Project Management

Project Management 101

            Another side topic I wanted to delve into is project management. Project management is a valuable managerial skill; many leaders do not have this skill and consequently theirprojects have a nasty habit of expanding as they go along, making it impossible to hit deadlines. To control this ‘scope creep,’ it's essential to define the scope at the very start of your project.”[1] Upon review of several project management texts and training exercises, I found a common theme, that of effectively utilizing a WBS. This acronym stands for Work Breakdown Structure, which is “a list of all the tasks or activities required to complete a project; a hierarchical process moving from the very general and ending with the very specific.”[2] The WBS forms a foundational structure for any project and is essential when tackling large, complex projects. Developing an understanding of how to develop and properly utilize a WBS is essential to improving project management skills. With this knowledge in hand, managers will be able to lead large projects with confidence.

            An overview of project management strategy is relevant to understanding the significance of the WBS. Chris Brown, in his 1999 South African Journal of Business Management article, lends valuable insight into organizational strategy surrounding project management implementation.  He cautions that “for the layman it might appear that implementing project management in organizations is a simple matter of defining goals, assembling teams, and appointing authoritative project leaders, [but in fact, it is] a complex process requiring strategic management intervention.”[3] He discusses ten factors that can inhibit the success of project management strategies. The ever-present natural resistance to change is the first. Secondly, he points out that many projects have a large scope and that “acceptance of a singular or universal project management methodology, will invariably lead to frustration and resistance.”[4] He also lists common pushbacks regarding adding overhead due to additional administrative duties as well as resistance to costs and time factors.

            Brown suggests that organizations must have a shift in mind set in order to create an atmosphere for acceptance of project management structures. When a project management structure is superimposed over the management structure currently in place, “functional heads usually regard it as a threat to their authority because the adjustment will reduce their [scope of] control.”[5] The project manager themselves also can feel uneasy because “they are often taken out of their functional skill area and thrust into a new area of activity with responsibilities for which they are most probably not adequately trained.”[6] Since there is a natural human resistance toward change, project management strategies must be carefully planned from the beginning with careful consideration of possible arising issues as well as emphasis on milestones and contingencies if redirection becomes necessary. Careful forethought will lead to increased success of any project.

            The author then lays down six essential steps to project management success. First, according to Brown, is the necessity of concocting a project management implementation plan. Without a good plan that obtains buy-in from integral parts of the team, the project is more likely to fail or be held up. Secondly, he advocates “a demonstration of unequivocal support by top management for a transition to the project management way of goal achievement.”[7] As upper management shows support, lower management, and eventually subordinates will fall in line supporting the initiative. Third, he suggests that a committee be formed to oversee the implementation of the plan. If the team has members chosen from several departments, they can help the transition be effective across all departments. The fourth step, essential to the project’s success, is the creation of the Work Breakdown Structure.  He then advocates that time frames and milestones need to be determined that will help drive the process. Lastly, costs need to be discussed and a margin given for possible adjustment. Following these six steps, according to the author, is essential to successful implementation of a project management plan. The main crux of the strategy will be retained in the WBS, and it will prove to be very instrumental as a guideline to, or measuring stick of, the project’s implementation effectiveness.  

            Work Breakdown Structure is so critical to project management that entire books have been written about it. The U.S. Government Accountability Office included a chapter about it in their management concepts training module. They define it as a tool that details specific tasks necessary to reach project ends, a tool that identifies resources needed and provides cost estimates and boundaries, a tool that develops a schedule and defines measurable milestones, and a communication tool that helps keep different departments on the same page. The chapter advocates creating a “product-oriented WBS because it allows a program to track cost and schedule by defined deliverables.”[8] It also allows managers to more easily pinpoint items that are causing delays or are exceeding cost estimates. “The WBS diagrams the effort in small discrete pieces, or elements, to show how each one relates to the others and to the program as a whole.”[9] By using a product oriented approach, breaking the project down into small deliverable units, managers will be able to track performance of each individual task and be able to spot delays and cost issues more readily.  According to the chapter, the WBS should be “a living document,” one that grows in the development phase. As more elements are incorporated, the schedule and cost estimates are refined.[10] It also advocates standardizing WBS structures within organizations. These then can be used as templates, with cost structures and time estimates defined, allowing the WBS to be created in less time and with more accuracy. “A standardized product-oriented WBS can help define high-level milestones and cost driver relationships that can be repeated in future applications.”[11] The chapter then advocates breaking down the project into small manageable elements that can have complete cost and time estimates attached to them as well as a framework that encompasses the order of completion and supervisory responsibilities. “A comprehensive WBS provides a consistent and visible framework that improves communication; helps in the planning and assignment of management and technical responsibilities; and facilitates tracking engineering efforts, resource allocations, cost estimates, expenditures, and cost and technical performance.”[12] This article also included a best practices checklist when creating a WBS that can prove handy in the future.

