Keeping a Watchful Eye on your Project Gauges

Previously in my career I worked as a Project Manager for a large project-based business.  Our product was amusement rides, and we had the tallest, fastest and coolest roller coasters on the planet!  Each of these projects were multi-million dollar in value, and they would generally last between 8 and 18 months from concept to installation.  These projects also were often on the cutting edge of technology, as we were constantly trying to find the proverbial ‘edge of the envelope’ for speed, g-forces and general panic-inducing thrills for the paying customers.  As you can probably imagine, projects of this size and nature were a nightmare for a project manager.  You had to keep the customer happy, the team on task, the project on schedule, and the budget under control. 

That last issue was never an easy task!  Customers in search of the perfect cool ride combined with engineers in search of the ultimate cool features constantly intersected with ever-fluctuating material costs.  to make this messy situation that much worse, you never knew how financially successful your project was until months after it was wrapped up and complete.  The bean-counters would huddle up, crunch all the numbers, allocate your overhead, and then see if you had any cash left over to throw into the profit bucket.  This all equated to ulcers for the project manager, constant worry by the finance gurus, and a general lack of the feeling of “being in control” of these nasty monster projects.  Once, when a particularly discouraging project had just concluded, I remember telling a colleague something like this:  “man I don’t manage these projects…I just get dragged along for the harrowing ride!”  All roller coaster puns aside, it was a pretty helpless feeling at times; and the fact that the financial tracking was so far behind the manufacturing and construction of the rides meant that budget-driven course corrections were almost non-existent.  You had to just spend whatever it took to get to the finish line, and then hope you had something leftover at the end to dump into that profit bucket.

Fast forward to today, here at Setpoint I have many of the same challenges that I did at the roller coaster factory: gray scope of work, customers clamoring for more, engineers looking for the best, etc.  But guess what?  I now have a saving grace.  What could THAT possibly be, you say?  Well I’m glad you asked, it’s gauges my friend!  If you can visualize the project as an airplane, and the project manager as the pilot, it’s easy to see that this aircraft desperately needs some gauges!  Big fancy gauges to measure the projects metaphorical airspeed, altitude and direction.  Without constant real-time feedback on those critical navigational parameters, this plane is gonna be in trouble; it’s just a matter of time, and we’re talking “auger into the side of a mountain” trouble!

So, what are these magical project gauges?  For our business, they are the priceless project whiteboards that we update meticulously and review weekly with our entire company on Monday afternoons.  These boards are a key component of the Open Book Management philosophy that Joe has described in the excellent blog previous to this one.  Here at Setpoint, we love Open Book, we live Open Book.  Each project has a line on the board that details the ongoing project revenue, material costs (both actual and projected), labor hours invested, project gross-profit per hour (both for each week and cumulatively for the life of the project), and forecasted versus actual completion percentages of the project.

Every Monday afternoon we gather our entire company around these boards and the project manager briefly explains to everyone where each project stands on the critical and often brutal scope-schedule-budget trifecta.  This can, on occasion, be a very painful experience for the project manager, as his words are sometimes a forewarning of pending financial impact to the project, which translates directly to bonus money slipping right out of everyone’s pockets.  Obviously, that’s never a fun conversation to have with folds.  However painful this early warning system may be in that respect, it’s MUCH BETTER than just waiting until it’s over to see how your profit score turns out.  Why?  Because once we identify a problem early on we can make course corrections to try and minimize or eliminate the negative financial and/or schedule impacts.

Invariable, when an issue like this comes up in our Monday huddle, it’s always followed by a company-wide discussion/brainstorm session that more often than not presents viable solutions to the problem.  The bonus checks are saved, the project gets what it needs, the project manager is taken off suicide-watch, and the team camaraderie is ratcheted up a few notches on those days.  It’s really quite a wonderful sight to behold.  Our examples of successful mid-course corrections are many, and the ability to do those sorts of things makes life reasonably bearable for a harried project manager.  Instead of feeling like he has to solely carry the burden of the problem, he knows that the whole company will be right behind him to help grab the wheel, pull back on the stick and keep our airplane from auguring into that upcoming mountainside.  In comparison to the old days at the roller coaster factory, the best we could do there was when someone came along months after the crash and said something to the effect of “Hey did you know that you were flying too low when you hit that mountain?”  Well DUH!  Where was that nugget of knowledge 6 months ago!?!?!?!?!?

What are your project gauges?  Can you tell when the mountain is coming at you, or are you destined to know of the crash only when you’re picking up the pieces of the aftermath?  Get yourselves some gauges kiddies, today, or sooner for that matter, and watch them closely.  Keep that nice shiny project-plane in the air where it belongs!  And what do you call a non-airborne project-plane?  A scrap pile!  Please, stay off the pile if you can.  Your sanity will thank you for your efforts, I promise.

Keep your eyes on those project gauges folks!!!