taming the paper project tiger
Concerns of Project Managers
Dennis Belles, PMP, MILCARE, Inc., a Herman Miller Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan
A simple, paperless solution for effectively storing, retrieving and distributing the large volumes of information generated during the life cycle of most projects.
Communications plays a vital role in all aspects of business, including program management. The Project Management Institute's (PMI) Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) lists communication as one of the eight subjects to master for certification as a Project Management Professional (PMP). The success or failure of any program can depend, to a large degree, upon how well information is managed. One of the most challenging aspects of managing project communications is making sure everyone involved in a project has ready access to the latest information.
WHERE IT ALL STARTED
In late December of 1991, I was hired as a consultant by a Western Michigan automotive supplier. This
product supplier services all but two of the U.S. car builders. A systematic method was needed to manage the introduction of new products into the manufacturing process. I was asked to develop and document procedures for each step of the process by integrating all of the basic project management elements found in the PMI PMBOK. The need to develop project management as a systematic approach to doing business was not fostered entirely from within the company. However, the decision to make this commitment was a result of following business trends preceded by a basic influence; that of meeting customer requirements.
The principal U.S. car builders have been using project management as an integral part of their business for the past 10-15 years. Many first-tier OEM suppliers, on the other hand, have only been using project management systems for the past two to three years as part of their normal mode of operations. As my consulting activities were nearing completion in the first quarter of 1992, the local management staff assessed my efforts, which resulted in an offer to become their new manager of Commercial Administration. The primary responsibility of this position was to integrate the newly developed program management system into the organization as part of its culture.
THE SCOPE OF WORK DEFINED
Large volumes of information, produced by numerous sources, is common to projects with significant life cycles or complexity. With automotive projects this is the rule rather than the exception. Unless one was prepared to purchase stock in a copy paper supply company, doing business as usual with the copy machine was not a good solution. Having 15-20 projects in various stages of completion at any given point in time was a normal level of activity. Managing project communications was a major challenge that occupied approximately 50 percent of the project manager's time. Each project was generating volumes of critical information from multiple sources that needed to be gathered, copied, and distributed to project team members, middle and upper management, sales representatives, and customer contacts. Altogether each project, depending on what phase it was in, had from 10-25 people on the communications distribution list. This led to chaos … little or no flow of communications, no systematic method of controlling much less directing the flow of information … crying out for a solution.
My first step in developing along-term resolution was to clearly define the problem. I asked myself “How can the flow of project information be managed to ensure that everyone involved in the project has ready access to the latest information whenever it is needed without creating a paper tiger?” I concluded that there needed to be an easy means for gaining access to all of the information as well as a simple means for distribution. This was one of my most important and immediate challenges.
One of my primary objectives in creating a solution was that the information management system should be generic in design so that it could be tailored to fit any industry. My premise was that a generic application would easily accommodate changing business or management needs. My basic objectives for the system were threefold:
- Collect project information in any format.
- Organize storage of information by customer, project, and subject.
- Deliver controlled, but easy access of all project information.
Having an excellent PC-network system already installed with a PC on nearly every desk provided the means to develop an excellent electronic (paperless) solution for the project communications problem. I knew that a cost-effective solution could be developed with the software currently available.
A general outline was developed to convey a concept overview of the sys-tern to the management team. Using outside sources for the development of the information management system, rather than the in-house MIS department programmers, was recommended as a less expensive and faster means to obtain a fully documented system. By using outside experts, the time and cost to research what was available on the market would be eliminated. Approval was given to proceed with the establishment of a specification for a system I called Project Information Retrieval System (PIRS). Matrix Services, Inc., of Grand Rapids, Michigan, was selected to develop the information system. Douglas Lindhout, president of Matrix, worked with me to develop the system specifications, select the system software packages to be used for information collection and distribution, and write the code required to implement the information storage and retrieval portion of the system.
My initial three objectives were further defined and used as goals for the development of PIRS:
- Provide authorized local and remote users the ability to view project-related documents such as correspondence, schedules, reports, open issues, meeting minutes, engineering change orders, cost tracking reports, and any other information deemed necessary to have contained within the system.
- Provide the means to easily transfer data files into PIRS.
- Provide the system administrators with tools to maintain this information system.
Figure 1. General Structure of Project Data
The information contained within PIRS varies in structure and content. However, by using three criteria—customer, project identification, and information—the basic structure for organizing the data remains consistent. This is easily reflected in directory substructures set up so that the categories for a particular project are implemented as a subdirectory of the project subdirectory. The project subdirectory in turn is a subdirectory of a specific customer. (See Figure 1 for the general structure.)
