Archive for June, 2008

Do’s and Don’ts of Project Scheduling

There was a nice article in the PMI Community post on the do’s and don’t’s of project scheduling:

http://www.pmi.org/eNews/Post/2008_05-09/WhatNotToDoWhenPrepProjectSchedule.html

Technically everything this article suggests is quite accurate for project scheduling. However, sometimes we seem to get stuck doing things too mechanically. My experience has been that the more tasks are scheduled as inter-dependant, the less hangers (as the writer calls it) you have in a project, the more likely you are to finish late and go over budget.

The book Critical Chain is an old favortie of mine that challenges this type of traditional mechanical project management techniques:

http://www.amazon.com/Critical-Chain-Eliyahu-M-Goldratt/dp/0566080389/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1214226091&sr=8-1

Contrary to the PMI article’s assertions, with regards to project scheduling, Goldratt’s stategy is to have as many hangers as possible. The idea is that any chain is as strong as its weakest link (i.e. the critical chain), so the less your tasks are dependant on each other, the more likely you are to allow people to work independantly and hit their targets; therefore the more likely it is for the project to finish on time.

Critical Chain is a highly recommended read whether you are a project manager or not. It opens your mind to a new way of thinking about defining and managing constraints.  In this book Goldratt applies "theory of constraints" to project management. I can write a more detailed summary of the concepts in this book; if you are interested, let me know.

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Want a Fix to the H-1B Mess? Look to Canada

In a previous post, I argued that the advertised drought in the American high-tech talent pool isn’t nearly as bad as what Microsoft and others claim it to be. I also said American companies ought to look first to small-town America before filing the paperwork to import foreign talent on worker visas.

Here’s another solution: Instead of debating an arbitrary number such as how many H-1B visa immigrants should be allowed into the country – who really knows whether the 65,000-person cap is too high or low? – instead of artificial caps of any kind, reward those companies that perform their research and development here in the United States.

Congress can introduce legislation that would give tax credits and other incentives to companies that choose to do the right thing by employing Americans to perform high-tech tasks that have recently gone to foreigners in India, China, Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

Canada has its collective head screwed on tightly concerning this issue. More on that shortly.

Governments should not be in the business of telling private companies who they should and should not be hiring. But they should be in the business of encouraging – even rewarding – responsible behavior. With an R&D tax credit program, it would be in a company’s best interest to look first at small, hard-hit towns in America. With such a system, free-market principles would be at work. If credits were compelling enough, those companies that choose to go overseas for talent would likely be the ones that really need it, as opposed to those just looking for cheap labor. And let’s face it, a big benefit of the H-1B visa system as well as off-shoring is cheap labor.

For years, Congress has debated the merits of liberalizing the worker visa system. Much of the debate has been centered around the H-1B program, which allows foreigners to temporarily work in the United States to fulfill mostly specialized, high-tech positions. The system is currently capped at 65,000 new visas per year, with an additional 20,000 for foreigners who have earned advanced degrees in the United States. Efforts to raise this cap have gone back and forth for years, with no clear outcome in sight.

In April, the Bush Administration extended the amount of time foreign nationals can work here on student visas from one year to 29 months. The move was in response to the increasing demand for foreign talent. Many students, some argued, didn’t get their chance to work here under H-1B status because of that demand.Now, that decision is being challenged by a number of groups including the American Engineering Association, the Immigration Reform Law Institute and The Programmers Guild. They argue that the administration overstepped its boundaries.

I think these arguments could be lessened substantially – even settled – if there is a real program aimed at both helping American workers and keeping American corporations competitive in the global marketplace.

Canada could be a fine example. The federal government of Canada and many of its provinces make remarkable efforts to keep R&D in the country. One such initiative is called the Scientific Research and Experimental Development program and it offers substantial federal and provincial tax credits for wages, materials, machinery, equipment and contracts. Here’s how it works:

A privately held Canadian-controlled corporation that performs qualified R&D in the country can earn a 35 percent tax credit up to the first $2 million of qualified expenditures and 20 percent for any excess amount. There are similar programs in certain provinces such as Quebec that provide additional tax credits. Qualified work includes experimental development, research and support work in areas such as bio-tech, pharmaceuticals, engineering, operations and computer software. This is a refundable tax credit, which means that even if your business makes no profit, you will get the appropriate refund back in cash.

To take advantage of these programs, hundreds, if not thousands, of multi-national corporations including Wyeth, Compuware, IBM have setup large R&D centers in Canada employing hundreds of thousands of Canadians. The huge positive economic impact of these programs on the prosperity of Canadians is quite visible everywhere you go. These are high paying local jobs for highly qualified resources that stay put and contribute to their own communities.

I don’t see any downside to having such a system, even a stronger one. Let’s eliminate the silly cap program. Let the free market reign.

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Our Project Management War Room

Technology isn’t the panacea for everything. It’s not even a panacea for all of our project management needs.

Recently, I was visiting a customer. As usual, I started by discussing with their VP of professional services how they use our software for cost tracking, billing and project management. But what he showed me next was truly an eye opener — he took me to his “War Room.”  A traditional conference room had been transformed into the “battle bridge.” Whiteboards covered every wall. A couple of flip charts were placed at each corner with all kinds of “action item,” diagrams, and notes scribbled on them. In the center part of the room, a projector was connected to a computer running Tenrox software, displaying reports of live project financial data. This was the only “hi-tech” aspect of the war room!

