Coming your way
maybe some pork and beans?
by James Rosenwinkel
HAVE YOU HEARD the one about the four people flying cross-country in a newly designed plane? In addition to the pilot, a technical analyst, a chief information officer and a Boy Scout are on board.
Halfway through the flight, the engines sputter, windows crack and the instrument panel is smoldering. As the plane begins to fall, the pilot takes one of the parachutes because he's the only one who knows how to fly this new plane. The CIO says he's the only one with a good understanding of the overall plans and the players that make this superplane possible, and then he bails out. The analyst starts to panic. “What are we going to do now?”
“No sweat,” says the Boy Scout. “He grabbed my backpack. We still have two chutes left.”
Ahhhh. The devil's in the details: short-term, day-to-day activities that are done too quickly; too carelessly or not at all can foul up the big picture.
How familiar are you with the details in your organization? What will happen if you have to pull your ripcord? Will you drift to a nice soft landing? Or will tent stakes and cans of pork and beans pummel your body after you hit the ground at 118 mph?
Clues to whether you have a parachute or a backpack can be found by performing a quick review of your shop. Although we've all reengineered, empowered and teamed our way to nirvana, nothing is quite perfect. This is particularly true today when there are no road maps and few precedents.
Many organizations continue chasing their expectations in short bursts of success and failure. It makes a big difference how an organization reconciles its longer-term objectives with the short-term realities of running a business. Here are a few specific areas where you might want to check out those devilish details.
The Customer-Based Organization. We all have customers to focus on. Unfortunately, there's often a difference between a long-term and a short-term focus. It's easier for the short term to win out. Customer focus is a long-term goal often that blurs when up against short-term realities. Take head-counts, for instance.
James Rosenwinkel has over 20 years experience in application systems development and consulting, and has published a number of articles on project management topics. He is a project-planning consultant with a major multilines insurance company in Chicago and owns Business Writers’ Service (312/402-5049).
The Project Box
Exhibit 1. A successfully completed project can be represented by a well-balanced and symmetrically square Project Box. As your project progresses, what comprises the four outside walls of your Project Box: a high-strength titanium alloy or wet cardboard? A balanced project requires an equal 25 percent attention level in all four areas.
Here's a classic example: a system that wasn't there on time. It is huge, meant to replace the archaic legacy system, supports a $4 billion business, and is already two years late. Newest delivery dates must be met.
Expectations include continuing reduction in headcount for staff on the old system. So, when you implement, you announce that the big system is up—most of it, that is. Although you can say the implementation dates were hit, you do not announce that the old system is still fully needed until the new system is totally up.
What do you do? The old system staff was pared to the bone from 12 to six people. Unnecessary activities and deadwood were eliminated long ago. With the new system up, the old system is expected to be down to two people for cleanup, but you need six on the old system to squeak by until the new system is fully functional.
Regardless of the shuffling that takes place to get you through, the point is that the dominant concern during the interim is head-count. It is not the fact that help-desk calls from your customers are increasing 25 percent a month because the old system is understaffed. The organization might claim to be customer focused, but how does it fare in a headcount-driven environment?
Quality. Quality is important in everything we do. To put quality in context, it can be viewed as one of four equal elements comprising the project box, as shown in Exhibit 1.
The specific activities that compose the four parts must all be completed if a project is to be successful. Success—in a perfect world—is to have everything, delivered now (or at least ASAP), completed perfectly, with no surprises. Holding the line on quality in this aggressive environment is not easy.
The deliverable's date and content generally take care of themselves. They are very visible, short-term topics that everyone on project teams talk about in every meeting. Efforts to prevent any unpleasant surprises related to the project are also critical. Expectation management, however, is a topic unto itself.
Quality is where shortcuts frequently occur. Often they happen because many quality-related tasks (final testing, for example) are at the tail end of the project cycle.
This condition is worsened because many critical errors are hard to find. Uncovering a little error buried in one of a hundred algorithms requires an investment in time. These errors lie in wait, multiplying over time into big problems. They can ruin reputations and eventually cost millions.
