Project Management Institute

High visibility

BY MALCOLM WHEATLEY * PHOTOS BY BOB BARKANY

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Richard West, BAE Systems, London, U.K.

BLASTING into the skies above the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia on the morning of 27 October 2005, the Cosmos rocket carrying China's Beijing 1 Earth-monitoring microsatellite represented a major milestone in a project that spanned the world. The launch marked the culmination of several years of close collaboration between manufacturer Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL), Guildford, U.K., and its global supplier base; the Chinese government, its agencies, and Beijing Landview Mapping Information Technology Co., the private company that will sell the images; and the Russian Space Forces, the group responsible for sending the rocket into orbit.

Yet for all the partners involved and all the high-tech wizardry sent aloft, critical aspects of the project's management remained down to earth. Although SSTL is currently contemplating an upgrade to its project management toolset, Microsoft Project remained the bedrock on which the Beijing-1 satellite was built and launched, says Wei Sun, Ph.D., SSTL's group director of corporate business and marketing.

Project visibility was maintained primarily through e-mail, with telephone calls between the United Kingdom, China and Russia occasionally necessary, she says. There were also personal visits at major project review milestones, when Chinese officials would visit Britain.

Whatever the method used, when organizations do make the investment in visibility, evidence suggests a real ROI.

“It was very much business as usual,” Dr. Sun says. “Export sales are our major market, and most of our projects involve long-distance communications, across thousands of miles and multiple time zones.” Previous satellite projects, she says, have included missions launched for Nigeria, Turkey and Thailand, as well as for the U.S. Air Force.

Call it “visibility lite.” As organizations seek to acquire a competitive edge through ever more granular insight into their projects, as opposed to periodic updates at milestones, good project visibility has never been more important. Yet a surprising number of organizations are opting for relatively low-tech solutions that offer flexibility, familiarity and affordability. High-tech may offer more functionality, but many organizations find it's not worth the added costs in software licenses, training, and integration to other enterprise and project management applications.

Whatever the method used, when organizations do make the investment in visibility, evidence suggests a real ROI. Tracking projects across the portfolio not only allows organizations to monitor progress, but to capitalize on opportunities for sharing knowledge across the enterprise.

The Human Touch

Tobacco giant BAT, which has operations in 214 countries worldwide, uses physical meetings to maintain visibility of its Operational Excellence improvement projects. Such conferences may take place three times a year and draw attendees from across the organization, says Stuart Jowsey, business systems manager at the company's plant in Leuven, Belgium. “We'll have project people there, supply chain people, manufacturing people, even computer people,” he says. The idea is to bring the widest possible focus to bear on the issues raised. “There's a lively review of improvement projects under way within the organization, with discussions about the progress made and any lessons learned,” he says.

What's more, there's a lot of human interaction taking place between conferences, and word gets around—through personal contact, e-mail and phone calls—that particular projects are worth taking a closer look at. “Inevitably, individual plants around the world and individual projects within them tend to become regarded as benchmarks,” Mr. Jowsey says. “When you've had a bit of success with a project, you become something of a magnet, and it's only natural for people to want to come and visit.”

VIVE LA VISIBILITÉ

WITH 80,000 EMPLOYEES in 76 countries around the world, Lafarge, Paris, France, ranks as one of the world's largest suppliers of building materials. But its global footprint has brought in its wake a variety of global compliance obligations. France's Loi de Sécurité Financière, which governs the conduct of French businesses, is on the list, but so is the U.S. Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

To help it implement an enterprise-wide solution offering visibility into projects and all those rules and regulations, Lafarge turned to software solutions provider RVR Systems, Paris, France. “The system had to be able to cope with our highly decentralized organization and also allow us to record information consistently,” says Jean François Rossi, Sarbanes-Oxley project manager at Lafarge.

Compliance-related projects call for high standards of project visibility, adds Ben Grey, who heads up U.K. and international operations for RVR. “Regulatory compliance is an area that demands effective project management if the desired outcome is going to be achieved—particularly so for large companies with operations across the globe. And project visibility is especially critical to compliance project success. How can you possibly know if you're going to be able to comply, if you don't have visibility on project progress?”

Not surprisingly, Mr. Grey is a firm advocate of formalized top-down approaches to project visibility. “We see too many companies trying to manage complex projects in areas like compliance and operational performance using spreadsheets or similar tools, which are cumbersome and difficult to maintain,” he says. “This is simply not efficient—and ultimately, not effective, either.”

How You See Things

Personal interaction isn't always the route to productive project visibility, however. The method requires money and time, thus adding cost and sapping productivity before a single insight has been gleaned. Nor is personal interaction, even by phone or e-mail, practical for all levels of the company—the barriers of time-zone differences, languages incompatibilities and organizational silos must all be taken into account. Just as fundamentally, it's not always clear who should be interacting with whom, even where personal interaction is possible. Before you can ask people how they achieved something, you need to know that they accomplished it in the first place.

It was precisely these sorts of reasons that led BAE Systems, London, U.K., to re-evaluate how it gained visibility into the many high-tech and advanced engineering projects it has under way at any one point in time.

A manufacturer of both complete ships, aircraft and weapons systems as well as aerospace and marine components for third parties, BAE works on projects as diverse as the tail and rear fuselage of the U.S.-led Joint Strike Fighter and wings for Airbus aircraft, says Richard West, head of organizational and e-learning at the company. Not only does the ability to identify people with the right skills, competencies and experience for a project team make a significant contribution to the success of the business, but so does the ability to effectively share those skills, competencies and experiences.

“With 90,000 staff speaking six languages across 26 divisions in more than 110 sites, the need to share information efficiently and identify and transfer best practices within and across projects is critical,” Mr. West says. However, that was precisely where research carried out in the early 2000s suggested that the company's performance could be improved. Benchmarking analyses, he says, revealed 80 percent of networked employees were wasting an average of 30 minutes per day retrieving information, and 60 percent were spending an hour or more duplicating the work of others.

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The company turned to a technology-based knowledge-sharing system from Autonomy Corp., Cambridge, U.K. Part of an enterprise-wide learning and knowledge management effort called Virtual University, the technology allows BAE to access project-related information regardless of format, location or device. Pattern-recognition technology then uses sophisticated algorithms and natural language querying to “understand” the information's digital essence and extract the meaning behind the text, says Ian Black, managing director of Aungate, a division of Autonomy. Once indexed, the information can then be made available to others across the organization. “It's project visibility in its very broadest sense, highlighting best practices and advances not only within the largest projects, but right across the project portfolio of the business,” he says.

Mr. West cites an example of two groups of engineers found to be toiling away on the same problem—a wing construction issue. A traditional search would not have uncovered this, because they were working on very different projects: one, a military aircraft; the other, an Airbus. One group solved the problem, in the process designing a riveted fastener that required only one drill hole, instead of three. The change saved BAE £4 (approximately US$8) per fastener installation—and there are 3,000 such installations on each aircraft. The overall identified savings included a first tranche of some £7.5 million (approximately US$15 million), followed by an additional £15 million (approximately US$30 million) on another aircraft program.

With savings like that on offer, companies using project visibility are seeing a real difference in the bottom line. PM

Malcolm Wheatley is a U.K.-based freelance writer who writes for CIO, CSO and Manufacturing Business Technology.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM NETWORK | OCTOBER 2006 | WWW.PMI.ORG

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