Project Management Institute

Slowing down the bullet train, or maturing a project office


This sequel to last year's PMI presentation, “Laying Track from the Cowcatcher of the Bullet Train,” describes the “maturation” of the program office of the largest base construction initiative in the United States Air Force. It relates how the program and project teams implemented a project management methodology to improve capabilities and organizational maturity in its quest to achieve program success and excellence.


In early 1999, the United States Air Force (USAF) established the Aviano 2000 Program Management Office (PMO) at an Italian fighter base near the town of Aviano in northeastern Italy. The PMO's primary task was to deliver a $530 million, 264-project base upgrade to support the USAF's 31st Fighter Wing with its 42 F-16 fighters, a military and civilian workforce of more than 4,500, and approximately 4,000 family members.

The challenge, described at Houston 2000 in “Laying Track from the Cowcatcher of the Bullet Train” was the construction program had actually begun more than five years prior to establishment of the PMO. The late start-up was compounded by out-of-control projects and the base's preparation for air combat operations in the Balkans. The fledgling program team was faced with the seemingly insurmountable task of starting up the PMO and making it functional without losing program momentum.

They succeeded, but it was not always pretty. Their success was everything but textbook application of project management principles and techniques. Project managers and support team members, all volunteers for the wild mouse ride of a lifetime, managed to stem the tide of the out-of-control program by sorting out core tasks, establishing basic project controls, developing program and project tools, and building effective project delivery teams.

The initial results of all the hard work were impressive. Between mid-February and July 1st, 1999 a program office and individual project delivery teams (PDT) were organized, 90 runaway projects were tamed, a basic project management methodology was instituted, and—most impressive of all—the program team kept the construction program going throughout the 79-day Kosovo air campaign. The impact of 200 fighter aircraft flying around-the-clock air combat operations on the construction program gave project managers fits, but they persevered. For example, explosive ordnance restrictions, which hampered access of construction contractors to job sites, required full-time attention to keep the program moving.

On July 1, 1999 the PMO met IOC, the Air Force acronym for “Initial Operational Capability.” IOC designations are used for force beddown, weapons system acquisition, and construction programs to signify the program or organization has met the very minimum capability to conduct its mission. Full Operational Capability (FOC) is attained when all planned start up milestones are met and the unit is considered capable of performing its assigned missions to an established standard. The PMO's IOC was based primarily on the sponsor's tasking date.

The first year of IOC operations, running from July 99 to June 2000, was used to implement all the basic elements identified as necessary for FOC.

Catching up with a program that had been underway for five years was much more difficult than anyone could have imagined. To us, achieving FOC meant we had people, an organizational structure, processes and procedures in place, money flowing, and projects being delivered. We had some early successes, like the complete restoration of the runway in 32 days, in August September 1999, which was necessitated by operational considerations and the possibility of a Balkans follow-on air campaign. We also had a number of failures, for example, unacceptable delays caused by nonperforming contractors. Many of those might have been resolved earlier had a PMO been established from the start. Our Houston 2000 presentation discussed the results of our first year, sharing “scar tissue” lessons learned for program and project managers charting a course to cope with similar program or project startups.

We made FOC on July 1, 2000, despite a lot of growing pains. But, what about the second year? Has the program team that worked so hard during its first year been able to slow down its runaway bullet train? Is the program under control? Have additional process or procedural improvements been implemented? Is the PMO succeeding in its core task of delivering projects? Has its success rate improved? Has the team improved?

The answer to each question is a resounding “yes.” Now, the core question is how? This paper answers that by exploring the larger issue of program maturity and its ultimate impact on project and program success.

Our Premise

We view our quest for program success as a very simple, yet very dynamic, continuum.

Methodology ↔ Capabilities ↔ Maturity ↔ Success Simplicity is imperative in all we do and our program success continuum is no exception. We have a tiger by the tail and, although we find all the current theoretical project management maturity models very interesting, the Aviano 2000 program team doesn't have time right now to study and analyze them.

