Stephen Hightower “Leveraging Checklists to deliver your projects on time” Stephen@Hightower-‐Consulting.com 407-‐810-‐2746 Leveraging Checklists to deliver your projects on time Project management is a complex task with many moving parts. How do you manage that complexity and deliver projects on time and within budget? The use of checklists and the significant quality improvements they yield are far-‐reaching and not tied to any one field or discipline. As Atul Gawande makes a compelling argument, “We can find a solution in the most humble of places, the lowly checklist.” Dr. Gawande is both a general and endocrine surgeon at the Brigham and Women’s hospital in Boston, a staff writer for the The New Yorker, and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School. In his book, “The Checklist Manifesto”, he explains how checklists have been used to fly airplanes and build skyscrapers. Not only are checklists applicable to project management, but they also help structure the delivery of the project in a repeatable way that can be used within any organization. Managing projects effectively is one of the most critical tasks in any organization. Doing it well brings greater responsibilities, while not managing projects well is a sure path for disaster. There is a clear discipline in project/program management that must be followed, but there are some unique challenges when you manage projects with shared resources that will be critical to your success. Learn how you can utilize checklists to ensure rewarding management of your projects.
2 The seeds of failure are sown in the first 30 days I worked for a large company that made significant investments in the development, talent and tools necessary to manage programs effectively. In several studies conducted that encompassed over 400 different programs, the data always pointed to the first 30 days as being critical to the success of the program. What happens in that time period that is so crucial? Having a sound plan and applying a process that is repeatable and applicable to any program, no matter the complexity or type. Therein, lay the keys to a favorable outcome. Guess what, you’re given a once in lifetime opportunity You’ve gotten that high visibility, high priority project that you’ve always wanted. The business has placed their trust in you but they want it yesterday. There is a lot of pressure to get started and show progress, but how do you manage the project? If you don’t deliver your career is damaged and if you don’t get started quickly, you’re seen as maybe not ready for this opportunity. Either way, it can be an uncomfortable position to be in for anyone, whether you are a seasoned program manager or you’ve just been given your first big opportunity. Typically, I see two approaches that are both destined for a less than satisfactory outcome. One, the project leader pushes back because they don’t have the specifics clearly defined. This can lead to frustration, as well as a continued “black eye” for the IT group because “everything you do takes so long.” After all, my daughter installed a wireless network last night and you took a week to do it.
3 The second approach is to start work on the project, trying to show some progress, yet operating with a loosely defined task and team. Both of these approaches are destined for failure. How do you balance the need to show progress and the need to have proper definition so that you know where you’re going? Most projects fail when they don’t have the basics. The basics are to have the budget, the project deliverables and a well-‐defined schedule. Failure means the project costs more than was estimated, doesn’t meet schedule or doesn’t meet the requirements when it’s delivered. The failure is sown in the first 30 days of the program’s development due to the lack of a disciplined, repeatable process that can be used by the program manager to ensure success. Leverage checklists to manage your program/project In program management, there is the Triple Constraint; the Triple Constraint being quality (scope), cost (resources) and schedule (time). These three elements of a project are essential and must work in harmony with each other. When one of these elements is restricted or extended, the other two elements will also need to be either restricted/reduced in some way or extended/increased in some way. The balancing of these three elements, when fully understood by the Project Manager, allows for the precise planning, resourcing and execution of a project. At the end of the day, these are the key elements of a profitable project and will determine whether or not you have successfully managed a project. The first thing a project manager must do is verify that the project is well understand so that the complete task being assigned to them can be accomplished.