True, the quality of a product is moot if no product is available on the target date. But if a product is delivered, compromised quality will eventually exact a price. Check project plans for quality-related tasks with reasonable time frames for completion, and real resources assigned to do the necessary quality assurance tasks. If you find no operative project plan in use for a complex project, brace yourself for upcoming quality issues.
Successful organizations that plan to be around a long time take quality seriously. They don't put quality at risk by assigning critical quality tasks to an already overloaded staff. Instead of avoiding the issue, successful organizations budget real dollars for reconciling requirements and change control documents to test matrices. They have the self-discipline and the foresight to treat quality as an equal partner within the project box.
Teaming. An objective of teaming is to prevent the old organizational boundaries from obstructing progress. Teaming helps to ensure that the right people are able to work together easily. However, in discarding the old, some valuable pieces are lost.
In the old command-and-control days, time-honored administrative procedures helped ensure key staffers would be taken care of. The key staffers are CPPs, or critical-path people. What is the morale of your CPPs?
If a CPP is critical to four cost centers, whose budget is she on? Who assures that he is fairly compensated? Is your new bonus-and-compensation program running on all cylinders? If a CPP is interpersonal communication skills-challenged, or political smarts-challenged, who will be his or her crutch until the CPP‘s real value is recognized in the new environment? Are honest performance evaluations given to your CPPs regularly? Does command-and-control still exist for many decisions, stifling your CPPs? Are implementation dates dictated from the top, ignoring team input? Is employee development and training budgeted for? What are the career aspirations of your CPPs? How many of them are looking for, and will soon find, new jobs?
A danger in a team environment is that it's easier to lose the pulse of people who are critical to your projects. Monitoring the morale of the CPPs is not necessarily built into the process. Don't let your CPPs fall through the cracks. Losing them often hurts more than you'll ever know.
Empowerment. Empowerment is, of course, nothing new. But now that everyone has been told they are empowered, additional details might be useful. Any discussion on empowerment needs to be balanced by reviewing accountability. Team members need to understand when they decide to empower themselves on an issue that they are also deciding to be accountable for their actions.
Secondly, selling empowerment to everybody in the organization was a death knell for organizational loyalty: When you told Organization Man that he was empowered, you were also telling him that he was on his own. (Same goes for Organization Woman.) Besides being empowered on their projects, individuals are now responsible to a larger extent than ever before for their own betterment, career advancement and training. Mutual loyalty between employer and employee is not what it used to be. Employees need to look out for themselves more than ever before.
But some people are experts at looking out for themselves; others are not. That imbalance can cause problems. When they're all teamed for the good of the organization, and also empowered to take their careers into their own hands, which interest wins out? On a project, will all individuals put their personal interests after the team's?
If each individual team member answers this question the same way and bows to the good of the team, this is a nonissue. All members benefit when the team benefits. But as long as some people are more expert at self-promotion, conflicts will fester. If people see the slyer showboats making progress at the expense of other hard-working team players, it appears that it pays to put personal interest above the general good of the team.
DECISIONS BASED ON short-term considerations can often work against our longer-term objectives. We usually talk about the long-term goals of the organization at weekend seminars or a Friday offsite meeting. The uncomfortable day-to-day details pop up at the 7:30 meeting the following Monday morning. That is when short-term decisions are made.
Ending up with a quality product is central to being customer focused. Who represents these two important long-term goals when the high-pressure, daily decisions are being made in your organization?
Empowerment emphasizes the potential of the individual. The teaming concept stresses the group. The theory is that when the group efforts bring about the successful completion of a project all the individuals on the team will benefit. Their respective careers will advance commensurate with their particular contributions to the project.
People want successful careers and fair compensation. Is that happening in your organization? Are your people treated in a manner their skills and expertise call for? Or do your organization's accomplished self-promoters, rather than the more dedicated team-concept practitioners, have the edge on reaping the rewards?
Check up on the details and pass on the pork and beans.
Reader Service Number 050
June 1999 PM Network