            Stanley Portny discusses the importance of a detailed WBS in effective project management in his article “Improving Project Performance with Three Essential Pieces of Information.” He postulates that “three pieces of information are essential to create the greatest chances for successfully completing a project: a clear and specific agreed-upon statement of the desired outcomes; a comprehensive list of all people who are interested in, needed to support, and/or affected by your project; and a complete and detailed listing of all required project work.”[13] He advises that developing a “complete, agreed-upon, clear and specific” list of objectives is essential to a project’s success.[14] He also advises project managers to be sure to determine who the stakeholders of the initiative are, being careful to include “drivers as well as supporters.”[15] The third essential piece is the WBS. Portny describes it as “the most important piece of information you will develop for your project because all subsequent planning and control activities will be based on it.”[16]

            The author then suggests that identifying components of the WBS can be accomplished with a top-down approach or through brainstorming. He advises project managers to “generate all possible deliverables for the project, group them into categories, and identify any deliverables in those categories that you overlooked.”[17] Portny advocates asking four questions about the deliverables you have laid out and if you answer ‘yes’ to number one or ‘no’ to any of the others, then you should break down the deliverable into sub-parts. The four questions are:

 

 

1. Do you require two or more intermediate deliverables to produce this deliverable?

2. Can you accurately estimate the resources needed to create it?

3. Can you estimate accurately how long it will take to produce this deliverable?

4. If you had to assign this work to someone else to perform, are you sure they would know what you

    wanted them to do? [18]

 

Portny closes with the statement; “A thorough WBS can help people see how it is possible to accomplish the planned work, achieve the desired project results, and provide a structure for responsive monitoring and reporting of project progress.”[19]  A well thought out, detailed WBS will be invaluable to a project manager as they evaluate the progress and implement redirections to their project management strategy.

            Dr. Jonathan Linton reiterates the importance of a well thought out, detailed WBS for any project implementation in his article, “Managing the Project: The Work Breakdown Structure is Key to Bringing it Home On-Time and On-Budget.”  He compares the WBS to the foundation of a structure; if it is incomplete or inadequate, the structure will collapse. He points out that each task listed on the WBS must “be actionable by a limited number of people and equipment; be deliverable within the scope of the project; consume resources; require the passage of time; and be assigned to an individual who is responsible for the monitoring and completion of the task.”[20] He goes on to discuss the importance of being specific regarding each item on the WBS, moving from general tasks to more specific tasks; outlining resources required for each task; if any other tasks need to be completed prior to the task; how long the task should take; and who to come to if any issues arise during completion of the task. Once the WBS is completed, “critical information for each activity can be documented: person responsible, minimum cost for completion, time required to complete at minimum cost, type and quantity of resources required and precedence (which other activities must be completed before the activity under consideration can be started).”[21] Linton advises that by mastering WBS construction and using it to effectively to monitor progress during project management implementation managers can find themselves successfully completing the project on-time and within budgetary constraints. They will feel more in control of the project during every phase and have a better handle on how to redirect should complications arise.

            The training exercise attached reiterates the importance of adequate planning, regardless of the project’s size and scope. “Everyone has a healthy respect for large projects and the degree of planning that is done to make them a success. Small projects require the same type of consideration. The scale will be different and the process will be less complex, however, the principles will be the same - the key principle being the importance of planning.”[22]  The author cautions against skipping the planning phase for small projects because without careful planning, “you risk missing critical steps, doing things out of sequence, and causing costly mistakes that require additional resources to fix.”[23] The exercise lays out, in great detail, how to develop an action plan for your project, create the work breakdown structure, and create charts that track the timeline accurately. This template will be useful for any project manager when attempting to formulate a project management strategy. By adding this exercise to their tool-kit, leaders can be more confident when assigned future projects to implement.

 Exercise --- [24] 

 


[1]How Good are Your Project Management Skills?." Mind Tools. Mind Tools Club, n.d. Web. 10 Sep 2011. <http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/newPPM_60.php

[2] Linton, Dr. Jonathan. “Managing the Project: The Work Breakdown Structure is Key to Bringing it Home On-Time and On-Budget.” Circuit Assembly.(June 2006): 12.

[3] Brown, Chris. “Towards a Strategy for Project Management Implementation.” South African Journal of Business Management. 30/2. (1999): 33. 

[4] Ibid. 34.

[5] Ibid. 35.

[6] Ibid. 35.

[7] Ibid. 37.

[8] US Gov’t Accountability Office. “Work Breakdown Structure.” GAO Reports, Chapter 8; (2009):65.

[9] Ibid. 66.

[10] Ibid. 71.

[11] Ibid. 72

[12] Ibid. 76.

[13] Portny, Stanley. “Improving Project Performance With Three Essential Pieces of Information.”  Journal for Quality & Participation. 33/3. (2010):19.

[14] Ibid. 20.

[15] Ibid. 20.

[16] Ibid. 21.

[17] Ibid. 22.

[18] Ibid. 23.

[19] Ibid. 25.

[20] Linton, Dr. Jonathan. “Managing the Project: The Work Breakdown Structure is Key to Bringing it Home On-Time and On-Budget.” Circuit Assembly.(June 2006): 12.

[21] Ibid. 14.

[22] “Planning Small Projects.” Bite-Sized Training. Mind Tools Club, n.d. Web 10 Nov 2011. 4. <http://www.mindtools.com/community/Bite-SizedTraining/SmallProjects.php>

[23] Ibid. 4.

[24] Ibid. 1-17.

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Robert Pannell,
Dec 18, 2011, 8:25 PM
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Robert Pannell,
Dec 18, 2011, 8:26 PM
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Robert Pannell,
Dec 18, 2011, 8:26 PM
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Robert Pannell,
Dec 18, 2011, 8:27 PM
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Robert Pannell,
Dec 18, 2011, 8:27 PM
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Robert Pannell,
Dec 18, 2011, 8:27 PM
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