4 The following checklist will start the process to ensure you have the right scope defined: Program Definition No matter how many times you’ve talked about what is required, you need to write it down. There’s something amazing about the written word that brings clarity that the spoken word doesnt always convey. Once this has been captured, you’ll have a basis of work to further define your program. Stakeholder Identified A significant piece of your effort on a program will be to communicate and support your program throughout its lifecycle. All programs don’t go as smoothly as you would like and you need to have stakeholders that are invested to support and help you prosper. If you need advice with budget, requirements or working alternatives, stakeholders are the folks you will depend on to guide your program to success. It’s Scope&Checklist!Steps&for&Checklist Status(Y/N) CompleteProgram&Definition YStakeholder&Identified NScope&documented N30&day&deliverables&defined N60&day&deliverables&defined NDefined&all&deliverables NCommunication&requirements&defined NCost&Model&Developed&for&program NProgram&Scope&and&Costs&reviewed&by&stakeholders NFunding&allocated NExecutive&Support NKick&off&meeting N
5 important to identify them early and cultivate the relationship because you will need their assistance. Scope Documented One of the triple constraints that will be a challenge to manage throughout the program’s lifecycle is the scope of the program. I’ve always found the scope requires a focused effort up front and a strong change management process to keep it on track as you move from development to execution. Within the parameters of documenting the scope you will find deliverables defined for the first 30 days, 60 days and all deliverables defined as tasks to complete. This shows the importance of scoping your program early with on-‐going deliverables so they can be used to confirm the concept and the approach is correct. This is essential because in the first 30 days you want to show progress and verify you are on the right track. I can’t tell you how many programs I’ve seen that put significant effort into the program without having regularly scheduled deliverables. The risk with that approach is you expend so much money without being sure you are meeting the target outlined by your program. This almost always ensures blowing your budget while putting the program at risk to fail. How many times have you been on status calls/meetings and everything is fine until the first deliverable is due? The next step is to define the deliverables for the first 60 days. This validates your assumptions on the scope as well as forcing you to break down the project in a logical order for completion. The other benefit is that is helps you with your resource allocations and plans. If your program requires more than 60 days in duration, then you will need to ensure you have a
6 complete Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) that is signed off by your stakeholders that documents the complete set of deliverables for the program. Communications requirements defined Dont overlook this task, as it can be the key to your success. How you communicate, how often you communicate and to whom you communicate is so critical for the success of your program. Live by Murphy’s Law, because whatever can go wrong will go wrong in many cases. So, the better the communication and the more frequent, the better off you will be. Do not depend upon your team members to communicate to their management for you. It will not work. Always make the effort to communicate to all parties involved. Cost Model Developed for the program This is the roll up of your costs for the total effort. It includes any hardware, software, outside vendor costs and labor that will be needed to complete your program. You should develop a contingency of 10 to 15 percent of the total cost that you hold in reserve for unplanned costs that will occur. You can return that at the end of the program if you’ve done your job. Program scope and costs reviewed by stakeholders I know this sounds obvious, but it doesn’t always happen. This should be a formal event where the scope and costs are reviewed and all stakeholders get to weigh in with a vote on whether to proceed. It creates buy-‐in and support for the effort. If someone doesn’t agree with what’s being done it provides an opportunity to have the discussion rather than having someone drag their feet or undermine the effort because they didn’t agree with it.
7 Funding allocated Based on the review by the stakeholders this should be the next decision. If the budget doesn’t exist, then work with your CFO or controller to identify the potential source where funds would be allocated from to fuel the project. You don’t want to go into the executive review without knowing where the money is coming from to support the program. Executive Support This is a formal checkpoint with the sponsoring executive team. Usually, they have a stakeholder assigned to the program to represent their organization. Depending upon your company’s culture and size, it can take different paths. Regardless, it should be reviewed and voted on by the executive team so there is awareness and recognition of the effort. Kick off meeting This is the formal kickoff that signals to all the team members and stakeholders that the project has importance and is funded to move forward. While there are steps that can be taken prior to this, the formal kick off meeting is where the stakeholders review the scope, the funding and the effort to complete the program. Managing shared resources on programs In my experience this is a critical risk factor that must be managed with a “laser-‐like” focus. How many times have you put together a program and had dedicated resources that didn’t have another job to do? Not in this day and age. Many times the individuals assigned to the program have a full time job and are told to support the program to their best ability. These resources may be assigned to production type tasks that
8 require them to jump on the production issue when there is a problem. Production always trumps programs in terms of priority. It’s important to recognize that fact and manage the risk appropriately. Another complicating factor is that you may have multiple locations where your program resources are located and/or they may work from home. Regardless, you need to have the appropriate risk mitigation plans in place to deal with the realities of the work place when the resources are not dedicated to the program. Use this checklist to help manage those risks: Skill sets identified Based on your scope checklist you should already have a good idea of the types of resources you’ll need to support your program. Resource(ChecklistSteps(for(Checklist Status(Y/N) CompleteSkill(sets(identified( NProject(management NFinancial(support NScheduling(support NVendor(support NTechnical(skills NEngineering NSoftware NInfrastructure NResource(Plan(development NBudget(estimate(for(resource(plan NOperational(Support(plan(supports(program(efforts NMitigation(plans(for(shared(resources N
