Project startup workshop
learn to use this best practice
The most critical time in a project occurs right at its start. This is where everything required for the project’s success must be identified and incorporated into a viable project plan. But in the real world, project startup activities are often slighted in favor of getting the project launched and underway. This inevitably leads to future problems due to lack of foresight, planning, and coordination.
This paper describes a new tool created as part of an ongoing government–industry partnership. This tool, the Project Startup Workshop, was designed to facilitate better government and industry partnering after contract award on major defense projects. However, the tool has broad applicability to projects in many other environments.
The way a project is launched sets the foundation for its later success. This is illustrated from a cost perspective in Exhibit 1, showing that small expenditures early in a project effectively “lock in” the life-cycle cost of the project.
Exhibit 1 – The case for project startup (Defense Acquisition University, 2002)
Although several months or even years of work may precede it, the real beginning for most defense projects occurs when a funded requirement is finally put on contract for systems development. A common tendency at this point is for the government project team to think, “Now we’ve got a prime contractor on board and the ball is in their court to deliver on the project, so we can just monitor their progress and everything will turn out fine.” This is a mistake, of course. Project management is always a partnership between the many stakeholders who must contribute to successful project execution.
This principle also came to light as part of the Defense Acquisition University (DAU) strategic partnering initiative with industry. During a visit by the DAU president to Raytheon Corporate Headquarters, Raytheon executives shared an observation that problems on their defense projects could repeatedly be traced back to issues that arose at the very start of the projects. Typical issues were lack of a common vision or plan for success, lack of a supportive project environment, and lack of a clear project baseline including risks. This meeting led to a partnering effort with DAU to create a project startup workshop, which would address and seek to eliminate these common pitfalls right at the start of future projects.
The workshop would be conducted within two to four weeks after project initiation (normally done through a contract award from a defense agency to industry). The startup workshop would be conducted jointly with the government and industry teams, as well as other key stakeholders, such as key subcontractors. The workshop would be a high-energy “hands on” experience over three to five days and based on best practices gleaned from successful defense projects.
The workshop objectives include both project- and people-related outcomes, as shown in Exhibit 2.
Exhibit 2 – Workshop objectives (Gadeken, 2006)
The startup products produced during the workshop would depend on the specifics of the project as well as what products had already been created earlier. But typical products would include the project vision, values, goals, baseline plan and milestones, risk management plan, team charters, and communication plan. The time spent creating the workshop products would also directly contribute to achieving the people-related objectives, like collaboration and teamwork.
The basic workshop design features a series of modules, which, if all were selected, would result a week-long workshop. But the design concept is modular and most project teams have opted for a slimmed-down design, resulting in a two-to-three day workshop. The baseline set of modules is shown in Exhibit 3. Other special topic modules, designed just for a given workshop, are also possible.
Other considerations impacting the project schedule are the location of the workshop and the logistics of travel, social and meal options, and the possibility of visits by senior executives or key project stakeholders. Another important feature of the workshop schedule is designing the proper balance between presentations to the entire group and small group activities to debate issues and create workshop products.
Exhibit 3 – Workshop modules (Gadeken, 2006)
The biggest key to a successful schedule is early and thorough workshop planning. The best way to achieve this is to hold a workshop planning meeting, preferably at least a month before the actual workshop will be held. This meeting can be used to meet key workshop contributors, finalize the workshop objectives, tailor the workshop agenda, establish the workshop dates and location, identify the workshop attendees, discuss workshop logistics and assign action items. As in managing the project itself, the success of the workshop is directly related to the success achieved in this planning effort.
Successful Workshop Example: CH-53K Helicopter
The best way to illustrate the Project Startup Workshop concept is to review an actual workshop that was conducted by DAU. The example project is the US Marine Corps CH-53K heavy-lift helicopter (Croisetiere, 2007). This project was undertaken to replace the CH-53E “Super Stallion,” which was nearing the end of its useful service life and encountering significant inventory issues as well as high operation and support costs. As this project moved toward contract award in early 2006, the project office contacted DAU with the intent of scheduling a Project Startup Workshop. When the contract was awarded to Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, both government and industry representatives joined the planning team being led by DAU. Exhibit 4 lists key events in the workshop timeline.
