Project Management Institute

Using project management governance to clear the logjam

Abstract

With continually limited resources, organizations are expected to maintain operations while actively engaging in new projects. The struggle to balance maintenance, support, and project work can create an ever-growing backlog of work that can significantly affect the functional and customer service aspects of the organization. This paper will focus on a six-step process that can help an organization find and address its pivot points for backlogged work, prevent future backlogging, and improve the performance of projects.

The analogy of logjams frequently experienced in the logging industry during the late 19th and early 20th centuries will be used as a backdrop for the topic of the paper. The paper will define a six-step process to recognize and address backlogged work, freeing the organization to complete project work. The paper suggests that each organization identify and implement a project governance model that best fits the organization. An outline of the project governance model instituted at the author's organization is provided in the appendix. Finally, the paper concludes with three basic tips to aid organizations in improving project performance.

Introduction

A frustration that organizations encounter revolves around competing demands for resources from operational and project-based work. The battle cry that is most often heard is “I don't have enough_______(fill in your favorite resource) to complete this project.” For many non-project oriented organizations this is a daily struggle. Both operational and project work is essential for organizational success, yet battles rage on as organizations try to determine which type of work wins out for the limited resources each needs. The constant determination of who wins these battles stifles progress and leads to continued organizational strife.

Controlling this inner turmoil can be accomplished by taking specific steps to determine and address the underlying causes of the limited resources. It is easier to tackle our problems when viewed from a different viewpoint. To accomplish this, the logging industry at the turn of the 20th century will be used as an analogy to compare and develop ideas to help modern day project management address these issues.

Comparing Log Driving with Your Organization

Managing operational work and project work has many similarities to log driving from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Log driving is a means of log transport, which makes use of a river's current to move floating tree trunks downstream to sawmills and pulp mills. Log driving was the “main transportation method of the early logging industry in Europe and North America.” (Log Driving, 2004) When the first sawmills were established, they usually were small and were established at temporary facilities near the source of timber. Later, as the timber supply was exhausted, the mill was relocated to a new area. As time progressed, bigger mills were developed that were not as portable. These mills were usually established in the lower reaches of a river with the logs floated downriver by log drivers.

“Log drives were often in conflict with navigation, as logs would sometimes fill the entire river and make boat travel dangerous or impossible.” (Log Driving, 2004) On small tributaries, logs could only be driven during the spring flood, when thousands of logs, cut during the winter months, were sent downriver.

There are many similarities between the components and objectives of log driving and operational and project work within an organization. Organizations need to have an avenue much like a river, to move operational work, projects, products and services out to the organization and its customers. Many times the management of these activities, or lack thereof, causes inefficiencies or “logjams” that prevent organizations from performing at peak levels. As such, we can make the following analogies with log driving to organizations:

  • River = Organizational Infrastructure
  • Logs = Products/Services to be used/produced or Operational Work/Projects
  • Sawmill = End User/Service/Customers
  • Log Drivers = Executive Management/Leadership/PMO

Each of the corresponding components listed above is a critical piece to making the overall objectives of an organization and its parent organization achievable. The difficulty is managing the logs (e.g., operational work and project work) in such a way that a logjam does not occur or is quickly abated.

The Log Driver

A concern of using rivers to transport logs to the downstream sawmill was the dreaded logjam. Great amounts of raw material, time, and effort were wasted when these logjams occurred. “To ensure that logs drifted freely along the river, men called ‘log drivers’…were needed to guide the logs.” (Log Driving, 2004) This was an exceedingly dangerous occupation, with the drivers standing on the moving logs and running from one to another. When one caught on an obstacle and began forming a logjam, someone had to free the offending log. For the log driver, this “required some understanding of physics, strong muscles, and extreme agility.” (Log Driving, 2004) Many log drivers lost their lives in this dangerous occupation.