9 Do you have trained project managers in your company? Do they have the experience to manage your program or will you need to bring a short-‐term resource in who has the skills to perform the job. Program managers need to be skilled in the technical management of the program, but they also need to be able to think strategically about the program and know how to solve short-‐term problems creatively. You’ll need a resource that can manage the financials on the program. Will you be using Earned Value to capture your costs? In most cases, the program manager will perform the financial management, but in some cases additional support may be required. You don’t want to get to the end of the program and not know what it cost or what the value of the effort was to complete. Scheduling support is critical and may be performed by the program manager. It’s something that the resource assigned needs to understand so that the program can be structured at the right level with the right level of granularity. I’ve seen schedules developed that are so detailed that there is more work than value provided based on the amount of time spent providing status. Scheduling is as much an art as it is a science, so finding the right resource to perform this task will be critical to the success and flexibility of the schedule. Does your program require outside vendor support to complete the schedule? How do you manage those resources and how do they support the program. You need a well-‐defined plan if your program requires those resources. On many programs I used outside vendors to provide resources to support the program. Whether it was technical talent or hardware/software resources, you should identify those requirements and treat them as partners.
10 Technical skills Technical skills are usually required on most information technology programs. Whether it’s engineering, software or infrastructure resources, you’ll need to identify the type and skill level (junior, senior) needed on your program. These resources are usually gainfully employed on another full time job, but have been identified as the resources that you can use to support your efforts. There are tools and metrics that can help you with as you proceed with the program, but it’s critical to be on top of this issue from day one. Resource Plan Development You will need to develop a resource plan in conjunction with the resources assigned to the program and their management. It should specify a commitment in hours each week they will support the program. If you can’t meet your requirements with the commitment provided, then you will need to go back to your stakeholders and obtain more resources (increase in budget), move your schedule (triple constraint) or get a commitment for those resources to be more creative (cross train, balance resources, short term contractors, overtime, etc.). You will need to incorporate vacation time into the plan as well. Budget Estimate for resource plan Once your resource plan is completed and agreed upon, you will have the labor cost component identified. It’s important that you manage this cost since it’s one of your largest variable costs on the program. Productivity is a primary driver for your costs on technical work. Since people tend to be so “interrupt-‐ driven”, you will notice an impact on your work being
11 completed in the hours estimated based on the events that are consuming the resources such as production outages, audits, etc. It’s a good idea to develop productivity factors that can be used when you develop future programs so that you’ll be more accurate in your estimates. Operational support plan that supports the program efforts This effort is important since it will identify any major operational impacts that might affect your program. If there is a major software release planned and your program is focused on completing an infrastructure upgrade, then having it identified up front will help you plan to mitigate any fallout. Incorporate vacation schedules and any other office events that can impact your efforts. Mitigation plan for shared resources Document the resource plan and identify the process that will be used to resolve issues with those resources. This identifies the person responsible and the appropriate escalation path that all parties agree on when there are problems. Trust me, this document will be used to resolve issues and will save you the headaches of trying to resolve it on the fly. Communication One area that is often overlooked is a comprehensive approach for communication that supports program management. We touched on it earlier in the scope checklist and by exploring a more detailed version of a checklist on communication; you’ll
12 be on your way to keeping everyone informed and on the same page. Communication covers many aspects of the program and the lifecycle of program management. I once worked on a program where we were behind schedule, over cost and under so much pressure; I thought everyone would be fired. Instead, we had a program manager that was up front and made sure to over communicate to all the stakeholders on a regular and frequent basis. No one ever had to wonder or ask about status because he made sure everyone knew the most current status. Rather than being punished for the program being behind schedule and over cost he was given an award for how well he communicated and eventually completed the program. This goes against many program managers’ instincts when they find themselves in this situation, which is why it’s so important to have this outlined from the beginning. Having a checklist that covers your plan and the frequency of communication will keep your program running smoothly. I’ve worked on programs where the team members didn’t know the status, so when they are asked and can’t articulate it, the credibility of the program is questioned. As a manager, I would ask myself, if the team members don’t know the current status, then how could I expect the program to be successful? Use the following checklist to keep your team members informed and develop your plans so that your program runs smoothly.