Exhibit 4 – CH-53K key workshop events (Gadeken, 2006)
Instead of one big planning meeting, a series of shorter meetings were held to prepare for this startup workshop. Selection of the workshop location proved interesting. With the Navy program office located in Maryland and the Sikorsky plant in Connecticut, the decision was made to hold the workshop at a location midway between these two sites, in Philadelphia, PA. This was done to create an off-site experience, where participants would not be tempted to go back to their offices between workshop sessions.
In addition to good planning, another critical successful factor necessary for a successful startup workshop is full support and participation by the project managers and their senior management. This was definitely the case for the CH-53K workshop. Both the government and industry project managers and their senior managers not only attended the workshop but offered their enthusiastic support throughout the process. This made getting the buy-in from their subordinate managers very easy.
The schedule for the CH-53K Program Startup Workshop is shown in Exhibit 5. A key feature of this schedule, as well as those of other startup workshops conducted by DAU, is the amount of time devoted to group work with the Integrated Product Teams (IPTs) for the project. Most defense projects are organized into a set of IPTs, where the real project work gets done. These IPTs have both government and industry members and need clear charters and ground rules to work effectively. So, a significant part of each startup workshop is to “nail down” the IPT charters, ground rules, and interface requirements between the IPTs. Often an entire workshop day is devoted to this effort.
Another key part of each successful workshop is the team building and relationship development between the government and industry teams. Early startup workshops featured designated team-building exercises, but as the workshop design evolved, these exercises were phased out in favor of making the team building part of the special topic and IPT working sessions. As workshop products were created, participants were also building the team. This only required slight modification for the DAU facilitators to debrief both the workshop products and team-building process used to create them. One aspect of the workshops that has not changed is the use of after-hours meals and socials to augment the team building during the workshop. For the CH-53K workshop this included an informal happy hour on the first evening of the workshop, as well as a planned event to attend a Phillies–Mets baseball game, which most of the 60 workshop participants attended.
Exhibit 5 – CH-53K workshop schedule (Gadeken, 2006)
Feedback is collected from workshop participants at the end of each workshop, but the best measure of the success of a workshop is the impact on the project itself. For the CH-53K, this impact was the successful Integrated Baseline Review (IBR) held three months after the Project Startup Workshop. The IBR is the first major milestone on every major defense project, where the contractor’s project plan and baseline is reviewed by the government to ensure that the project has been well planned and has a high probability of successful execution.
Another key indicator of workshop success is the request from the project team for follow-on support. This occurred on the CH-53K when the government and industry project teams decided to hold a follow-up workshop at the contractor’s facility at West Palm Beach, FL in November 2006. DAU also facilitated this workshop, which went very well and helped resolve issues identified in the original startup workshop.
CH-53K workshop participants found the teaming between government and industry to be the most valuable part of their workshop. They also cited the IPT working groups as a major benefit of the workshop. Looking at the entire set of workshops conducted by DAU, a set of workshop benefits appears in Exhibit 6.
Exhibit 6 – Workshop benefits (Gadeken, 2006)
The Project Startup Workshop has been run successfully on several major defense projects over the past two years. Lessons learned from these workshops have been used to improve the workshop design. The workshop framework discussed in this paper can be modified to fit almost any project-based environment. In summary, the Project Startup Workshop is a best practice that can contribute to the success of any complex project.
Croisetiere, P., Haines, D., & Mallicoat, D. (2007, January/February). Program Startup Workshop: The CH-53K Heavy Lift Helicopter, Defense AT&L, 16–19.
Defense Acquisition University. (2002). Program management course curriculum.
Gadeken, O. (2006, November). Program Startup Workshop. Briefing to PEO/SYSCOM Commanders Conference at Fort Belvoir, VA.
©2007, Owen Gadeken
Originally published as part of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Atlanta GA, USA