The continuum of relationships shown above is two-directional. Program methodology provides tailored capabilities that lead to program maturity. Ultimately, such maturity leads to success, both for individual projects and overall program objectives. As we reach a level of success, our maturity level improves even more due to team member and customer satisfaction, lessons learned, a desire to do even better the next time, and the renewed enthusiasm that naturally results from cutting the ribbons on new facilities. Our people then seek to renew their capabilities or learn new ones. Post project reviews lead to improvements in both capabilities and methodologies. It's continuous and dynamic.

Why it Works

This simple continuum works for us because we've made it a practice to tie our methodology to both capabilities and maturity. Further, we apply it to management of both the overall program and each individual project.

Defining Terms

Methodology. Again, keeping it simple, we like Webster's definition of methodology as “a system of methods.” Our methodology is the sum of the ways of achieving our goal of delivering Aviano 2000.

Capabilities. Capabilities are all the resources our teams have to bring to the task. These may be skills, technical ability, knowledge, understanding, tools, money, common sense, communication, attitude, or any one of a hundred other resources. Developing capabilities is a core task of program and project team leaders.

Maturity. Maturity is the growth of our capabilities. Our objective is to fully mature all our capabilities to optimize our rate of success.

Success. Ultimately, it's the customer who judges each project. Therefore, our simple definition of success means “customer satisfaction.” The customer must be #1!

The Heart of the Matter

However, simple definitions do not capture the whole picture. The reality and dynamics of our continuum deserve a more detailed explanation.

Our Objective: Customer Satisfaction

It's easy to say, “Customer Satisfaction is #1,” or “Deliver project, X, Y, or Z to the customer's satisfaction,” or “Deliver the $530 million program to the customer's satisfaction.” The reality of achieving success is far more complex.

The Elements of Our Approach to Success

Aviano 2000 is fundamentally a construction program. But, our PMO has one added twist. Our responsibilities include the “Smooth Move” process. Each facility must be fully furnished and equipped for customer use within 30–60 days following construction completion. This is our turnkey charter. By 2006, Smooth Move costs will total more than $40 million across more than 70 brand new and renovated facilities. Our task is definition and refinement of customer requirements, interior design, planning and scheduling, acquisition, installation and quality control.

Success in construction is traditionally measured by assessing the scope, schedule and cost triangle. We've accepted those elements, but have added two others, quality and safety.

•   Quality. Many practitioners include “Quality” as a subelement of scope, but we've broken it out separately. In fact, our sponsors have charged our team with delivering quality above all else. In those cases where we have to decide between time and quality, we generally default to quality, unless it means cost overruns.

•   Safety. In November 1999, we had a fatal accident on a construction job site. This tragic loss of life did not result from any safety deficiency, but it made us realize we need to be constantly on top of our safety program. Throughout the various phases of this program, we will have more than 100 different prime and subcontractors working on the base and we want the best safety environment and record possible. As we are the largest construction program in northeastern Italy, our sponsors challenged us to become the model for construction site safety in the region. We accepted the challenge, put in the necessary processes, and constantly track our progress.

Pentagon of Success

We fondly call our five-sided assessment model “The Pentagon of Success.” Aside from the obvious reference to its shape, it's a constant reminder for those of us who have served in the “Building” of how glad we are to be in the field working on a program of this scope and import. Anyone who doesn't perform gets beamed back to the mother ship...

Assessment of these five elements: scope, schedule, cost, quality and safety, are imbedded at every level of our daily operations and in every project and program review. At PDT level, where day-to-day project work gets done, the project manager, team members and customers continuously monitor the elements of success. As we move up the ladder of management reviews, there is decreasingly less detail about individual projects. The focus, using the same elements, is on program issues. The senior sponsors, U.S. and Italian officers at the Lieutenant General level, are provided assessments using a simple traffic light presentation—red, yellow, and green. A red indicator means we've got a showstopper or we need senior sponsor help. One positive aspect of implementing our program methodology is we now have the right level of attention at the right level of management.

PM Methodology Leads to Capabilities and Maturity

Capabilities and maturity are the key drivers in achieving success. We base them on the program management methodology we established. Any team, no matter what its task, must have all three—methodology, capabilities, and maturity—to successfully reach its goal.

