Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Managing By Moving About

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In their book A Passion for Excellence, Tom Peters and Nancy Austin suggest that “the number one productivity problem in America is, quite simply, managers who are out of touch with their people.” Moreover, Peters and Austin claim that the best way for management to be in touch with people is to actually see them face to face. Accordingly, it is crucial for managers to leave the confines of their office and visit with team members at their work place.1

Moving about enables the project manager not only to accomplish the guidelines highlighted in the previous two blogs—that is, to disseminate information and to respond and act with agility—but also to effectively control the progress of their projects. Indeed, when managers believe they can control performance by repeated measurements and detailed progress reports without actual contact achieved by moving about, they fail again and again to meet the projects' objectives. 

As Jerry Madden, a project manager at NASA, explains in the following story, real control comes from mobility:

“A highly regarded vendor had large manufacturing contracts with NASA. Its manufacturing reports listed the items that had been delivered to us. After going through one lengthy report, I went down to the integration floor expecting to see an assembled spacecraft. I found that many assemblies that had been listed were missing.”

Jerry immediately called the vendor to report the errors and was told that they had two sets of paperwork: manufacturing reports for delivered items and integration returns for those items that were sent back for repairs or corrections. Once the item had been shipped back from repairs, the vendor closed out the manufacturing report.

As Jerry realized, “It just goes to show that you can’t rely on the official sources. If a project manager wants effective control, he/she has to always be on the move and ask questions. Indeed, ‘things are seldom what they seem.’”2

From a management-control point of view, the fundamental question is how can such a practice go unnoticed for such a long time that it becomes routine and the entire team accepts it naturally. Yet, one can’t ignore the vast body of empirical research on the frequency and magnitude of information-filtering and distortion within organizations.3

Managers who maintain a stationary position may be forced to make complex judgments with incomplete or misleading information. The “old school” approach to planning and control, which emphasizes remote control as a way of facilitating adherence to the plan, is much like using a thermostat to maintain a predetermined temperature. But in today’s dynamic environment, a more suitable metaphor for project control would be coaching. A coach needs to see the game in order to guide the team, and would hardly be effective if forced to coach from the locker room while receiving statistics via a monitor. In fact, remote control rarely offers real control.


1.      Peters, T.J. and Austin, N. A Passion for Excellence. The Leadership Difference. 1985, New York: Random House: p. 8-9.

2.      Laufer, A. and Hoffman, E.J. Project Management Success Stories: Lessons of Project Leaders. 2000, New York: John Wiley & Sons: p. 86-8.

3.      Bardnt, S.E. Upward communication filtering in the project management environment. Project Management Quarterly 1981; 12(1): p. 39-43.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Respond and Act With Agility

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While frequent communication has a vital role in the early identification of problems, coping with unexpected events often demands quick action. Certainly, project managers may need to use creative improvisations to quickly deal with such events. In fact, Brian Muirhead, who was responsible for the development and launch of the Mars Pathfinder flight system, had this to say: “Everybody understands the need for a plan…. But in a world of Faster, Better, Cheaper, improvising should be seen as an inseparable part of planning, the other half of a complete process.1" However, most unexpected events faced by today’s project managers are not associated with extreme contexts and constraints requiring excessive improvisation (for more on the importance of improvisation, see our blog story from September 2014. What they do require are immediate and agile responses.

During our consulting work with numerous construction project managers, we watched them repetitively respond with agility and take immediate actions to cope with unexpected events that frequently plagued their projects. Here are four brief examples:

The blackout curtains to be installed in a large hospital were supposed to hang somewhere between 1/16" and 1/4" off the floor. In several rooms, the curtains were not meeting the requirement because the floor was not level. After discussing the problem with the project's carpenter, the project manager decided that the inconsistent curtain height could be compensated for by using metal beaded chains and connectors. After receiving approval from the client, the project manager made a quick trip to the local retail store and purchased the parts needed to complete the fix. The issue was resolved in less than four hours.

The steel supplier fabricated the support steel for some air-handling units using outdated drawings. The steel arrived on-site before the mistake was caught. The project manager was left with two choices: Send it back and have the supplier fix the mistake (at no cost), or have the team members fix it in the field. The project manager, along with his superintendent, decided that even though fixing the mistake on-site would cost the team a few hours of extra labor, it was preferable to waiting several days until replacements arrived from the supplier.

The drawings of the equipment did not arrive when expected. The electrical contractor was threatening to stop all his underground rough-in until the information was received. Stopping all the work would have had a serious impact on the schedule. The team met on-site to review what information was still missing. Based on this information, the project manager decided to install junction boxes at the perimeter of the equipment rooms so that a majority of the work could continue, leaving the rooms to be roughed in at a later date.

The plumbing contractor was told to install 1.6 gallons-per-flush toilets in the building. After the original decision to use these toilets had been made, the owner hired a new sustainability manager, who wanted lower-flow toilets instead. There were concerns with the functionality of the lower-flow toilets, so the project manager recommended installing a mock-up of each type of toilet. After testing the mock-up, everyone was in agreement on the preferred fixture. Using the mock-up to resolve the concerns allowed them to avoid a schedule impact.

Why is it crucial to take fast action to resolve such problems? Due to the organizational structure of projects, in which tasks are tightly interconnected, when unexpected events affect one task, many other interdependent tasks may also be quickly impacted. For example, affected contractors may decide to move their workforces to other projects, making it difficult to bring them back on time once the problem is resolved.

