Find the time
BY NATALIE BAUER
Do more with less—less time, fewer people, less funding.
Many project managers find that scheduling software alleviates constrained resources, enabling teams to cut corners and save precious time. More than glorified calendars, the latest generations of scheduling software offer much more than jumpstart solutions. From project team members up to the executive suite, scheduling tools provide valuable insight into an organization's strategic position: Project managers can more efficiently utilize their resources, while CEOs are able to recognize how projects align with corporate objectives.
“Everyone involved in the project should use or observe the evolution of a project through the features of scheduling software to keep all the resources aware of any eventual problem,” says José Eduardo Caamaño Justo, PMP, project management consultant for Grupo Consultores Associados, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “Nowadays we can find great scheduling software able to manage time, cost and resources. The management and control of these three elements assures quality expected by the client.”
[Scheduling software] allows the CEO of the company to see … resource utilization. … It gives a perfect picture for planning purposes.
“It's really maximizing a company's resource utilization,” says Stephen Fulker-son, a process architect with PlanView, Austin, Texas, USA. “It allows the CEO of the company to see what resource utilization is in their company. It gives a perfect picture for planning purposes.”
See Clearly Now
At its core, the tool provides greater access to information, across both bureaucratic and geographic boundaries. A CEO in one corner of the world can view the same data at the moment as a project team member on the other side of the world. The tool provides a more holistic view of a company's project portfolio, illuminating relationships among tasks and making for better organizational awareness, so projects aren't duplicated. “I‘ve found that when people see the entire picture, they tend to be more committed to their own particular tasks,” says Maciej Kaniewski, PMP, partner with EOS Sp.j. in Warsaw, Poland.
The tool's visual element also helps bridge gaps in expectations and serves as an effective negotiating tool among project members and clients. “In an organization, typically you do have a limited set of resources, and of course, every project manager's project is important, so how do you handle resource conflicts?” asks Rob DeVenuto, a project management consultant with Sciforma Corp., Los Gatos, Calif., USA. He says executives can use the scheduling tool as a sort of “resource judicial system” to make those decisions on a project's fate.
In turn, project managers can use the system to argue their project's merits. Managers can track projects to qualify lessons learned and show a process of continual improvement. “They now have a mechanism that is documenting from the project schedule to the actual work being performed,” Fulkerson says. “From a manager's standpoint, whether they're using earned value or just standard reporting mechanisms, they have a way to report back to management with their successes, and they have a way to justify their claims.”
And in the common case that a project gets off track, the tool enables a manager to jump back on the critical path, if a schedule uses robust and current data, says John M. Nevison, a founding principal and president of Oak Associates Inc., Maynard, Mass., USA. Nevison calls this the “quick redraw,” when a project manager finds “that all of a sudden he's [in trouble].” Using the scheduling tool to remap the plan of action can save a lot of time and a lot of lost sleep, he says.
Trust, and They Will Follow
If a project manager doesn't have a firm grasp on project management theory, problems with the tool are likely to arise. “Software for green project managers will not enable them to automatically do a good job managing projects,” says Robert A. Edwards, technical vice president for Welcom, Houston, Texas, USA. “A common misconception is that the tool is the answer, but really it's the people. The tool is an enabler.”
Keeping things simple involves limiting tasks to short sprints of time and limiting the number of individual activities listed.
“Software will not substitute for experience and good practice. You might have excellent software, but if you have a poor planning methodology and quality of planning, the project will not meet completion dates,” says Pedro Contreras, a planning and reporting supervisor for the production projects management department of SINCOR, which has headquarters in Caracas, Venezuela. “A good management team will be successful with a less complex and less expensive software, but a bad management team will not succeed even with the most specialized software.”
In addition, the tool is less likely to deliver benefits if the proper processes and executive support are not in place prior to implementation. The organization as a whole must develop, standardize and broadcast the planning and management methodologies, and executives must encourage universal buy-in with proper funding, training and staffing of the software's implementation.
Enter the Matrix
With the proper procedures in place, a business needs assessment will help clarify which scheduling software product is the right match. Managers and executives alike should confer and identify the internal and external needs for a scheduling system. Before shopping around, a company must clearly articulate what it's trying to solve in acquiring the tool, even if that means hiring outside help to identify needs. Welcom's Edwards says clients often approach its sales force with “questions that are so nebulous that every vendor can respond to. That's not going to help anyone out in the long run,” he says. “Customers really need to be clear about what they want and what they need.”
Today's basic systems include a centralized database and offer multiproject perspectives. With this range of available data and analyses, the organization must identify levels of information to be available along the company ladder. Murphy outlines three information stages to consider: project, department and enterprise. The degree of detail should accord with each stage, with the most detail available for project administrators and more “big picture” information at the enterprise level.
ONE STEP AT A TIME
In the late 1990s, Bell Helicopter Textron Inc., a Fort Worth, Texas, USA-based manufacturer of commercial and military helicopters, wanted to formalize its management processes and update its software applications to optimize each program's performance.