This organizational scheme provides a filing structure that aids in the location of particular documents, and makes administration of the system easier. Each category contains files generated from a single source (WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2.3, etc.). Since the system was programmed to launch a specific software package for each category this reduced the cost of implementation.
This concept can be used for any document storage/retrieval requirements, simply by changing the name of each level. For example: (Division) (Engineering) (Drawing Log, Eng. Changes, etc.). There is no limit to the number of applications for this system within any given company.
Transfer of Files Into PIRS
The PIRS viewing module provides access to release versions of the files, not working versions. This necessitates transferring private files into a public system (PIRS). Although there are a number of options for accomplishing this, the most straightforward method, and least prone to error, is electronic mail. With electronic mail, the sender can create a number to the PIRS system administrator that identifies the customer, project and category of the attached file. Both parties will be guaranteed delivery of the file. The receiver can, at their convenience, extract the file into a pending area for review prior to placement into the public system. It will also provide an excellent medium for correspondence between the project managers and program team members on all data file matters.
One of the primary design criteria for the system was K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid!). Therefore, gaining access to a specific document or file within PIRS is accomplished via a customized menu system. The information system provides a series of menus whose choices allow the user to first select a customer, then a project, and finally a subject category.
Manipulation and Administration Functions for the System Administrators
There are several functions that must be performed by the System Administration staff for this system: receipt of data files from all sources, pre-release review of the files, moving the files into the viewing system, and adding new customers, projects and categories. The greatest challenge of this portion of PIRS is maintaining the menu system as customers, projects, and categories are added and deleted.
The menuing system is dynamic in nature and capable of adapting itself to these changes. This type of approach reduces the level of support required by the system administrators from the MIS staff.
Company representatives may need to access PIRS while away from the local network. There are a number of ways to provide access to PIRS via the telephone system. The exact configuration required is dependent on many factors; however, one or more simultaneous remote access sessions can be made available.
Expanded Use of E-Mail
E-mail systems are capable of many functions. Additionally, E-mail communications with vendors and customers are available via a number of gateway packages. The most common gateway used is Novell's MHS (Message Handling Service). Any E-mail system that can interact with MHS can send and receive E-mail from any other system interacting with MHS.
Incorporating Faxed Documents
An additional source of information for inclusion into PIRS are faxed documents received from any outside or internal source. When a faxed document is received via a fax board in a workstation or fax server, the resulting document is a bit-mapped image of the original. Most E-mail systems have the ability to view these documents. Other viewing programs that would allow the faxed documents to be displayed within PIRS are available.
Training for PIRS provided enough knowledge about the system so that long-term maintenance can be provided inhouse. Personal instruction for the viewing users and administrative functions was included. Additionally, all source code and system diagrams were transferred to the MIS department in order to facilitate future extension and enhancements. A session of code review was held in order to familiarize the programming staff in MIS with the internals of the system.
It took only two months to develop and install the PIRS program and another two months to train and wean the organization from using hard copies altogether. The most difficult task was teaching people how to use the E-mail system. People took the effort to learn once they realized how much time it saved them and how effective this method of communications was.
PIRS has made the job of document storage simple and foolproof. One never has to wonder which book, file folder, drawer, or network user space the document was placed in for safekeeping. Also, transferring information is no Ionger necessary, because everyone with access to the local network has the ability to view information any time. Remote access is also available by modem hookup. Needless to say, hours of time have been saved in running and distributing copies of meeting minutes, memos, correspondence, reports, schedules, etc. Access to the latest up-to-date information is now just a key stroke away. The PIRS system is everything I had hoped it would be. In addition to effectively killing my paper tiger it has provided me with a wonderful communications management tool. ❏
Dennis Belles, PMP is a program management consultant for MILCARE, a Herman Miller Company, supplier of clinical furniture systems to both domestic and international health care markets. Mr. Belles has spent the past 25 years honing his skills as a project management systems development specialist. His consulting activities encompass project management system design, implementation and procedures documentation for architectural design, construction management, mechanical engineering, automotive manufacturing, office and clinical health care furniture systems manufacturing companies located throughout Michigan.
Mr. Bolles received his PMP certification in 1986 and recently his seven-year recertification. He is currently serving as VP -Programming for the new Western Michigan PMI Chapter.
PMNETwork • February 1994