To be successful in practicing responsive agility, a project manager must operate within an organizational culture that acknowledges the unavoidability of unexpected events. According to Steve Kerr, Chief Learning Officer of General Electric, “The future is moving so quickly that you can’t anticipate it…. We have put a tremendous emphasis on quick response…. We will continue to be surprised, but we won’t be surprised that we are surprised.”


1.                   Muirhead, B. and Simon, W.L. High Velocity Leadership: The Mars Pathfinder Approach to Faster, Better, Cheaper. 1999, New York: HarperBusiness: p. 193.

2.                   Malhotra, Y. “Knowledge management for organizational white waters: an ecological framework.Knowledge Management 1999; 2(1): p. 18-21.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The project manager’s chief daily task is communication, not decision-making

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Jim Wink, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander, reported that his team had encountered over 200 unexpected events during the life of a schedule-driven project.1 The sources of such events may vary from one case to the next, common examples being design errors, the failure of a contractor to show up, the bankruptcy of a supplier, and changes in the customers' specifications. Indeed, recent research repeatedly stresses that the key challenge facing the project manager in our present era of high uncertainty is coping with numerous unexpected events.  In turn, disseminating information frequently and routinely is probably one of the most effective means for project managers to ameliorate the negative impacts of such unexpected events. 

Fredrick Brooks, best known as the “father of the IBM System/360,” argued that “the project manager’s chief daily task is communication, not decision-making.2 Hugh Woodward, a project manager from Procter & Gamble, reached a similar conclusion through trial and error. His assignment was to secure an environmental permit for a new product.  While several groups of people distributed over a wide geographic area were involved in the project, the product was fairly routine, the participants involved had some experience working with each other, and the responsibility of each participant was clarified in a preliminary planning meeting which generated a detailed list of action steps and responsibilities. No hitches were expected. 

Yet the schedule was slipping continually. A second planning process was initiated with all involved parties, resulting in a revised plan. Action steps, responsibilities, and deadlines were drawn. Assurances were given that the process flowsheet was now stable and that the formulated strategy for approaching the state regulators was valid.   Yet within days, the schedule was slipping again! 

The solution was simple. Hugh initiated weekly video conferences with all the key participants meeting to share the latest information and to assess the project's status. Through these weekly virtual meetings, the team members were able to quickly collect missing information, identify changes, and solve problems as they were still emerging. It turned out that these weekly video conferences were all that was needed to assure the smooth progress of the project.3

What matters is not only the frequency of the communication but also the spirit of it.

NASA’s Tony Schoenfelder describes some of the communication practices employed by John Hodge, the first leader of the Space Station Task Force:

Hodge combined a number of practices and innovations that led to a unique and uninhibited atmosphere. Each day started at 8:15 AM with an unstructured 15-minute all-hands stand-up meeting. Only those who had something important to say took the floor, while everyone else crowded into the office or hallway to listen. It turned out to be a useful device in that it not only conveyed information, but also physically reunited the team each morning to reinforce the spirit of camaraderie and the sense of shared purpose.… Hodge didn’t believe in secrets. He was completely open with the staff. What he knew, they knew. Members appreciated this unusual candor and reciprocated by keeping him and the leadership well informed…. Hodge was liable to pop up unannounced anywhere at anytime…. He not only got to know each person as a person, but also received an unfiltered heads-up as to what was going on.4

Matt Peterson, at the Boldt Construction Company, used a similar practice.  All on-site team members (the superintendent, field engineers, project coordinator, safety officer, etc.) participated in “daily 10-minute huddles.” Matt reported that these informal morning meetings not only ensured that the team members understood one another’s current workloads and constraints, but often enabled them to identify and resolve conflicting priorities before they became problems.

But effective communication should not be limited to the project's team. Insufficient communication with the client is one of the more prevalent causes for unexpected changes. Yet, project managers tend to communicate with their clients primarily at the early stages of the project, while the project’s requirements are first formulated, saving subsequent communication only for crisis moments. Don Margolies, a NASA project manager based in Maryland, set up a schedule to talk on the phone every week with his client, Dr. Edward Stone, who was based in California. As reported by Don, "In the early stages of the project, much of what was about to unfold was still up in the air. You might say the spacecraft itself was about the only thing not in the air." Yet, they stuck to their weekly schedule and talked over the phone even if it meant just reporting the weather. The benefits of these routine and brief weekly phone calls became evident more than a few times during the project. Their ability, for example, to identify in advance possible cost overruns, enabled them ultimately to complete the $140 million project at $30 million under budget!5

Effective communication can thus reduce costs, prevent problems, and help create a cohesive team. Indeed, disseminating information frequently and routinely contributes to both flexibility and stability. That is, the team’s ability to adapt and solve problems as soon as they occur enables it to quickly regain stability. It therefore behooves the project manager to prioritize communication for the benefit of the team and the project.



1.        Laufer, A. and Hoffman, E.J. Project Management Success Stories: Lessons of Project Leaders. 2000, New York: John Wiley & Sons: p. 76-8.

2.        Brooks Jr, F.P. The Mythical Man-Month. 1995, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley: p. 40.

3.        Laufer, A., Volkman, R.C., Davenport, G.W., and Terry, S. In Quest of Project Excellence through Stories. 1994, Cincinnati, OH: Procter and Gamble.

4.        Schoenfelder, T.E. The idyllic workplace. Ask Magazine 2002; 7: p. 22-26.

5.        Laufer, A., Post, T., and Hoffman, E.J. Shared Voyage: Learning and Unlearning from Remarkable Projects. 2005, Washington, DC: The NASA History Series: p. 31.