It takes regional village
a new concept takes hold in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
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SPECIAL TOPICS ISSUE: PM IN GOVERNMENT
The Brigadier General said, “Make it so!” Now the U.S.ACE is boldly going into uncharted management territory. Here's how the South Atlantic Division rethought the nature of their work processes.
by Daniel L. Parrott, PMP
HERE'S A MAP of our “world” as it has been: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a multidiscipline, multifaceted organization of some 38,000 souls. These team members are located throughout the world, organized in a typically military hierarchical organization. The Headquarters Office for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Washington, D.C., reports directly to the pentagon. The United States, and part of the rest of the world, is divided into Divisions. Each Division is divided into five or more Districts, mostly located along the coasts and along major rivers.
Each District Commander is supported by the capabilities of a staff of engineers, scientists and other professionals for all work done by the District within the District's geographical boundaries. Since this work involves the planning, design, construction of civil works (dams, navigation, flood control, etc.) and military projects (barracks, runways, vertical construction) and the operation of the civil works projects, every District had over time become a “full service District,” with the capability to plan, design and construct a wide variety of projects, from military hospitals, to hydropower dams, to beach renourishments.
Each District was like a small “village” surrounding the castle of a nearby Division, with each District having Planning/Engineering/Construction and Operations “Divisions,” each with the capability to perform all of the assigned work that fell within their boundaries.
Each District would set the schedule for the project without regard to the relative capabilities of a “sister” District, or of another District with far better capabilities than the home District. Sometimes, the project would be assigned to the home District, ignoring the capabilities of another District that was closer to the project. Turf battles for work began, with “poaching” of work from one District to another.
Exhibit 1. The Regional Village Concept was initiated in the South Atlantic Division, which includes Districts throughout the southeastern U.S. Now the entire Division shares the same project tools, language and training.
Divisions would step in and try to settle the turf wars by allowing work to be brokered to another District if the home District did not have the capability.
If a project was assigned to a District because of the project's location, that District had to hire and train personnel and execute the project, although that type of project would occur only once or twice in any career. However, how many dams can you build on a river? There is only so much room to build.
Private Architect-Engineering design firms would be used to supplement the workforce, thereby obtaining any specialized technical skills that may be needed from time to time.
This meant that in order to be “fully capable,” every District had to build, train and maintain a fully diverse multidiscipline planning, engineering, construction workforce in order to perform as directed by the Military Base (military program) or Congress (civil works program). Each of these full-service Districts was fully staffed, but not fully used. To fully use these excess capabilities, poaching began, where a District got a project that was within the geographical boundaries of the “home” District. Costs began to rise, partially from keeping and maintaining a high level of capability that might or might not ever be used.
Remapping the World. Slowly, gradually, things are changing. Project management was established in 1988 in the Corps of Engineers, using a “strong matrix” type of organization. But the project manager was forced to use only the resources of the functional organization that was co-located within the District. With this set-up, the project manager was in a weak position to negotiate the best possible scope, price and schedule—essentially at the mercy of the home District functional chiefs.
In the late ’80s, there was formal recognition that there should be some level of specialization in some types of planning, engineering and design. Design centers of expertise were established to shorten or eliminate the learning curve, standardize the design and to start to make things “faster, cheaper and better.” This trend is continuing, making things better for the customer, better for the taxpayer, better for the Corps of Engineers. But it's still a far cry from our vision of the world as it could be.
Imagine if you will…You are in a new District, a District without walls or floors, just windows. Each window looks out to a different person, a team member who you are working directly with. The team members seem to be in the same room as you, but they could be anywhere. All you see is an array of windows with other team members, a virtual work team. Experts in their field, doing their work, exchanging ideas and data with team members in other windows. Each window is connected with all of the other windows by a network made from a fine gossamer web, pulsating with data, streaming back and forth at the speed of light. Team members are talking, sharing information, data and conclusions, jointly working on the project, empowered to execute. District boundaries, organization lines and turf battles don't slow the planning and execution of the project by this Virtual Work Team.
Synergism begins to take hold. Ideas are flying back and forth. Work, data and products are exchanged, updated and revised, finalized and sent on to the customer.
The use of paper is minimized; trees are saved. Because teamwork prevails, work is being done with fewer errors and quality improves. In addition, because the work is being done faster, cheaper, better, more work flows toward the team. The Virtual Work Team flourishes, and the team clones itself into more Virtual Work Teams, each focused on doing a particular type of work or executing their own unique process. New team members are added or deleted as the need arises. Experts are brought in for their contribution. Each Virtual Work Team is doing more and better work for the same or less effort than before.
Of course, this is not how it is done now. We are organized and structured to execute projects for the 1950s, with turf battles, stove-pipes and lack of communication, miscommunication, and paper, paper, paper.
Every project manager sets up and manages their project from a different point of view, with different levels of detail, with widely varying results. Some use computers to their maximum capabilities, others still rely on hand computations for the preparation of budgets, schedules, progress reports. Some even call identical pieces of the projects, the products and phases, by different names! The technical managers, those in the Engineering/Planning/Construction functional offices, also have different levels of detail in mind. They often have to have several “meetings of the minds” with the project manager in order to assure that there will be no gaps in understanding or costly overlapping of duties, authorities, or responsibilities. These meetings are usually done face-to-face and are repeated often in order to assure common understanding. This is a time-consuming, error-prone and often unnecessary process.