While the role of an executive may not be life or death from day to day (depending upon the organization of course), executives similarly need to have some basic understandings to keep their own river free and clear of logjams:

Understanding Operational versus Project Work

For many organizations, the competition between keeping the lights on and embarking on new products and services is a fine line that must be managed carefully. The nature of limited resources creates an environment of competition between these two types of work. For organizations with limited resources, a backlog in one area (e.g., delays in operational work) creates a backlog in another (e.g., project work) with the continuing backlog growing into a full-blown logjam.

It is essential that executives have a clear understanding of the relationship between both types of work and how the resources of the organization are affected when workloads in one area affect the availability of resources in the other. Failure by executive management to acknowledge and address this competition for resources may lead to resource hogging and begin the formation of a logjam.

Strong Leadership

Executive management teams having strong leadership skills is a must for organizations to keep moving forward and preventing backlogged work from turning into full-blown logjams. The leadership that is required is not of the “rah-rah” variety but an engaged leadership that understands the functional relationships within the organization and can make timely decisions that keep work and resources focused on the right tasks.

Extreme Agility

The rapid flow of information and occurrences of opportunities and threats requires that executive management be able to adapt to changes quickly. This requires that the right information is provided at the right time and that decisions can be made and disseminated quickly. Much as the log driver has to move quickly to keep a logjam from occurring, the management has to be agile enough to move quickly within its organization to prevent backlogs from occurring.

You May Have a Logjam if …

One of the first questions that must be addressed is: “Do I have a logjam?” There are several areas that can be examined in an organization to determine if there is a backlog of work that has caused or is about to cause a logjam. Listed below are several signs that indicate a logjam exists or a logjam is very close to occurring.

Projects That Never Seem to End

Unfortunately, most project managers have experienced projects that never seem to end. The project is not well defined, the project owner continually changes the scope and deliverables of the project, or the project owner is never fully satisfied with the deliverables of the project. Regardless of what we as project managers attempt to do, there simply seems to be no way of getting the project to an end. Failing to bring projects to a proper and timely end leads to resources being tied up too long and a delay for other work being completed. Failure to end a project leads to backlogged work and eventually a logjam.

Routine/Maintenance Work That Cannot be Completed

One of the biggest issues organizations face is the competition between urgent and important work. Usually, urgent work is continually usurping important work in the competition for resources. While this means that the “fires” at work get completed or addressed, it also means the underlying infrastructure goes neglected. This is especially true as it relates to routine/maintenance work. The importance of keeping maintenance work up-to-date is understood very well; however, oftentimes it is neglected due to urgent work, whether operational or project related. Realizing that routine/maintenance work is not being completed is a sign of hidden backlogged work that could lead to a logjam.

Confusion about who is Working on Each Project

Communication is so important on project work (and operational work) that it absorbs the most time for project managers. If an understanding of who, what, and when is not communicated to project participants, projects become bogged down with starts and stops due to improper handoffs. Misunderstanding about what is to be produced, when it is to be provided, and to whom it is to be provided lead to wasted time, effort, and resources. If projects within the organization are suffering from a lack of knowledge of who's working on a project and what the responsibility of each person is on a project, then the organization is in jeopardy of starting a logjam.

Putting off Project Work Because of Delays in Other Projects

Putting off project work because of delays in other projects typically is a result of issues from the three previous areas mentioned above. There is a significant project that needs to be completed and for all practical purposes is ready to start; however, the resources are not available due to other projects being delayed or tying up resources that are needed for this project. Subsequently, more important projects are delayed, thus causing a perpetual backlog.

Not Enough Resources to Complete Work

It can be argued that no organization has enough resources – financial, human, time, or raw material – to complete all the work it has. However, in many cases, the issue actually does not involve having limited resources, but in the case of human resources, the resources are working on the wrong projects (or operational work) or are bogged down in project work. If an organization is continually stating that it doesn't have enough human resources to complete project work, the underlying issue may be time/schedule management. It will take an assessment to determine, but many times backlogs are occurring simply because individuals cannot or do not manage their time well or projects are not planned properly to efficiently manage the resources.