Beginnings of Our Methodology

In early 1999, the designated program manager produced an “Approach for Aviano 2000 Project Managers.” Today, it seems primitive, but it served us well, evolving into the Aviano 2000 PMO Project Management Methodology described in this article.

That initial methodology was tailored to our complex international operating environment. It was based on:

• Developing a project-base organization

• The use of available off-the-shelf project management principles and techniques

• Giving authority to designated project managers

• Quickly developing a schedule and other tools to quantify and manage the challenge

• Development of a vision, charter and program plan

• Obtaining funding

• Building an organization, with all the necessary personnel development aspects

Today, in just two years of operation, that simple methodology has evolved into a fully integrated project management process with fully integrated project management tools.

Linking Aviano 2000 Methodology, Capabilities, and Maturity

Each slice of our PM Methodology pie (see Exhibit 1) represents a key element of our Program Management Plan, allowing us to trace a direct link between our approach, current capability, and level of maturity

As we've refined this methodology we constantly focused on a goal of “practical” application. We did not have time to waste on non-core issues. Each element is tied to a work practice that can be trained, implemented quickly, validated and tracked. Each management area is tied directly to a capability, which when learned or improved upon, leads directly to maturity of our managers, team members and the program. Let's now see how we apply each and how it leads to capabilities. I'm also providing a maturity assessment for each area.

Exhibit 1

Project Management

We recognized from the start that application of standardized PM principles is critical for project management. Because of the imperative to start up a program office so late in the game, we needed a simple, common sense approach. At the project level, we quickly settled on selective use of principles found in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) because it was ready-made to help us. We figured we could develop our initial approach and fill in gaps later. At the program level, a considerable part of our approach was derived from the writings and teachings of Robert J. Graham and Randall L. Englund. Their 1997 book, Creating an Environment for Successful Projects, The Quest to Manage Project Management, became our Bible for program leadership during PMO startup and continues to be a fundamental part of our thinking as we work to attain recognition as a truly project-based organization.

All stakeholders in our program are trained or oriented in the methodology, principles, and techniques of project management we use. PM basic training tailored to Aviano 2000 is given to each member, including customer representatives. This training has been a real eye opener for many, especially those who had never been involved in large projects before. Specialized training on software, partnering, leading teams, and the tools we use is given to core team members. Our capabilities and maturity have been increased a thousand-fold because of training.


The USAF has long embraced Total Quality Management. Within the PMO we have taken that approach as well. At the programmatic level, we take such things as customer relations and continuous improvement very seriously. At the project level our focus is on quality of individual project deliverables, involvement of customers throughout the process, and the quality of relationships among team members.

Standard construction inspection activities assure we deliver quality facilities. Application of Quality Management comes through standards (architectural, mechanical), understanding of our common approach, training of stakeholders, quality inspections by construction managers and PDT members, and good dialogue between all PDT members. Capturing and passing on lessons learned has also been an improvement technique we've adopted. We do that through our project management information system and periodic feedback meetings.

Our capabilities in this area are strong. Our maturity level is improving. Quality principles are in place and have been trained. Now, we need to use them and improve our skills.


Air Force engineering uses a standardized configuration management approach. Unfortunately, we found it had been applied only minimally during the early years of Aviano 2000. Our initial assessment showed the major cause of our runaway program was uncontrolled change across more than 30 major projects. We had to improve change management quickly.

Making change to change is difficult—it takes senior management attention. First, we implemented a Change Control Board (CCB) applying basic change control procedures. We tailored the process and improved it by putting decision-making authority at the proper work levels. We installed a three-tier decision threshold process, gave authority to project managers for day-to-day decisions, and established an executive steering group (ESG) to approve critical configuration changes that have high-impact cost and schedule challenges.

Our requirement for project managers and PDTs to present and defend requested changes to the ESG forces them to resolve “bright ideas” during planning. Overall, this has been very beneficial, because customers now understand fully there's a price to pay for any change. They don't request them lightly.

Change is under control. Our capability and maturity levels here are quite high.


