Project Management Institute

Managing changes

the case of the multimillion-dollar ashtrays


by Bud Baker, Contributing Editor

It was the project manager's first day at his new job, working in an aircraft development program office. He started out by reading the critical program paperwork, including the contract, the specifications, and a document called the “acquisition program baseline.” He was encouraged when he saw the following statement in capital letters on the cover:


This was followed by a half-dozen general-officer signatures, a virtual galaxy of stars, representing the leadership of the various project stakeholders.

Well, this was certainly encouraging to the new project manager, who was acutely aware of the havoc that generally accompanied frequent design changes. Finally, he thought, he was part of a project where the top decision-makers understood that the key to success was to just go with the original plan: no troublesome changes, no resulting schedule slips, and no cost overruns.

His encouragement didn't last long. Within a week, he got a call from an energetic young woman at the headquarters of the organization that would eventually use the new aircraft. His heart sank when she identified herself as the “weapon system baseline change manager.” What had happened to the concept of maximum stability and minimal change? What about all those generals’ signatures? Surely initiating changes wasn't her full-time job? “Oh, no,” she said, “not any more. These days I spend most of my time managing my staff of baseline change managers.”

And, as it turned out, this group of change-meisters did their job all too well, churning out hundreds of baseline changes over the next few years. Some of the changes were good ideas, and most were probably necessary. But quite a few were not, and sometimes it seemed that every time a senior officer would wonder, “What if …?” the change crew would turn those random musings into a formal change order.


Bud Baker, Ph.D., teaches at Wright State University, in Dayton, Ohio, where he heads the MBA concentration in project management. He is a regular contributor to PM Network and Project Management Journal, and is a member of the PMJ Editorial Review Board. Send comments on this column to

The all-time worst was when their commanding general decided that “his” aircraft would be “no smoking” areas and directed the removal of all cockpit ashtrays. A small point, you think? Well, consider, those ashtrays have to be deleted not only from the hardware, but also from hundreds of other places: design drawings, technical manuals, supply channels, maintenance charts, and the like. (Did the general know the costs and the trouble that his directive caused? I suspect not. Did his staff ever tell him? I guarantee not: their job was to process changes, not discourage them).

Sure, Changes are Necessary … But. Project managers hate changes: Changes destroy our schedules, they inflate our costs, and they damage our ability to meet our performance commitments to our stakeholders, but they are still necessary.

One example: A few years ago, Chrysler set the automotive world on its ear with a new design. Long the world leader in the minivan segment, Chrysler stunned the car world with what, in retrospect, may seem like a small thing: the addition of a second sliding door, thus offering easier access to both sides of the van.

The other automakers had new van designs in development, designs that didn't offer the new door. Should they have just pressed ahead, avoiding changes but then releasing an instantly obsolescent product? Chrysler's rivals chose to make the changes, to accept the schedule and cost hits that a new design would cause, rather than unveil a product that would fail to meet the new and heightened expectations of the American public.

What a Good Change Process Needs. So, a good change process must facilitate the important changes and yet sift out those that are whimsical, ineffective, and unimportant. A good change process needs discipline. It needs to be rule-based, and the process itself needs to be meticulously organized and tracked. The wise counsel of senior project managers needs to be tapped, and the final approval level needs to be high enough to deter insignificant changes while ensuring a total-system perspective.

THE MULTIMILLION-DOLLAR ASHTRAYS show that a solid change process needs real commitment. High-level signatures and lofty boilerplate statements can signify that commitment, or they can be just window-dressing. ■

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.

September 2000 PM Network



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