Projects Getting Dropped or Forgotten

It is not unusual for new project expectations to be made continually upon an organization. An example of this may include an IT group that continually receives new project requests from the functional operations of the organization. Due to this high demand for project work, organizations with low project management maturity may lose sight of these project requests. Whether it is how project requests enter the organization or how they are vetted and approved (if at all), some projects simply get dropped. The net effect of this is poor customer service and negative customer feedback. If these types of events are occurring in the organization, there is probably a hidden logjam occurring.

Squeaky Wheel Syndrome

Are project work and resource assignments based on who screams the loudest or who represents the biggest burden on the organization's plate? If that is the case, then the organization is suffering from the “Squeaky Wheel Syndrome.” While the work of those making the most noise (and possibly the most important people) gets done, all the other work (e.g., pre-existing projects, routine/maintenance work, etc.) is delayed at best and possibly ignored. Allowing project or operation work to insert itself within the stream of existing work without a proper method of addressing the effect of the insertion leads to backlogged work, inefficient use of resources, and customer service issues for those projects that are bumped due to the inserted project.

Accepting Project Work without Knowing the Impact

One of the issues that face rapidly growing organizations is the need to take on more and more project work to keep up with internal or external demands on the organization. Failure on the part of management to assess the impact of a project on the organization's existing resources and commitments leads to a piling on of work that may or may not be of importance to the organization. It leads to more logs in the river, some of which don't need to be there. If projects are being added to the list of existing work without considering the impact, then a logjam is almost inevitable.

Treating the Logjam

The first step for any remediation plan is to recognize that a problem exists. The list identified in the previous section is intended as a way of determining if the organization is partaking in activities that actually foster an environment of backlogged work that leads to a logjam. As such, it is not enough to simply know that there is a problem. An assessment needs to be made to determine the severity of the backlog and to determine what issues have led to its creation. An organization cannot overcome the occurrence of backlogged work without understanding how the backlog began.

Reviewing the causes of the backlog allows management and the organization as a whole to discover what activities are leading the continuance of the logjam and then make the necessary changes to shut off the inflow of additional logs to the logjam. With this understanding in hand and the inflow controlled, the organization is now ready to address the existing backlog.

Addressing the Backlog

There is a six-step process that we have used to address backlogged work in our organization. The process is intended to ensure that all work, whether operational or project, is identified and placed before executive management in order to provide a broad view of the situation and to make appropriate decisions to address the backlogged work.

These steps include:

  • Create a Master Activity List (MAL)
  • Review MAL for Critical Work
  • Identify Pivot Points
  • Assign Resources to Clear Pivot Points
  • Prioritize or Kill all other Activities
  • Finalize the Master Project List (MPL)

Create a Master Activity List (MAL)

One of the first issues that must be addressed is a clear and complete picture of all the work that is currently “in the stream.” This includes operational work as well as project work. It is essential that all non-routine activities be captured in this first step of creating a Master Activity List (MAL). When capturing these activities, the owner and individual(s) responsible for execution of the activity need to be collected. Along with this information, the MAL will capture the following information:

• ID A reference number to identify the work other than by name
• Activity Title The title of the work/project to be completed
• Activity Lead The individual who is responsible for seeing that the work is completed
• Activity Owner The internal individual who authorized the work to be completed
• Purpose The intended outcome of the work
• Deliverables Tangible outcomes of the completed work
• Tier An assigned Priority Level for completing the work
• Customer The first line of contact on behalf of the customer
• Customer Sponsor The individual from the customer who is ultimately responsible for completion of the activity and/or project
• Project Team For projects, those assigned to the project team for completing the work
• PMO Role If a PMO is present, what is the role of the PMO?
• Duration The expected amount of time estimated to complete the activity
• Start Date Actual or planned start date for activity
• End Date Planned end date for activity
• Start Month Actual or planned start month for activity
• End Month Planned end month for activity
• Activity Type Used to classify the type of activity (maintenance, new service, repair, etc.)
• Impact What impact will this activity have on the organization
• Visibility How visible is this activity to the organization
• Status What is the current status of the activity (Not Started, Started, Delayed, etc.)?
• Notes Additional notes for the activity project

Additional fields of information can be collected depending upon the needs of the organization. At this point in the process it is important to include all non-routine work. This first step gives a high level snapshot of the work that the organization is facing. The following steps will assist in culling out activities that don't need to be on the list.