The 2000 edition of the PMBOK® Guide clearly recognizes the increasing importance of project risk management. Our approach does the same, but we are at day one-step one in terms of applying “risk management” principles.

While the USAF uses Operational Risk Management (ORM) very well to ensure operational safety—our excellent safety record for aircraft, missile, and munitions operations speaks for itself—non-operational risk management, especially in engineering activities, has not been comprehensively implemented. The reason may be that civil engineering is functionally aligned, not project based.

Program level risk management is Aviano 2000's most immature area. The good news is we recognize the shortcoming and have embarked on a course of action to resolve it. At project level, risk management is a little better defined, but is still not a formal process. Our PMs have been too busy implementing other basic tools to take on risk management and very few of them have been trained. We are fixing that through a near-term training and assessment initiative. First we will train all the leaders and teams in risk management. Then, those same teams will immediately begin our actual risk assessment facilitated by our consultant instructor. We expect strong growth in this area throughout 2001.


As highlighted earlier, safety is our fifth success criteria. Our challenge—to become the model for construction site safety in northeastern Italy—has many implications. First, we must all understand all the rules. We apply a hybrid of U.S. and Italian norms to ensure safety on construction sites. Partnering with local Italian regulators, Italian Defense Agencies and various U.S. military and civilian agencies is ongoing. We adopted a safety-working group that includes all three U.S. Services, along with legal assistance from the U.S. Embassy in Rome. So far, knock on wood, our practices have kept the construction sites safe. Italian regulators have verified we are rapidly becoming the model.

Safety is a strong capability for us. We have matured to the point where all team members pay close attention to our safety practices. The plans and procedures are in place and we've got the contractors’ attention about how seriously we take safety. Success in this area can be fleeting, so we must constantly stay alert.

Personnel Development

In all U.S. military services people are considered our most valuable asset. It's no different in our PMO. Any organization that doesn't pay attention to its human resources is doomed to fail.

We have had a strong focus on all of our human resource activities from the beginning. Training, career development and progression, awards and recognition programs, and social and recreational events are all part of our plan. Our first initiative was to push authority to the right levels of responsibility. That's easier said than done, especially in a government organization. Ours is a heavily matrixed organization and we spent considerable time developing clear roles and responsibilities for everyone assigned.

We invested heavily in training and skills development, because well-trained, skilled people drive maturity and success. Professional development of all our team members is paramount. Our goal is each person who works three or four years in this program should be enhanced by it. We want them to have a professionally rewarding experience and an improved, highly marketable resume when they leave us.

Finally, we installed a healthy awards and recognition program. Our people are working hard and we take every opportunity we can to reward them for their contributions.

Our assessment of our maturity in this area is excellent. We've got well trained, highly motivated people doing fantastic work every day. This is an area of heavy investment, but we will continue to focus on it because it's the right thing to do.


Communication is vital to everything we do in project and program management.

In the technical sense, communications systems, backbones, and equipment are key elements of our construction program. We have two full-time communications engineers who manage all aspects of our plan to wire the entire base and all new facilities with fiber optic and copper. With 264 facilities to handle, they don't relax much.

But, for this slice of the Methodology Pie, communications means the ways we communicate with each other to achieve management objectives. Our measure for communications capability and maturity is based on getting the right word to the right place at the right time. This is perhaps the hardest area for us to assess in terms of capability and maturity. There are literally thousands of players in our program, all trying to communicate. We have American and British English speakers, Italians, NATO international staff members from four or five countries, U.S. Air Force, Army and Navy personnel (we speak different languages a lot of the time), military and civilians, techies and non-techies, políticos and non-politicos, engineers and architects. All must communicate.

Our approach to this complex area has been both technological and human. We give our people the best possible tools to communicate and teach them how. On the human side, by communicating our principles, methodology, vision, process, and procedures we get everyone moving in the same direction. With a common understanding of the objectives and language we use, it all becomes easier.

Do we have it right? How can one ever really be sure it's done right?

Communications may be the hardest area to assess, but we're taking it on. We recently surveyed our team members using the Construction Industry Institute's “Communications Project Assessment Tool (COMPASS)” to assess our status. COMPASS provides an assessment of overall communications effectiveness and six category scores (accuracy, timeliness, completeness, understanding, barriers, and procedures) to assist in identifying communications problems.

