waiter discouraged her from ordering the entree, so she ordered a small cup to get a taste of it despite the waiter’s recommendation.

The inconsistency returned with my wife’s Shrimp Pontchartrain entree, which turned out to be a massive platter of heavily salted pasta / sauce with little sign of shrimp.  Meanwhile, my Catfish Tchoupitoulas was very good. I’d definitely order it again.

Quality and branding inconsistencies can damage any business – even if they don’t serve food.

Police your inconsistencies

Inconsistencies plague small business and can destroy repeat business, as well as word of mouth business. The more processes, systems and training you can put in place to root out these issues, the closer your business gets to marketing itself by reputation.

Our visit included a number of inconsistencies with the business’ pricing, name, menu and food.

The menu listed numerous chef and/or restaurant honors, yet the most recent award was four years old. The years without an award stood out as much as the period of years where consistent annual awards implied high quality. If you can’t show award consistency, don’t list the award years or list them as “Five time winner”. Meanwhile, address the inconsistencies that caused the wins to stop.

Whether you operate a three star restaurant or a tire shop, cleanliness is important. It’s a signal that a business cares and pays attention to details, while sending a message about the cleanliness of other parts of the business that you cannot see. Given the filthy condition of the dining area floor, would you expect the walk-in cooler, prep table or kitchen floor to be clean?

What inconsistencies can you address to increase repeat and word of mouth business?