Review MAL for Critical Work

With the MAL completed, it is now time to begin sifting through the activities to determine critical work for the organization. Critical work can be defined as any activity that has a high priority for the organization or that is required by statute or compliancy requirements to be completed. These activities will be identified by assigning a higher priority rating to them.

It is the responsibility of management to review all activities to determine the priority of the activities on the MAL. The method that management uses to determine priorities is an organizational decision; however, it is important that the information that is collected is accurate and complete.

For our organization, we used a four-tier rating system to prioritize activities:

Tier 1 High Priority work
Tier 2 Medium Priority work
Tier 3 Low Priority work
Tier 4 Unassigned Priority

Any method an organization chooses to prioritize work is suitable provided that the priority rating can be used consistently and it appropriately divides activities into manageable sizes. For instance, a priority ranking system that assigns all activities as high priority has not achieved the desired outcome of identifying critical work to be addressed. The priority system must create manageable groups of activities that can then be addressed appropriately.

The goal in this step is to identify all the high priority work that is on the MAL. A cursory prioritization can be given for all the activities on the MAL; however, a more thorough assessment of the medium to lower priority activities will be given during the Prioritize or Kill all Other Activities step below.

Identify Pivot Points

With the high priority items on the MAL properly identified, it is not enough to simply dig into the high priority activities. Returning to our logjam analogy, the log driver must find the offending logs that have caused the logjam and free these logs. By doing so, it frees up the other logs to flow down the river once again. Similarly, the MAL must be reviewed for pivot point activities.

Pivot point activities are those activities that once completed will open up the flow for other activities. In project management terminology, pivot point activities are those activities that serve as dependencies for multiple other activities or projects. For example, the consolidation of multiple Windows domains to a single domain may be the pivot point project that allows other projects such as single point-of-authorization, outsourcing email, and identity management implementations to occur. Pivot point activities do not have to be project work. They can be operational work or maintenance work that needs to be completed in order for other project work to proceed. Once the pivot point activities are identified, they are evaluated to determine their impact on other activities. The dependencies with the greatest impact are the pivot points that will be addressed immediately and automatically become high priority activities.

Assign Resources to Clear Pivot Points

With the pivot point activities identified, it is the responsibility of management to provide the appropriate resources, whether human, financial, time, or raw materials, to address the completion of these pivot point activities. This occurs through working with the activity leads, customer sponsors, and the project team (if a project) to identify what is necessary to clear the work associated with these activities. The amount of time that it takes to clear these activities is directly proportional to the duration of the ongoing backlogged work as well as the growth of the backlog. Therefore it is imperative that these activities are addressed fully and quickly to prevent the delay of other activities.

Another key point to assigning resources to pivot point activities is the communication aspect of the event. In particular, individuals who are working on other projects who are reassigned to these pivot point activities need to understand the significance of the work they are now being assigned. Concerns of project workers reassigned to these pivot point activities can be reduced by communicating the importance of the activities in freeing up resources to get other dependent projects moving again.

Not all work can come to a halt while addressing the pivot point activities. This is why it is important that the prioritization process that occurred in the Review for Critical Work step be an accurate representation of truly critical work. The high priority work will need to continue based on organizational decisions or requirements that the organization is under. Since this is true, the organization will be best served by applying itself toward the high priority work and the pivot point activities. The completion of these activities will lead to more available resources and less backlogged work in the future.

