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Embracing Ambiguity: MDS Sciex Pilots Rolling Wave Project Managementevents. “The further out in time we go,” Rasper state...
Embracing Ambiguity: MDS Sciex Pilots Rolling Wave Project ManagementAs near term work is completed, what was once “ROM Gr...
Embracing Ambiguity: MDS Sciex Pilots Rolling Wave Project Managementdevelopment project. By definition a development proj...
Embracing Ambiguity: MDS Sciex Pilots Rolling Wave Project Managementof plus or minus 30 percent. The project core team me...
Embracing Ambiguity: MDS Sciex Pilots Rolling Wave Project Managementthat they didn’t just put together some plan that got...
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David Vermette Writing Sample: Case Study


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For five years I was editor-in-chief of a monthly publication on R&D management called Product Development Best Practices Report. This print newsletter reached R&D professionals in Fortune 500 companies in such fields as Aerospace & Defense, Automotives, and Pharmaceuticals. The centerpiece of each issue was the company-specific case study. The case study usually involved interviews with product development managers at the Director level or higher. From these first-hand accounts, I composed an approximately 2500-word piece telling the story of how an R&D organization faced a challenge and arrived at a solution. I wrote case studies with such companies as Ford, Nortel, and Bristol-Myers Squibb dealing with issues from cross-functional integration, to product portfolio management, to technology staging, to hearing the voice of the customer.

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David Vermette Writing Sample: Case Study

  1. 1. EMBRACING AMBIGUITY: MDS SCIEX PILOTS ROLLING WAVEPROJECT MANAGEMENT TO FACILITATE FAST AND FLEXIBLEPRODUCT DEVELOPMENTCanada-based MDS Sciex is a developer and manufacturer of mass spectrometrysystems for chemical analysis, mainly in the Drug Discovery, Drug Development andProteomics markets. With approximately 400 employees and revenues in the range of$250M (Canadian), the company is a player in a highly research-intensive andcompetitive marketplace. With stringent time-to-market requirements and productswith significant technical risks, MDS Sciex sought a project management methodologyto help improve the handoff between research and the production floor. With theRolling Wave methodology, MDS Sciex piloted an approach that facilitates the linkbetween Research and Development. Rolling Wave also reduced cycle time andfostered an agile project environment.Until the recent pilot of the Rolling Wave approach, cost was no object on an MDS Sciex project.In an environment where technology was king, the project schedule was treated as a resultrather than as something to manage. Project plans were developed in the front end and seldomrevisited during the course of a project. It was common for project teams to spend two or threemonths planning a two-year project. The perception was that “the initial plan was the onlyplan,” resulting in a self-contradictory dynamic – excessively long planning phases, coupled witha reluctance to commit to the baseline once it was created. On highly dynamic projects, thebaseline was frequently outdated soon after conception with the result that the time-consumingplanning phase added little value to the project as executed.Vlad Rasper, Senior Project Manager, MDS Sciex, illustrates the challenges of the legacy projectmanagement approach with a telling anecdote: “We were finishing up a large project where wespent three months pouring over the plan. It was about a two-year project. The projectmanager insisted on having about 3,000 tasks entered into the project management tool…tasksthat he, himself, was going to oversee. About three months into the project they encountered amajor technical difficulty and the plan went down the drain. They spent months coming up witha ‘perfect’ plan, which was quickly obsoleted by reality.”According to Rasper, MDS Sciex faced a number of specific challenges rooted in the company’sapproach to project management. Among these, he identifies a growing displeasure at thecustomer and sponsor level regarding the disparity between the project-as-planned and whatwas actually offered at the completion of the project. In addition, the variance between thestatic plan and the reality made resource allocation difficult.Rolling Wave and the Problem of Brittle SchedulesTo meet these challenges, Rasper advocated a new project management technique called RollingWave. According to Rasper, Rolling Wave is a tool premised on the unpredictability of futureCopyright Management Roundtable, Inc. 2003-2006. All Rights Reserved.