How do we get from where we are now to where we want to be?
The Regional Village Concept. In 1995, now-retired Brigadier General Ralph Locurcio initiated the Regional Village Concept for all Districts in the South Atlantic Division (SAD). (See map in Exhibit 1.) Over the past 18 months, a team of Division and District employees has conducted a top-to-bottom review of the project management processes in SAD. Its charter is to standardize and streamline the project management business process while positioning all the Districts for the future using Virtual Work Teams.
Phase I of implementing the Regional Village Concept involved standardizing the information infrastructure architecture. cc: Mail and Microsoft Office were made standard, Division-wide. No more converting files from Word to WordPerfect in order to complete a report, and back again later in order to edit and update.
Phase II began with an assessment by the team from SAD on how the various project managers in the Districts do their business. What problems they had, what solutions they found. Where they were headed, and what they wanted in order to do their job “faster, cheaper, better.”
Phase II continued by getting these project managers, along with team members from Information Management, to talk about their problems and share their solutions, and to plot a course for the future on how we do our work in light of the new automated accounting and project management systems that were soon to be initiated—the Corps of Engineers Financial Management System (CEFMS), and the Project Management Information System (PROMIS).
Phase III will expand this group to include the technical divisions, such as Engineering, Real Estate, Construction and Operations. Team members for these divisions will begin working with the project manager to develop standard interfaces and terminology so that a project manager in one District can effectively communicate with an engineer in another District, and vice versa.
Common Information and Processes. The intent in Phase III is that when a project manager in Mobile District tasks a team member in Savannah District for a product, both offices will have a common set of references and a common understanding of the schedule. The Microsoft Project schedule shows the standard product name, the start and end dates, the budget, the progress indicator, and the interrelationships between the start and end of the product and the overall flow of the project. Team members can see the “big picture” of what is to be done and where their efforts fit into the flow of work, and can directly update the progress of their product without the regeneration and reporting of data that has to be reentered by hand by someone else.
In the Regional Village Phase II, all project managers agreed that there should be a minimum set of information kept and updated for each project by the project managers, regardless of the program—Civil, Military, or Hazardous, Toxic, Radiological Waste/Support For Others. Essentially, this information is the name of the task, duration, estimated cost and actual costs of the project, which will give at least a minimal level of consistency in the execution of projects across all Districts and programs.
The Regional Village teams have recently all agreed on the minimum set of information that will be required to be “above the line,” in other words, consistent between all Districts in SAD for each program. This set of above-the-line information has been incorporated into a standard Microsoft Project template for each program, to be used by all of the Districts in SAD. Essentially, this above-the-line information concerns “what” is to be done, “how” long it will take and “how” much it will cost. Speaking of cost, the lowest level of the above-the-line data fully complies with the minimum standards with regard to all governmental accounting practices.
There was a lot of discussion regarding the necessary level of detail for that data that is “above the line.” The data the Regional Village teams put together is detailed enough to describe what happened, but not so detailed as to interfere with the project manager doing the job.
“Below the line” is additional information collected and maintained by a District in order to address the unique nature of each District and how that product is to be produced. This will allow customization of a project schedule by different Districts and still not interfere with the uniformity of the above-the-line information, which is vital to the Regional Village Concept. Below-the-line information is what tasks and subtasks a District feels are required to complete the product, how much each task will cost, which section will perform each of the tasks, and the order of work of each of the tasks. Essentially, this below-the-line information concerns only “how” the work is to be done.
Common Software and Hardware. If every District is using different project management software, different communications software, or even if different project management and team members have different levels of computer skills and training, the Regional Village Concept will not work. It is essential that all team members have at least a uniform suite of software to execute their part of the project. The Regional Village team selected Microsoft Office, Microsoft Project and cc: Mail as the uniform set of software to initially perform the interrelated tasks in the Regional Village world. Other groupware software products, such as Lotus Notes and Lotus Organizer, will be incorporated into the process in order to facilitate the Regional Village Concept.
We realized early that just having a standard piece of software is not the complete picture. How the software is to be used is just as important. Once the templates were finalized, in-house training was conducted.
These templates take into account the pending implementation of CEFMS and PROMIS. CEFMS requires that a certain minimum set of information about a project be input in a certain way, or else it just won't work. What better than to change our project management techniques as part of the Regional Village Concept in light of what CEFMS and PROMIS will require? Now is the time to implement.
HAVEYOU EVER NOTICED that on Star Trek: The Next Generation there is no paper? Work gets done, information shared, progress made, projects completed—and all the Virtual Team Member has to work with is a small, hand-held computer notepad for work and communication.
We are not there yet. But we don't have to live with the forms, reports and drawings that have to be passed back and forth, updated, stamped, reviewed, corrected, re-reviewed, re-corrected and finally printed in 100 copies, and then ignored. There is room for improvement, but the Regional Village is a step on the way to doing our work in the most cost-efficient, timely, professional way, and with the highest possible quality. As Captain Picard says, “Make it so!”
Daniel L. Parrott, PE, PMP, has worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Mobile District as a structural engineer and civil project manager. He was named Civil Project Manager of the Year by the Corps’ South Atlantic Division in 1995, and currently manages several major Corps projects.
PM Network · April 1997