Prioritize or Kill all Other Activities

With a clear picture of the high priority and pivot point activities defined and actively being engaged, it is now time to do a more thorough assessment of the remaining activities on the MAL. In this process, the goal is to appropriately prioritize all other activities and whenever possible to kill any activities that are no longer needed, do not meet organizational objectives, or are simply no longer feasible for the organization to complete.

To complete this process, each activity should be moved into the appropriate priority group identified above. Once all activities are within the appropriate priority group, each activity is prioritized again within the priority group. Any activities that do not fit within a priority group are killed or cancelled. With all of the activities prioritized within a priority group, the results are communicated to customers, management, and staff. At this point, any negotiations for the final priority of an activity can be carried out with the result being a completed list of prioritized activities.

This process is equivalent to having a barge come into the river and remove the rocks, overhanging trees, and any other obstacles that lead to logjams. In our organization, once we completed this process we found that we moved from having over 100 activities/projects to less than 40. It made the overall work that needed to be completed much clearer and provided a clear path to the end of the logjam.

Finalize the Master Project List

The primary purpose of the MAL was to see the big picture of all the work that made up the logjam. At this point, the MAL has been prioritized, has had the pivot point activities identified and prioritized, and has had all the remaining work prioritized or removed. The remaining list represents the Master Project List (MPL) for the organization and is the basis for tracking all incoming and outgoing work for the organization.

The MPL should be published for affected stakeholders to see. This includes an internal distribution within the local organization and, depending upon the organizational structure, an external distribution of the MPL to other areas of the organization.

Depending upon an organization's project management maturity this list can be items in a spreadsheet, a database, or tracked in a Project Management Information System (PMIS). Regardless, the organization is now at a point where it has a clear understanding of the work to be completed and has a prioritized list to begin the work.

Managing Future Work

Having the Master Project List (MPL) completed only creates a snapshot in time for the project work for the organization. The accuracy and relevancy of the MPL can become dated very quickly without a formal method for managing the flow of project work into the organization. To prevent this from happening, there must be a formal approach for managing new work that comes into the organization. Since organizations deal with both operational and project work, it is essential that both are addressed.

The amount of operational work versus project work an organization has depends upon the industry of the organization. With that said, it is important for the organization to carve out resources and time to assign to both operational and project work that is in correlation with the amount of work the organization has in each of these areas. Failing to provide the right allocation of resources for this work will cause the organization to fall back into one of the several areas that led to the logjam in the first place.

Create a Method to Collect and Approve New Projects

Any new project that enters an organization will impact the organization's operations. Therefore it is important that the organization have a way of managing any new projects that enter the organization. These projects can come in the forms of:

  • New Projects
  • Scope-less Projects
  • Hidden Projects

Regardless of the type of project, all projects must be approved, prioritized, and added to the MPL for tracking purposes. Failing to do this opens up the opportunity for backlogged work to occur again outside of the tracking method selected (e.g., using the MPL). Once again, it is through this process that projects which are no longer needed, not viable, or out of line with organizational goals and objectives are killed before they have the opportunity to take up too much time, effort, and resources.

A Project Governance Model

Organizations that deal with the struggle of managing operational and project work need a mechanism to manage the flow of projects into and out of the organization. This is accomplished through the creation of a project governance model. There are several benefits to creating a project governance model, which include but are not limited to:

  • Creating a well-defined and understood method for project selection and approval
  • Providing visibility of upcoming, existing, and completed projects
  • Moving authority of project decisions to higher levels of the organization
  • Leading to more mature project management methodologies within the organization

There are many different designs for project governance models for an organization to use. For the purpose of this paper, the primary issue is that a project governance model is selected and applied to the organization. The detail of the governance model implemented is dependent upon the organization itself. In other words, the organization needs to identify a best fit for the organization. Also, it should be noted that the project governance model defined should be fluid enough to adapt to changes in a short manner.

