May 14. 2012 9:00AM

On course: Identify tasks and analyze risks

Project Management

By Daniel Schroeder

  

Dan Schroeder offers suggestions for project management analysis and evaluation.

Question:


I manage a team of five supervisors. Meeting deadlines is a constant struggle. We operate within a project management environment and despite the tools at our disposal, we do a poor job managing our time as we carry out our work. Too often, we are caught by surprise. Can you offer some suggestions for helping us "tighten up our ship?"


Answer:


Over the years in our consulting practice, I've often joked that if we offered blocks of time to our clients, we would become wildly successful. In our 24-7 world, with its competing priorities and multiple deadlines, there just never seems to be enough time to go around. In this column, I'll offer some suggestions for how you can do a better job organizing a project up-front, so you can avoid surprises (that become time wasters).

The place to start is to break down the work. Documenting the work breakdown structure (WBS) is an important initial step in estimating time and resources required for a project. Indeed, it's been said that, "Running a project without a work breakdown structure is like going to a strange land without a roadmap." Within each task there are sub-tasks. It is important to plan any project timeline based on all tasks and sub-tasks. Doing so allows you to capture the scope of the work to be pursued.

There are a number of common pitfalls in estimating time needed for a project, including:


  • Insufficient information: No definition of the scope and quality of the project, the experience of the owner, and the environment in which the task takes place.
  • Lack of experience: Without experienced people to consult, you cannot accurately estimate the time it takes to do a job.
  • Overconfidence: While companies often reward people who are seen to have a can-do attitude, they look down upon those who appear pessimistic about their abilities.
  • Failure to recognize other factors: Other non-project related factors can affect the time required to carry out a task. Examples include external events like an office move or project member's workload in relation to other projects. Give special consideration to critical path tasks that could be affected by factors beyond your control. You can't control rain, but you can predict it might happen, so you'd better plan for it.
  • Lack of complete historical data: One's confidence with time estimates is reduced even further without historical data from which to crosscheck. Use actual time for similar tasks in other projects. Remember, estimates are based on historical data. Otherwise, they are guesses.


Once the project tasks have been identified and analyzed, you can now accurately identify the resources required for the project.

Determine what resources you have available. Think in terms of:


  • Project team members.
  • Vendors.
  • Project sponsors.
  • Subject matter experts.
  • Other departments.
  • Management.
  • Already existing process or structures.


List the tasks and sub-tasks involved, establish a due date, and assign it to a project team member if it goes beyond your scope of work as the project manager.

Every project has a "what if" list of things that could go wrong. Over time, there are certain problems that tend to recur when a project is carried out. Learning to anticipate these "known unknowns" is smart project management. Trying to identify the "unknown unknowns" and develop contingency plans is even smarter. The most effective project managers take the time to consider these risks and determine the action to take to avoid delaying the project.

Here are some suggestions along those lines:


  • Identify possible project risks: Identify all the aspects of the project that could go wrong. Resource-related issues warrant focused attention (i.e., money, technology) and personnel available can often vary. Schedule-related issues are also important. The slightest changes in schedule can affect the outcome.
  • Analyze the risks: Once you have identified the risk and its implications, you must assess the impact of the problem, if it occurs, consult historical information to determine the likelihood of the problem occurring, and explore possible preventive and/or corrective action.
  • Decide on a course of action: Accept the likelihood of this problem occurring is insufficient to warrant any action.


Manage for each risk by preparing a contingency plan to be implemented if the problem occurs by: determining how to recognize that the problem is occurring, assessing the options for action, choosing the option that takes into account the project priorities, designing a detailed contingency plan based on that option, and assigning a team member to implement the plan and monitor the situation.

In our experience, some common project problems and some suggested solutions include:


  • Loss/absences of team member: Plan backups for each critical team member. Analyze the skills you need and try to make sure at least two team members possess each skill.
  • Vendor delays in shipping supplies, material, or equipment: Always check references of the vendor. Plan alternate sources for critical items. Plan regular follow-up for tracking. Use incentive or penalty plans. Look for possible substitutions.
  • Over allocation or unavailability of critical resources: Plan contingencies for critical resources. Shift resources from non-critical tasks or projects. Reschedule non-critical tasks. Contract out. Hire additional people.
  • Budget slippage: Eliminate nonessential elements. Look for cheaper substitutions. Go beyond the contract to offer a bonus for improved cost or delivery.


Joy Gumz, a well-regarded project management practitioner, teacher, and speaker has observed, "Operations keeps the lights on, strategy provides a light at the end of the tunnel, but project management is the train engine that moves the organization forward."

Perhaps some of what I've outlined in this column will help you to see some light at the end of your "tunnel of project management trouble." Here's hoping that the light is not an oncoming train.

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