Up until that time, Bell was using “rudimentary tools,” according to John Daniel, director of IT Plans and Controls. “Everyone had their own approach, using Microsoft Project, PowerPoint presentations, and we had our own homegrown software management tool designated to handle the deployment of software.”
By 1999, the organization had successfully created a formal program management office, complete with a state-of-the-art scheduling application, to define and implement standard processes across the enterprise. “The tool gave us all the things we wanted with traditional project management—scheduling, costing, all in one application.”
Unfortunately, the tool's users didn't give Bell's management all the things it wanted, too. With training as an in-house affair, a few members of the IT department received their training certifications, some used customized Web-based training courses, but others did not take to the tool so swiftly. “The implementation process was not well received,” Daniel says. “We focused on the tool being in place before the processes were in place, and so a lot of folks did not make the transition from their own way of doing project management into the centralized tool.”
Taking a step back, Daniel set up weekly user group meetings. Every Wednesday morning for 45 minutes, users shared information about the tool and discussed related concepts of project management. The discussion groups have been so successful, Daniel continues to conduct them—a testament to the continual learning process required to maintain cutting-edge program management performance.
“Where people tend to struggle is with concepts they've not understood in the past,” Daniel says. “So I want to make sure they understand the concepts before I show them how to do it [using the tool]. I separate the [comprehension] of the processes and the concepts from the tool itself. They really find that to be more effective.”
Now Bell uses the software to produce internal and external metrics, which Daniel says are useful in presentations both to management and potential clients. With formalized processes, the tool also enables Bell to evaluate resource utilization on individual projects and across the enterprise.
“We've seen that we have a better view of our performance from a project standpoint,” Daniel says. “And we can see our performance across all projects, so we can make better decisions about when projects are going to be finished.”
Ultimately, the scheduling tool should mirror the way the organization does business. Purchasers should take into consideration the type, size and complexity of projects, and they should ensure enough flexibility is built into the system for customization purposes. Contreras suggests conducting a survey of scheduling and reporting needs to gather as much information as possible and performing a formal evaluation of each model in the running. When Contreras, as supervisor of a new department, was looking to purchase new scheduling software, his team prepared an evaluation matrix that contained several “expected” features that were weighted accordingly, allowing the Technical Division at SINCOR to see clearly which product would best fit within the organization.
Just as important as the product's specifications, a tool's support services should be evaluated. Although most vendors say users can learn how to work the system on the fly, companies can benefit from formal training and consulting to grasp the product's full capacity early on. Richard Faris, president of Primavera Systems, Bala Cynwyd, Pa., USA, recommends examining a vendor's implementation template to check for quality front-to-back service. Primavera, for example, begins by conducting a readiness assessment, looking at available resources, organizational culture and reporting requirements. Design is followed by a prototype presentation and a pilot test, and if successful, the product roll out and finally a results assessment. “If you want to be successful, you need to make sure the implementation is done right,” Faris says. “If you kind of go through a ‘big bang’ roll out, the chances of failure are high.”
Once the implementation is complete, organizations must start simple. Depending on a project's complexity, users should avoid going into too much detail in the schedule. Edwards says it's better to walk first and then run. “Newer organizations start with a fairly typical schedule tend to have more success,” he says. “If not, they've not been able to understand what they've got to manage, and they end up blaming the tool.”
Keeping things simple involves limiting tasks to short sprints of time and limiting the number of individual activities listed. Organizations new to scheduling software, should avoid using resource-loaded schedules and software that integrates risk management until they've mastered the basics, Edwards says. “Otherwise, you get too bogged down, with too many pages for the reports, and you can't see the big picture.”
I‘ve found that when people see the entire picture, they tend to be more committed to their own particular tasks.
MACIEJ KANIEWSKI, PMP,
Adding to the big picture, users must maintain the application's integrity, with constant updates throughout a project's life cycle, to ensure the most accurate data informs your decisions. “If the data is not kept up-to-date, people will be making erroneous decisions,” DeVenuto says. “You have to treat your system like an animal—with proper feeding and care, it will live for a long time. The more you feed it, the more information you can get out of it.”
As a project manger's job becomes more difficult due to constrained resources, and as executives try to fend off a greater pool of competitors, the scheduling software industry continues to look for ways to improve its tools and play better into the organization as a whole. In general, project managers predict the degree of integration and collaboration will climb in the next few generations of these tools. With popular Web-based interfaces flooding the market, team members can report in real-time, and access to information increases.
DeVenuto also says these interfaces will simplify deployment and maintenance for the IT department, and the overall convenience of the application will grow. “With the Web, you'll have collaboration at your fingertips.” Faris sees software being more widely used in the future. Users will be able to create even more complex role-based schedules, allowing them to drill down into different roles of a project depending on where they sit on the bureaucratic ladder.
Murphy predicts the glut of tools currently available on the market eventually will converge into a few basic applications. “You're going to see that things will come together because the fundamental principals are all the same, even the algorithms are essentially all the same,” he says. “It's really a matter of orienting the system, the user interface, depending on their responsibilities. [Users] just want to see the same type of data presented to them in a format they understand.”PM
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PM NETWORK | SEPTEMBER 2003 | www.pmi.org