For our organization, we developed what we call the Project Approval and Tracking (PAT) process to manage the flow of projects into and out of our organization. Appendix A provides an illustration of the PAT process. A more detailed discussion of the governance model will be provided in the live presentation.

Improving Project Work

For organizations that are relatively immature in project management methodologies, lack a Project Management Office (PMO), or don't use a formalized PMIS, using some of the following methods can help improve the performance of project work for the organization and help keep project work from leading to backlogged work.

Develop Weekly Activity Sheets

One of the key areas that leads to backlogged work and ultimately logjams is the lack of understanding of what needs to be done, by whom, and when. A simple tool to overcome this one area is the weekly activity sheet. On this sheet, the activities that are scheduled to be completed are listed, assigned to individuals, and provide an anticipated completion date/time. This activity sheet can be as simple as an Excel spreadsheet, a task list from Microsoft Project, or any other report from a PMIS system.

The point to this activity is that everyone who is involved with both operational and project work can see what is expected from all other parties involved with the work. It is important as well that individuals, both those assigned to tasks and those who oversee the workers, are held accountable in the completion of these tasks. If there are obstacles that prevent work from being completed, the activity sheets will highlight these and bring them to light in order that they can be resolved and the tasks can be completed.

Provide Project Time for Project Team Members

Another obstacle that prevents tasks, activities, or other work from being completed is the lack of dedicated time to complete assigned tasks. It is important that resource managers and project managers understand the workload that is assigned to individual resources and that through negotiation and planning, appropriate time is set aside to complete both operational and project work. Managers failing to plan for and dedicate worker's time to both types of work lead to delays, frustrated team members, and ultimately more backlogged work.

Use Status Reports versus Status Meetings

Another often misused tool is the status meeting – a meeting where information on the status of tasks is gathered from all the individuals involved with the work. While there are appropriate times for status meetings, in general status meetings can be a tremendous waste of time and take away from the available amount of time to actually complete the tasks assigned to an individual.

Rather than using status meetings, weekly status reports can be used instead. The status report is used in conjunction with the Weekly Activity Sheets. In general, activities listed on the Weekly Activity Sheet should not take more than 1 to 2 weeks to complete. Doing this allows for the use of 0%, 50%, and 100% status reports. For the worker, any task will be at one of these three levels of completion:

0% The task has not been started
50% The task has been started but not completed
100% The task has been completed

Using this method allows the managers of projects to see where tasks are and to have an understanding of when tasks will be completed. The 0% and 100% status reporting shows the not started and completed tasks. Since each task has a maximum duration of 2 weeks, any task with a 50% status implies that it will be completed by the next week.

This simple method makes it easy for both the workers and the manager to quickly and accurately report the status of any tasks. This leaves the purpose of project meetings to address risk management and any particular obstacles that require additional effort to overcome.

Summary

While many organizations may feel as though they are mired in logjams, there is hope. Working through the logjam and getting an organization's work free-flowing again is only a process and some determination away. As the leadership of an organization understands the effects of backlogged work and the benefits of controlling the flow of work into and out of the organization, progress can be made to attack the logjam and ultimately create an environment that is more efficient in the uses and availability of its resources for operational and project work.

Through understanding the qualities of organizational log drivers (e.g. leadership, project managers, etc.), how to determine if a logjam is present, and how to attack the logjam, an organization can prepare itself to clear the river for its operational and project work. Having cleared the logjam, the organization must manage the flow of new logs (e.g., project work) into the river. Managing the flow is accomplished through instituting a model for project governance that fits the organization. Finally, keeping project activities moving forward can be aided by following basic project management tips, which include using weekly activity sheets, allocating project time for project team members, and using status reports rather than status meetings.

Given these processes and tips an organization can enjoy smooth floating down the river.

References

Log driving. (2004). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Log_driving

Appendix A

Project Approval and Tracking (PAT) Process

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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2012, Dale K. Driver
Originally published as part of the 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Vancouver, British Columbia

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