  2. 2. Embracing Ambiguity: MDS Sciex Pilots Rolling Wave Project Managementevents. “The further out in time we go,” Rasper states, “the more uncertain the future is, andthe harder it is to make accurate estimates. There is diminishing value in trying to predict ahigh level of detail over the entire project timeline. The Rolling Wave approach is to create awindow of highly detailed and accurate plans for near term activity. This window represents avery short term set of activities – those that that will happen tomorrow, or next week, or nextmonth. We should be able to estimate these activities with a higher degree of accuracy.Activities in the more distant future are given rough order-of-magnitude estimates, but are notplanned or scheduled in detail.”According to new product development consultant Greg Githens of Catalyst ManagementConsulting, “Rolling Wave is a more flexible approach – a more real world approach and will thusyield a robust schedule. The important thing, however, is that people need to learn to tolerateambiguity.” According to Githens, ambiguity is inherent in product development projects. Thereis more that developers don’t know than they do know. “Rolling Wave represents a change ofmindset that emphasizes discovery and learning,” declares Githens, “rather than one thatmarshals all of the facts and then manages the details. Rolling Wave front-loads problemsolving…it doesn’t focus on solving the easy problems, but focuses on solving the importantproblems.”Rolling Wave is a solution to the problem of what Githens calls “brittle schedules.” Says Githens,“Brittle is the opposite of flexible. Ask yourself, ‘how many schedules do we publish and committo that lose all validity and become something of a joke to the development team?’ Myobservation is that this happens more often than not.”According to Githens, brittle schedules are the result of the unquestioned assumptions projectteams make when they create the schedule by picking an end date and working backwards. Analternative approach is to “plan a little, do a little.” “Rolling Wave, says Githens, “is an iterativeapproach to project planning that says ‘we’re not going to try to fool ourselves and fooleverybody else by thinking that we can create the perfect, accurate, totally correct project plan,publish that project plan and expect everybody to believe that that is a truthful representation ofthe way the project is going to roll-out.’”Catching A Wave: The Basics of the Rolling Wave MethodologyThe key to the Rolling Wave methodology is to segregate near term from far term activities. ForMDS, near term is defined as a three-month window. Work to be performed within this windowis defined in as much detail as necessary. There is no attempt made to try to estimate in detailthose activities that fall outside of this near term window. Activities in the distant future arerepresented by Rough Order-of-Magnitude (ROM) estimates or summaries. The scheduling ofthese future activities can be estimated in sequential groups called “ROM Group A,” “ROM GroupB,” etc. [See figure below.] 2
  3. 3. Embracing Ambiguity: MDS Sciex Pilots Rolling Wave Project ManagementAs near term work is completed, what was once “ROM Group A” moves into the near term focusand becomes the next “wave” subject to detailed work breakdowns and schedule estimates.These successive wavesof planning a little andthen doing a little rollthrough the entire projectlife cycle. One key to theprocess, says Githens, isthat, “The windowsoverlap, so that we’realways looking a littlefurther ahead. You wantto look ahead whileyou’re still in yourcomfort zone. Youidentify a small amountof work, and then, as youprogressively completeeach of the plannedtasks, it’s time foranother round ofplanning.”Githens offers the following useful tips on estimating near term work, based on the basic ProjectManagement toolkit:o Estimates of work can be based on expert judgment, analogous experience, and documented standards.o Estimates of work are predictions, not fact. Since one can’t predict the future accurately, estimates will inherently contain error. The project needs to know if they have a little bit of error or a lot of error in their estimate.o Top-down ROM estimates are quick, but may have high levels of uncertainty. Detailed bottom-up estimates are time consuming, but can be very accurate.Rasper emphasizes that accepting that estimates contain error can conflict with cultural norms:“In our culture ‘error’ was a bad word, so there was some selling to get people to accept error.Error is not a bad thing – it’s a part of working. Since there is no such thing as a perfect orcorrect estimate, what you need to be able to say is that there is ‘a little error’ or ‘a lot of error.’It’s our job as estimators to judge the amount of error.”Githens points out that even in the context of Rolling Wave, “If you know there are tasks in thefuture that can be estimated – then do it.” But Githens points out that if it were possible to plan100 percent of the work in a project, then that project is a deployment project and not a 3
