Project Management Basics

Aug 28, 1995

I have yet to see an A/E/P or environmental consulting firm with a utopian project management system— one where every single job goes exactly the way it’s supposed to in every way. One of my favorite lines a project manager can use— one that sums up the predicament nicely— goes as follows: “Mr. Client, you want us to comply with your budget, meet your schedule, and give you a high quality project— pick any two and we can do it, but we can’t give you all three! Nevertheless, there are firms out there that do a better job managing their projects than most of the rest do. Here’s what these firms are doing: They have strict project initiation requirements. Project initiation is one of the cornerstones of project management. The best-managed firms make it impossible for anyone to charge time to a job that has had incomplete project initiation. They won’t issue a job number unless there is a complete project budget and schedule attached. They won’t issue a job number without complete information on who will get the bill and when it can be sent. They won’t issue a job number without a signed contract, letter from the client, or telephone conversation memo signed off by a principal authorizing the firm to start work. They won’t issue a job number without making sure that the client’s credit-worthiness has been established. Making sure that these (and other) requirements are met on every job is a necessary discipline for effective project management. They have very clear contracting authority limits. Not everyone in an A/E/P or environmental consulting firm should be allowed to commit the firm to doing something for a particular fee. And contracting authority limits do more than keep the firm from taking on low-fee work that you wouldn’t want unless there were some big-picture reason for doing it. These limits may also keep the firm from assuming liabilities it doesn’t want. I can still remember the time a firm I was an owner in got nailed for more than $125,000 because one of our young engineers did a $500 boiler inspection project that he wasn’t qualified to do for a client we should not have been working for. They have a schedule on every job— one they actually try to maintain. There is no doubt that maintenance of an up-to-date schedule is one of the toughest areas to deal with when it comes to project management in our industry. Yet, it’s necessary if you want to complete your projects efficiently and effectively. That takes excellent communications, an easily modified project scheduling system, and a strong dose of discipline. And while schedule maintenance is important— in no case is there an excuse for not having a schedule when you start the project. They let all project team members know what their scope of services and corresponding portion of the budget is. This is one of the easiest things to do, and it costs so little, yet is infrequently done. The firms that have the best PM systems make this information available to all team members, including drafters and word processors. They either make it available to them through the on-line PM system, give it to them in writing, or tell them about it verbally. But no matter how the message is delivered, when you go out on the floor and ask anyone on the team what he is supposed to be doing on the job and how much time or money he has to do it, he can answer you intelligently. Try asking these questions in your own firm and you may be in for a rude awakening. They deal with contract addenda and out-of-scope requests promptly. This is the bane of too many otherwise good project managers. In order to keep things from getting out of hand, the effective PM confronts these requests for one more revision, or one more alternative, or extra services for any reason promptly. That means when the request is made, the client is informed that an extra service agreement will be forthcoming and it will need to be signed. Some PMs actually carry these in their briefcase. Others fire them out of their notebook computer upon demand. In any event, the strong PM doesn’t let these issues fester and stew for a while in their unbilled work-in-process (WIP), and then fall into a wishful thinking trap that someday they might get paid. They have rigorous project file maintenance requirements. We waste an incredible amount of time in this business just looking for information and it’s insane. I have heard numbers bandied about that say as much as 14-18% of the typical design or environmental professional’s time is spent looking for things. Good project files save time and money, and reduce the firm’s potential liability exposure. Every single calculation, piece of correspondence, project memo, and so on should all automatically go to the project file. And I do not recommend that each project manager keep his or her own project files— this is no way to ensure that filing standards are maintained, not to mention the problems that crop up when the PM is out and information in the file needs to be located. They keep their PMs out on the floor instead of sticking all of them in private offices. Very few firms set up their offices this way, but I still think it’s the best way. Most companies put all of their PMs in offices with doors that shut. Is it any wonder they get disconnected from the project team members and the project team members get disconnected from them? They have standard operating procedures (SOPs) for virtually every type of project they perform. SOPs are certainly another key to consistency in project processing. These will provide checklists and other information on how projects of that type are completed. They help train new folks, as well as keep the firm on the critical path to completing the project. Good SOPs will also help the firm keep from making easily avoidable mistakes in terms of omissions. They restrict the number of project managers so that only qualified people are filling the role. This is yet another fundamental of good project management. When I see firms with 200 employees and 78 project managers listed on their Harper & Shuman/BST/Sema4/Deltek system, I know there is something wrong. When you have too many project managers, you inevitably end up with unqualified and untrained PMs serving clients. The result is poor performance in budgeting, scheduling, and quality on jobs. The bottom line of good project management is that it takes discipline to make it happen. Deciding what needs to be done is simple compared with making yourself actually do it. Originally published 8/28/ 1995

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