13 Communication Plans Communication is the “life blood” of any program. Perform and do everything right, yet, neglect to keep everyone in the communication loop, and your program most likely will fail. It’s more than just the myopic results that are achieved; it’s how well everyone was informed and kept up to speed on the program that matters. Did they understand the issues as well as the results? Did they participate and contribute or did they sit on the sidelines? Communication should blend into your company’s culture. There are some norms that surround communication and as the program manager you should be aware of what they are so Communication*ChecklistSteps*for*Checklist Status(Y/N) CompleteCommunication*Plans NCulture*assessement NStakeholder*management NTeam*communications NRecurring*Meetings NSelf*audit*reviews NStakeholder*management NTeam*Meetings NChange*review*board NExecutive*reviews NProject*artifacts NWeekly*Project*status NScope*change*log NSchedule*impacts NResource*Changes N
14 that you communicate effectively. Develop a plan for communication that addresses the cultural norms of the organization. Develop your plans for how to communicate with your stakeholders. Plan your meetings well in advance so that everyone can work the calendar to attend. Determine the topics and agenda that you will present to this group. Develop a plan that will be used throughout the program lifecycle for communicating with your team. It should specify the frequency of the meetings, the artifacts that support the meetings and tracking the action items. There are points in the program where you will want to seek outside help in terms of a review or an audit. It should identify best practices and compare the results with a gap analysis so that continuous improvement will be built into your program management. Recurring Meetings Self-‐audits are an excellent way to measure how well your processes are being applied in the day-‐to-‐day management of the program. Again, the simple checklist can be the perfect tool for you to perform the assessment and identify risks. Team members can use customized checklists that can be used to help guide them as they support the program and provide artifacts that will be used to identify improvements and best practices. Focus on keeping stakeholders in tune with the program and try to exceed their expectations. Leverage their participation and depending on the size and complexity of the program, you may want to select several members from this group to form
15 an advisory group that can help you work through the more difficult areas of the program. It’s critical that your team has the current program status and understands the plan at any point in time. This requires a structure and the right tools to enable them to participate at the right level. Depending upon the project management tool you select, you may have a client for their smart phone so you can obtain status as well as push information to them when needed. At a minimum, a weekly meeting and actions from that meeting are communicated to the team. As we’ll discuss later, the focus on the milestone plan and the applied hours for team members is critical to help you remain on schedule. Change management is often overlooked or seen as a distraction for program managers. The key to managing change is to document the baseline and identify changes to the baseline. A log for all changes needs to be managed for the duration of the program. As changes are identified they should be reviewed by the stakeholders at a regular scheduled meeting or if needed an ad-‐hoc meeting to address urgent requests. Each change must be considered against the original scope and the impact for costs and schedule quantified. Managing your executive’s expectations is an important part of any program. Depending upon the scope and size of the program, consideration should be given to only the ones that would require executive visibility. This meeting is to inform and provide updates. It’s not a decision-‐making meeting in most forums, although there are exceptions that will have to be considered. The meetings typically are scheduled for an initial review, a mid-‐point review and final to close out the program.
