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 Effective Engineering e-Newsletter – 7/22/2004

This is your bi-weekly e-Newsletter from Effective Engineering Consulting Services (www.effectiveeng.com).  If you would like to receive Effective Engineering e-newsletters as they are published, please send an email to e-newsletter@effectiveeng.com, and we will add you to our distribution list.  Comments and suggestions are welcome and encouraged!


Project Management: What Gets Measured Gets Done! 
By Tom Dennis – President, Effective Engineering [tdennis@effectiveeng.com]

Effective Project Management is essential to effective engineering.  As described in our first e-Newsletter (see eN-021107 – Ineffective Engineering Costs You Time, Money & Customers!), delivery of projects on time, with high quality, and within budget is critical.  Of these three issues, timely delivery of projects generally has the biggest near-term financial impact on companies, in both revenues and expenses (see eN-021121 – Late Projects Kill Companies!).  Project Management is the process whereby projects are planned and tracked to help ensure timely delivery.

It is often said about many things in life, "What gets measured gets done!This is clearly true in managing projects.  If you don’t set schedules with sufficient meaningful milestones associated with those schedules, and then measure progress against achieving those milestones per the schedules, then you won’t really know where you are.  When you don’t know where you are, it’s very difficult to know whether you will get where you need to within the anticipated timeframe.  To deliver a project on time, you must set a schedule and then measure progress against that schedule.

Setting Schedules:  There are many ways of setting a schedule, some logical, some not.  

At one end of the spectrum is truly top-down schedule setting where someone, generally higher up in the organization, will simply state that this project must be complete on a specific date and that’s that.  This may be because that’s when a critical customer must have it, or when a critical trade show occurs, or just because this person likes this date.  Regardless, the project must be delivered by this date.  While this approach has the simplicity of knowing exactly when the project must be delivered, if often suffers from the reality that such a delivery may not really be achievable in that timeframe.

At the other end of the spectrum is bottom-up schedule setting where all of the detailed individual tasks and interdependencies associated with a project are laid out in detail and the schedule is built up from the ground up.  The resulting delivery date is not known until this bottom-up scheduling effort is complete.  While this ensures that all of the activities and complex interactions are included, it often results in delivery dates that are unacceptably long.

What generally happens in real life is something in between.  A target delivery date is identified and a rough scheduling effort is carried out with a few major milestones identified to see if this delivery date is likely to be achievable.  If so, then a more detailed scheduling effort is carried out, with more milestones identified and scheduled.  After a few top-down / bottom-up iterations, a schedule is determined that everyone involved agrees with and can live with.

Defining Milestones:  A schedule without meaningful milestones is really a wishing exercise, but wishing something to be true doesn’t make it true.  Milestones are needed to implement the concept, “To conquer, first divide”.  Milestones are needed to help divide the overall schedule timeframe into meaningful, measurable chunks.  The milestones must be meaningful, so that everyone agrees that achieving the milestone is really a mark of progress.  They should be measurable, so that you know when the milestone has really been achieved; you have to know that a milestone is really done.  The number of milestones should be enough so that progress can be verified at reasonable intervals, but not so many that there are too many milestones to effectively measure.  

Tracking Projects:  Once a schedule has been laid out with a planned delivery date and meaningful, measurable milestones, the project moves from the planning stage to the tracking stage.  You’ve planned what you want to do, and now you’ve got to ensure you can make it happen.

As with setting schedules, there are many ways of tracking projects, from ad-hoc informal tracking to formal tracking with formal reviews and approvals.  

With ad-hoc informal project tracking, you often get reports from people that, “we’re 90% done in meeting that milestone.  90% done is not a meaningful measure.  All too often, when a team is “90% done”, it really means they’ve got only 90% more to do to really finish.  A milestone is not achieved until it is completely done.  A project is not done until all milestones are done.  Once even one milestone schedule date is missed, it is unlikely that the project will be completed on time.  Actions can be attempted to get the project back on track, but the probability of success in doing so is not high.

For complex projects, a more formal approach is needed to ensure that the milestones are being achieved and the schedule is on track.   This means that careful attention must be paid to the project at all phases.  The project manager must ensure that all people involved are doing their jobs in a timely manner.  When problems arise (and they will), they must be identified early and addressed immediately.  Continuous attention must be paid to managing the project and seeing that everything that needs to come together does come together, and that all required interactions among various elements of the project occur on time and as planned.  

Since the project manager must stick his/her nose into everyone’s business, it can be a stressful job, but it is an essential one.  The more diligent and persistent the project manager is, the higher the likelihood that the project will be completed on time.  The key to effective Project Management is to identify the bottlenecks that are likely to cause problems in achieving the milestones, and to take actions to minimize or eliminate these bottlenecks.  These bottlenecks will identify the critical path for the project; that is the sets of tasks that, if delayed, will delay the entire project.  By concentrating on finding and eliminating the bottlenecks, the total effort may be reduced and the probability of success increased.  We’ll discuss this in more detail in a later e-Newsletter.

Phase-Gate Reviews:  One effective way of managing projects is to establish a formal Phase-Gate Review process.  This process calls for formal reviews at specific milestones, with proceed or stop decisions made at the phase-gate, and sign-off by all relevant parties.  This can be an effective Project Management approach.  It will be discussed in more detail in a later e-Newsletter.

Project Management
is a complex subject area; far more so than can be covered here.  More time will be spent in subsequent e-Newsletters to address a number of these areas.  Most important in this e-Newsletter is to ensure that constant monitoring and measuring of the project’s progress is done, so that everyone involved knows where the project stands.  By constantly measuring and taking appropriate action as required, the odds are much higher that the project will get done in a timely fashion.  Remember, what gets measured gets done!

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Effective Engineering Consulting Services, All Rights Reserved

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