Big problems in a big firm

Aug 12, 2002

Mike Fruitwood, seven months into the job of COO of his firm, shook his head. “How are we ever going to build this company if we can’t get our act together on scheduling?” he wondered to himself. “Every week it’s the same thing. We get all of our principals and project managers together in each office, and they take a look at the week ahead. Employees are assigned based on experience and availability to the most critical deadlines. Everyone’s time is entered into a computer-based scheduling program that is on the firm’s wide area network, and all changes in the schedule that come out of the scheduling meetings are supposed to be immediately noted by the discipline heads.” “Yet every week,” Fruitwood thought, “the schedule blew up. Changes weren’t recorded, conflicts developed, and deadlines got blown. In one case an actual fist fight broke out between two project managers over a geologist they both wanted on their job!” So they tried training. They spent a good deal of time and money training the PMs and discipline heads in how to use the scheduling software and how to communicate with one another in a civil way. They also gave training in time management and negotiations. Sure, the training was expensive, but it was a fairly easy sale internally. “Employees want training,” “Training is good,” and “We spend very little on training right now” were the justifications for it. And they didn’t stop there. They also took a hard look at the organizational structure, accounting and overhead allocation methodologies, and the particular individuals they had working in some of these key jobs. But the problem was that Fruitwood’s company, MegaConsultants, Inc., was about as nimble as the aircraft carrier Nimitz when it came time to make real changes in how they did things. Sure, they could round up a few bucks for the training. But the company was just so large, and there was so much inertia and time invested in the old way of doing things, that meaningful change seemed just about impossible. Plus the truth was that many of MegaConsultant’s managers came from government, and they just hadn’t seen many management issues dealt with effectively firsthand prior to coming to work at MegaConsultants. But Fruitwood never saw an obstacle that he couldn’t go around, under, over, or directly through. And being the driven guy that he was, he wasn’t going to let this problem go unsolved. Here’s the approach he took: Polled all employees throughout the company using their e-mail and intranet on what they thought should be done about the problem. Hired a consulting firm to interview current and past clients to gather their input. Asked managers who were having these problems to document specific instances and forward them to Fruitwood as they occurred. These “incident reports” followed a specific format, and Fruitwood investigated and responded to every one of them himself. Put a team together of five key managers— two project managers, a discipline head, one office manager, and a PIC— all people that Fruitwood knew and respected. The team’s charge was to examine the data collected and come up with an action plan to be implemented over the next 90 days to address the problem. Presented the action plan to all employees in the monthly firm-wide videoconference. Made the plan document available to all employees via the intranet. Sent out a weekly progress report to all employees over each of the following 13 weeks on the status of implementation of the plan. After a year of implementation of the changes made, went through the investigative process again and met once again with the same team of five managers to make sure they were satisfied with the progress. Informed employees of the results of this analysis. Came up with new action items to be implemented over the coming year to make sure that improvements kept coming. Informed employees and allowed them to track completion of these tasks through the intranet. What they ended up doing at MegaConsultants—10 or 12 minor things, all working in concert to solve the problem— is really secondary to the process they followed. Originally published 8/12/02

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