16 Project Artifacts Your project artifacts are the documentation of the lifecycle of the program. You should have a shared repository (Drop box, SharePoint, etc.) that is used to store all the documentation for the program. You’ll post weekly status each week that summarizes the actions and progress related to the program. Maintain a log that captures all the change requests that are created for the program. Schedule impacts should be documented because they usually correspond to cost impacts. Maintain the baseline resource plan and document any changes in resources that occur with the date, reason and impact to the program. Project Management approach After having gone through the checklists and following your instructions, you will be well prepared as you embark on your next program management assignment. Managing projects is a discipline and an art, so I’ve given some other helpful advice in the remaining portion of this document to help you manage your risks. The PMBOK is the body of knowledge for Program/Project Management and is quite extensive. There are several certifications that are available so that knowledge of that material can be demonstrated by the resources that manage and support projects/programs. There are a number of tools, many inexpensive that can be used to manage projects. One of my favorites is SmartSheet that can be purchased fairly inexpensively and provides a
17 collaborative work environment for geographically dispersed team members. There are a variety of tools that are available, but you want to look for the following characteristics: • Cloud based • Collaborative • Ease of Use • Robust reporting • Dashboard capability Too many organizations, don’t apply that discipline or science to the management of projects. Developing metrics for managing your projects What are effective measures for project management? How do you describe success? How do you translate your activities to the CFO in a way they can understand? Typically, a return on investment model should be used to justify the investment. You’ll need to identify what works for your business, but have an agreed to model in place that is recognized by your financial community. One of the things that I quoted during program reviews was, “In God we trust, all others bring data”. That is a rule to live by when managing programs. As discussed earlier, one of the more challenging tasks is to manage a program with a defined budget/schedule using shared resources that have other full time jobs. I’ve used the following metrics to manage multiple programs in my career and find that it’s one of the best metrics to mitigate risks in a shared resource environment.
18 Actual versus Planned Hours This is one of the best metrics to know how well you’re doing and if your resources are expending enough time each week to support the deliverables. Many times I’ve seen significant problems at start up because the resources aren’t able to break away from their day-‐to-‐day duties to support the program. Remember, the seeds of success are planted in the first 30 days and if you don’t have the visibility into how much effort is being applied up front, then you will be behind the curve as you start out of the gate. It’s also critical to have an experienced scheduler develop the program milestones so that you have manageable “chunks of work” up front and can show progress. Many times I’ve seen program managers think that everything is fine because they didn’t have any discrete deliverables during the first 30 days and during the status meetings everyone said things were fine. Milestones Planned and Actuals This metric is used to track the milestones each week that are due and record the actual completions. It provides a
19 cumulative total as well so you can see if you’re building a backlog and provides at a quick glance whether you are on track or not. Communicate risk in terms the business will understand When it comes to managing risk, communication is job number one! Being able to convey the real value of an IT project is a required skill for CIOs who want to make IT a competitive advantage. This means that you will explain the key reasons for the risk in business terms. Does it affect competitive advantage, speed to market, and profitability? If you were replacing a mainframe platform because the vendors will no longer support it might well be reason enough to move forward. This is managing technological risk -‐-‐ and its a concept everyone can understand.
20 If you describe it as infrastructure thats not going to be supported anymore and theres an opportunity to reduce cost by replacing it, most CFO’s can support that concept. Dont try to embellish the justification in concepts such as: • Our programmers will improve their productivity because it’s newer technology • Our processes will improve since we’re starting using a new technology If you’ve never been disciplined to document your processes in the older environment why do you think you’ll do it in the new environment? Pure nonsense, because history will predict the future. The more you put those intangible, soft benefits around it, the harder it is for the organization to understand and reprioritize. Project Dashboards For project management, you’re always going to deal with the triple constraint of scope, cost and schedule. How you manage it and apply the discipline to project management will determine the success of your efforts. Build a dashboard that describes your critical success factors on a one-‐page chart and use that as your guide for the program. Each dashboard can be different depending upon your program, business and unique challenges. I typically always use red/yellow/green to identify the status of the triple constraints. The other metrics that I track will be on the milestone actuals and then a forward look that tracks the upcoming milestones by week. With a forward look you can orient the team to the schedule and apply the right focus to work through any issues that may arise with the schedule.
21 If your program is on track and hitting all your milestones then the dashboard’s focus will be different than if you’re behind schedule and trying to recover. Hopefully, you’ve picked up some valuable advice in this article. Use checklists to prepare yourself for a successful start up with your program. Remember, the seeds of failure are sown in the first 30 days.