  4. 4. Embracing Ambiguity: MDS Sciex Pilots Rolling Wave Project Managementdevelopment project. By definition a development project cannot be planned with100 percent accuracy.Since planning can never be completely accurate, Githens emphasizes that the Rolling Waveapproach embraces, rather than avoids, ambiguity. He observes: “There are threecharacteristics of a stagnant organization: ambiguity avoidance, inertia, andcompartmentalization. To the extent that you’re still doing the same things you’re doing, overand over – that’s inertia. If you need to wait until you have perfect information – that’s avoidingambiguity. If you hear, ‘it’s not my job, someone else does that’ – that’s compartmentalization.To do any kind of development work we need to have some tolerance for ambiguity. Adevelopment project involves discovery…it involves admitting that estimates have error and thatwe don’t know for sure what we’re going to find out until we get there. Stagnant organizationsare not very innovative nor do they learn well at the project level. They try to launch projectswith brute force or high control methods, that ultimately lead to slow, rigid, brittle projects.”Piloting the Rolling Wave ApproachThe first step for MDS Sciex was to choose a suitable pilot project for the Rolling Wavemethodology. They chose a project code named “Borg” that would involve the implementationof a new, proprietarytechnology. SaysRasper, “Since it’s avery dynamic project,we decided that it wasgood material for apilot.”The Borg team chose todefine a three-monthRolling Wave window forplanning near termwork. Explains Rasper,“The reason we usethree months is becausethe information we getout of that window wefeed back to functionalmanagers whose responsibility it is to give us the resources we need, and two months does notgive them enough heads up. We feel that three months allows us to be pretty comfortable withthe accuracy of the estimate.”Within that three-month window, the project aimed for plus or minus ten percent accuracy in itsestimates. Activities beyond the three-month window were given estimates that were in a range 4
  5. 5. Embracing Ambiguity: MDS Sciex Pilots Rolling Wave Project Managementof plus or minus 30 percent. The project core team meets monthly to map out activities andupdate the planning within the continually rolling three-month wave. Cost and schedulevariance are managed by exception. Explains Rasper, “We don’t generate a lot of data. Weagree with our Senior Management on a [predetermined, acceptable level of] variance” from theplan. Continues Rasper, “For example, the baseline burn rate might be X number of dollars. Ona dynamic project like this, we’ll set up a variance of, say, 20 percent, and if we’re over that 20percent – or even under 20 percent – we’ll explain to senior management why this hashappened. Otherwise, they don’t expect to hear from us.”Initially, the pilot methodology encountered some resistance. Some key stakeholders werereluctant to accept initial project plans that had low degrees of accuracy in estimating the backend. Rasper notes that Senior Managers liked to see very accurate back ends, with specificcompletion dates. “The question was ‘when will you finish?’” says Rasper, “and it took a little bitof selling to Senior Managers to say ‘It [the completion date] is too far away [for us to estimateit accurately]. Give us a window. I’ll try to drive the truck through that tunnel but don’t expectme to stop on a dime.”There was also some resistance from the project team members who perceived the newinitiative as an increase in the amount of planning. Team members wanted to get the planningout of the way at the front end of project. There was resistance to doing less planning in moreiterations. Rasper claims that this resistance faded over time – especially after seeing episodeson other projects where months of planning became irrelevant after only a small portion of thework had been done.Results and Benefits of Rolling WaveRasper reports a number of concrete results and benefits associated with the Rolling Wave pilotproject both expected and unexpected. “The project has been a success by any standard,”concludes Rasper. “We did the initial plan in a week. And then the subsequent planningsessions take one day per month. The project team came to embrace the ‘plan a little, work alittle’ cycle – and it definitely worked. We cut two or three months out of our cycle time.”Since the rolling wave approach allows greater degrees of accuracy than a one shot estimate,the team has a more realistic view of near term resource requirements and can better managetheir allocation. Says Rasper, “Instead of guessing what’s going to happen six or eight monthsfrom now and putting your dibs on this or that resource, without, perhaps, ever using thatresource, our functional managers have more faith in the short term forecasts, so they are morewilling to commit resources to the project.” The Rolling Wave approach also allows SeniorManagement and sponsors to have more realistic project cost and schedule estimates atcompletion.An unanticipated benefit of the new methodology is that it has improved the sense of ownershipand accountability among team members. Says Rasper, “They now come to the project feeling 5
  6. 6. Embracing Ambiguity: MDS Sciex Pilots Rolling Wave Project Managementthat they didn’t just put together some plan that got filed on the top shelf never to be seenagain. By asking them to participate in the planning of their future work on a periodic basis,they say that they feel more in tune with the development of the product.” Taken together,these results were deemed sufficient to warrant deploying the Rolling Wave methodology on thenext project in sequence.Taking a broader view, Rasper summarizes some of the general benefits of the Rolling Wavemethodology:o It gets the team out of the blocks and starts them working, because the best way to know what’s coming is to actually face it.o It shortens the duration of front end planning, and transitions projects into the design phase sooner.o It promotes an open-mined and flexible project environment.o It allows the team to combine the advantages of both top-down and bottom up estimating.Concludes Githens, “Rolling Wave gives you the ability to have a modicum of control and ofpredictability in your project plans without this fantasy that everything can be known andpredicted. We need to open people up to the idea that it’s acceptable to say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I MRTcan find out’ or ‘the data may be unclear.’ It helps us to tolerate ambiguity.” 6