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Are project control toolsets fostering lazy thinking?

Previous blogs talked about the importance of creating quality data and using project control toolsets to check for data quality issues.  Related to that are the earned value or other performance metrics people produce on a regular basis using their project control toolsets of choice.

In most instances, data quality, analysis, and reporting software tools do a good job of helping project personnel verify the data and produce expected reports or data submissions.  This includes producing variance analysis and performance reports identified in a contract data requirements list (CDRL).  These project control toolsets are essential for organizing and maintaining the data – as long as project personnel know how to create and maintain quality data using the tools.

We routinely produce these metrics without much thought.  Do project personnel understand what is required to create and maintain a useful network schedule?  Or what’s required to produce a schedule driven budget baseline?  Do they understand why the data quality or performance metrics are important?  Do they understand what the metrics mean and how to proactively use them to help manage a project?  Often the mentality seems to be as long as the person knows which toolset menu options to use to produce a report or data deliverable, it becomes “mission accomplished” – check box checked.

Are the toolsets doing too much thinking for us?

Is there a downside to relying too much on the project control toolsets?  The more “thinking” the toolsets do for us, we begin to diminish the opportunity to bring human interpretation and judgement into the process.  The unintended consequence is that the skill sets of project managers, control account managers, project schedulers, and other project control personnel begin to dwindle.

For many people with project control roles on a project, it seems like the value of their expertise has gotten lost in the corporate shuffle.  The perceived message from management is to just install a piece of software and their project management problems are solved.  We all know that isn’t true.  We need that human expertise – “the right stuff” that makes the difference on a project.

Bringing back project control critical thinking skills

So, how do you reinforce, reintroduce, or build the skill set where project personnel can clearly articulate what a data quality metric or performance metric means?  How do you create an environment where project personnel are motivated to sort through and make sense of things?  Where they instinctively drill down through the data and analyze it to make fact-based assessments?  Where they provide sound rationale, judgements and recommendations to the project manager or other project personnel to make a difference on a project?  It is often not easy to foster this mind set.

Critical thinking skills image

What can help bring back critical thinking skills into the project control process?  Here are a few things to consider.  Perhaps they will lead to other ideas you have that works for your environment.

1) Reinforce best practices in your process artifacts. This was mentioned in the blog on conducting a data quality assessment.  One example:  when you create your data quality checklists, include an explanation of why the data quality check matters.  Perhaps your data quality process checks for instances of work packages assigned a 50/50 earned value technique.  Do project personnel understand why you included this in the checklist?  What if they find a group of work packages that spans three reporting periods with a 50/50 assignment?  Project personnel should know this isn’t acceptable and understand the impact.  They know to quickly take action to assign another earned value technique that fits the work scope and duration of the work package before any work begins on that work package.  That makes an immediate difference in the quality of the data and the ability to accurately calculate earned value as work progresses.

2) Educate the people learning the project control craft as an integral part of any in-house reviews. A best practice some companies use is peer review teams for self-surveillance or internal baseline reviews prior to setting the performance measurement baseline (PMB). Along with the appropriate technical specialists, they staff the team with senior project control specialists from other projects.  These specialists have the experience base to show project personnel how to work through and assess the project control artifacts, share their knowledge, and highlight and explain what they are looking for.  It can be an eye-opening experience for someone coming up the learning curve – they have the opportunity to get a new appreciation of why specific project control practices are important.  Or, they gain a better understanding of a concept or process they thought they had mastered.  There is always something new to learn from these experts willing to share their knowledge.

These reviews are also another opportunity to include additional notes for project personnel in the review team materials.  For example, the interview questions for a baseline review could include use notes that explain the intent of the question and why it is important.  This provides additional information about the thought process behind the question and creates a deeper understanding of project control practices.

3) Reinforce roles, responsibilities, and process ownership with role-based training. The importance of roles, responsibilities, and process ownership was mentioned in another blog that discussed identifying and resolving quality issues.  It is clear to everyone what their roles and responsibilities are in the project control process?  Are the people in those roles prepared to do their jobs?  What assistance is needed to make sure project personnel succeed in their roles?

For example, the control account manager (CAM) is the front-line person who is ultimately responsible for the work effort assigned to them.  This is not an easy job and is frequently a stepping stone to become a project manager.  It requires an understanding their scope of work, how their work scope fits into the overall project effort, the detailed tasks, work sequence, resource requirements, risks and opportunities, budget, performance, actual costs, remaining work, and estimate to complete. And, they need to understand how to use the project control toolsets, or at least work with their project control team, to view and maintain their data.

The CAM should know what factors could adversely impact their work effort and be able to clearly articulate issues and present solutions.  Are they having problems maintaining a roster of uniquely skilled resources?  Is there an issue with a supplier providing quality parts on time?  Maybe they ran into more problems than they expected with a manufacturing process and need to do additional rework.  Do their issues impact another CAM, the project completion date, or estimate to completion?  Do they know when to ask for help?  Do they know who to ask for help?

Frequent and open communication with the project manager and project control team is essential.  Everyone plays a role in supporting the CAMs and helping them succeed.  With clearly defined roles and responsibilities, everyone on the project control team knows what they need to do to support the project team.

4) Consider additional hands-on training. Humphreys & Associates regularly offers a three-day Advanced EVM Techniques training class with case studies using Encore Analytics’ Empower tool. These classes provide an opportunity for project personnel to increase their analytical skills and gain a better understanding of how to interpret and use performance metrics effectively.

PrimePM routinely helps companies to implement role-based training and reinforce the importance of critical thinking skills in the project management process.  Our consultants include experienced project managers with cross-functional expertise that routinely mentor project control personnel regardless of the project control toolsets you have in-house.

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