What I discovered from the war room is that we’ve become too enamored with technology. Even with the best software systems in place, managers and team members can’t get a bird’s eye view of everything that’s going on. And project contributors don’t fully comprehend the consequences when they are late with their deliverables.

A few weeks after the trip we built our own war rooms at Tenrox, one for the services team and one for R&D. We bought special whiteboard wallpaper and put all of our key projects on them. Best of all, we put the project owners on them too. All of the projects have color-coded indicators, with late projects getting red stickies. It turns out project owners don’t particularly like seeing yellow or red beside their names.

Team members meet here and go over project status. The key here is that the room is for high-level conversations. The boards, if you will, are the war plan. The projects on them are the individual battles. The live reports are like a general “drilling” to get more detail about a specific battle. Imagine one battle being lost — perhaps a project that’s late — and you can imagine the visual and mental context such an environment presents.

Now imagine all of these projects in an Excel spreadsheet, or in a software application, with ETAs being altered by changing a cell on the project manager’s monitor. Not the same impact, is it?
mgtcockpit_4

I recently ran across one company that has taken the war room to a whole new next level. The company, Belgium-based Cockpit Group, (http://www.cockpit-group.com/en/index.html) has organized an entire design business around its “Management Cockpit” concept.  This so-called cockpit, developed by neurologists, human intelligence scientists and computer engineers, “translates strategy into operational terms” through an ergonomic presentation with four walls of goal-oriented visuals.

The visuals are designed to meet the support needs of senior execs. During meetings, only the visuals needed for the particular projects on hand are presented. It’s kind of a targeted version of our war room.

In one corner of a cockpit is the “flight deck,” a six-screen computer that powers the entire room. On the screen are training and checklists that help a management team conduct more efficient meetings and to make decisions faster, the company says.

For one client, ice cream manufacturer Iglo-Ola, the flight deck — the black wall — depicts the main key performance indicators. On the red wall, there is information on the company’s market and customers. On the white wall are important projects. And on the blue, internal resources.

Certainly not every company needs such an elaborate system. Our low-tech war rooms have done wonders for our projects. The accountability, big-picture thinking and transparency this has created is simply incredible. Suddenly, our project managers, contributors and vice presidents (generals) seem to be better aligned and more in tune with where we stand on all of our key initiatives. I will report back to you in a few months with more feedback on how much the war room approach has impacted our project delivery.

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Avoiding Layoffs in Project-based Businesses

As the US teeters on the cusp of recession, news is everywhere about decreased employment and increased layoffs.

unemployment In each of the last four months, employment rates have declined. While not the best economic indicator month by month, these rates over half a year are nearly a perfect bellwether of the health of the economy. Whenever employment has declined steadily over six months, a recession has almost always been underway. I, for one, will be watching this metric closely. The next report is due June 6.

And while layoffs don’t equal 2001 levels, they are something to watch. From telecom equipment maker Avaya to the city of Atlanta, news of major downsizing is increasing.

It doesn’t take an economist to realize that layoffs can have ripple effects in the marketplace and local communities. And it certainly doesn’t take a psychologist to imagine how layoffs can damage employee morale and customer perception.

So what’s the best way to avoid layoffs?

How about not over-hiring in the first place? The truth is, even though we are in a downturn, many of these layoffs don’t need to happen. The best way to avoid deciding how to cut loose one-third of your workforce is to employ a project workforce management philosophy. Instead of hiring carte-blanch during prosperous times, always hire as if you are living in lean times; leverage outsourcing and build teams for a period of time on a project by project basis. That’s the heart of the project workforce strategy. The project workforce — also called the “Hollywood Model” — was envisioned in the 1990s by author Tom Peters and is quite simply a highly-specialized group of professionals assembled on a need basis and called upon to execute specific projects.

Many types of companies can take advantage of a project workforce. In particular: software companies, IT service providers, professional service firms or any corporations that work on contracts. All it takes is solid relationships with and actionable data on a pool of internal and external talent you can tap into when required.

At Tenrox, I’m proud to say we have never had any major layoffs due to the adoption of this model.
With a project workforce, you can scale back some of your initiatives if the economy goes south or if cash flow becomes an issue. The resources you do not need, when they lose your business, have other projects to keep revenue coming in. They don’t lose their jobs. Plus, your full-time employees — you’ll have fewer of them — will often be more loyal since you can remain loyal to them and you can also invest in training them for the new challenges of a changing marketplace.

With the traditional model of business, created before the Internet and globalization, companies go through endless cycles of ups and downs and hires and fires. Employees have to learn new jobs when their colleagues are cut loose. Integration becomes a problem. Morale declines. And suddenly, your best employees — fearful of losing their jobs and bitter about increased workload — start looking elsewhere.

Not only are massive layoffs not employee friendly, they’re not customer friendly either. Responsibilities inevitably are not transitioned efficiently, a fact that can have a direct impact on current customers. Worse, news percolates that Company X just fired one-third of its workforce. How do you think a prospect perceives this? If you were presented two otherwise equal companies: Company X, which is cutting people left and right, and Company Y, which appears to have a stable workforce, which one would you go with?

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