Our approach was to baseline our program, now that we've been at it for almost two years, and then methodically work on weak areas. The tool allows for reassessment at any time. Despite all our efforts in this area during start up, the results showed we still have lots of work to do. We plan to implement some fixes through focused training and dialogue on a few of the weak areas and then reassess them later in the year. One could make this a lifetime of work, but we don't have the time, so we are going to use it as our tool for continuous improvement.

Our capability in this area is improving, as is our maturity. We'll keep working it.


Our approach regarding tools is simple. They must work for us. We will not become slaves to them. Every tool has been tailored for the PMO task. This has cost us some money, but it has not been excessive when we balance our expenditures against bringing a runaway program under control.

We hired a project-scheduling consultant to build our Project Management Information System. He became part of the team. Program scheduling is Microsoft Project. (The U.S. Navy, acting as construction manager, uses Primavera.) We have a database, project information system, and web page as part of our system. Public Affairs is a big part of our effort and we use an intranet web page to spread the word on our program. The PMIS has vastly improved all aspects of our work. Preparation for program reviews, issues, and actions tracking has been simplified, and PDT work has become much easier because of rapid document retrieval.

Our tools are being used and because of that our capability and maturity get better every day.

Progress Assessment

From our exploration of the basic elements of our approach we can provide a status of our current capabilities and maturity:


• The customer is our focus

• All resources are in place and in use

• New processes and procedures have been implemented and used

• Teams have been trained in the PM methodology, principles, and tools and use them

• Professional development is working well

• Success indicators are in place, up and running, part of the methodology and tracked

• Quality is a fundamental part of our methodology, process, and assessment

• The customer is involved at every step

• Change is under control.


• Risk management assessment and training are weak

• Communications processes and procedures still need work

• We have not systematically addressed PMBOK® Guide areas of integration and procurement

• Cost management needs more attention, e.g., Earned Value has not been assessed.

Overall Assessment

We are in good shape. Our capabilities improve every day and our projects and program are maturing. We are seeing more and more on-time, on-track projects. Customers are pleased with what they are seeing in designs and construction. They feel more involved in the process and in the eventual outcome. Things are looking up. We're achieving success.

Final Thoughts on Our Ideas About Methodology ↔ Capabilities ↔ Maturity ↔ Success

Our program management approach was developed in house. Except for hiring consultants for the PMIS and project management training, we pretty much built our methodology by applying the PMBOK® Guide and other commercially available guidance. We burned a lot of midnight oil trying to grasp all of it.

Ours was a task of piecing together the elements of project management, extrapolating the right elements, applying them to our circumstances, and tailoring tools and resources for our situation. There has been a great deal of trial and error and frequent worries that perhaps it's not exactly the way the PMI Grand Masters would have done it. So be it, it's our program and our way of doing it.

But, as with any endeavor, one likes to know how the results stack up. Recently, to get a sense of whether our approach is right, we looked for something to compare it with. We found the preliminary work of PMI's Organizational Project Management Maturity Model (OPM3) project team to be most interesting. At a PMI ‘98 Standards Program open working session, a focus group identified “Capabilities Areas” for organizational project management.

The listing is most compelling as a tool to compare our progress. The focus group identified five major areas: Project Management Methodologies and Processes, Human Resource Factors, Organizational Support Structure for Projects, Alignment of Projects to Business Strategy, and Organizational Learning and 38 subareas for consideration as it posed the question, “How does your organization measure up?” The Aviano 2000 PMO team is very pleased to report our PM Methodology, Pentagon of Success, and Continuum model meet the test. We have addressed and are making great progress on all five major capability areas and 32 of the 38 subareas. The six other subareas are in work.

This makes us very proud. We were handed a tough task and a very tough timeline. Our program management approach was conceived on the run. There wasn't much time for contemplation or preparation. It was tailored project management all the way.

The results show we are on the right track and the right train— and, thank God, it's slowing down…

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Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
November 1–10, 2001 • Nashville, Tenn., USA



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