Saturday, November 11, 2017

Project software

A run down on the project software I've used over my career so far.

First in NSW Public Works Department

Vision, running on an Alpha Micro minicomputer (size of a large dishwasher)
Vision ran in two parts. First load was of activities ('tasks' is the word amateurs use), and the activity application was run. Then the activity relations application was run to weave the activities together.

It printed out at great length as you could imagine for a time scaled network diagram.

Next package was Timeline 3 running on DOS.
I used this in a medium sized architectural office where I was senior architect. I was running a small job to design a new factory for BHP, making welded plate beams. The firm seemed to have little idea of job pricing, so I created a schedule in Timeline, put costs against all the staff and consultants we'd be using. I printed this out on my little dot-matrix home printer and showed the partner in charge. He was struck by the cost of the project. I think it was the first time he'd seen such a thing.

After this I upgraded to Timeline 4 on DOS as it had macros.

My next package was CA Superproject in Windows.
This was a charm to use, although I was irritated by it showing each resource as a separate activity bar. Took up lots of space on the screen, and lots of paper to print. It may still be available at Vetusware. I might have some disks somewhere as well, but would be surprised if they still worked.

I didn't touch PM packages for sometime then, until I was working for a multi-national design-construct business. We used Fast Track and an architectural information package, name of which escapes me (maybe it was Fast Track!). I saw an early version of Prolog (now owned by Trimble) at a trade show and was impressed that here was software that supported full management of a project, not just schedule and cost. It managed the entire information flow, which is the heart of PM, in my view. Details 3 is a similar package, but I'm not sure if it is still live.

Then I came to Microsoft Project, in a very early incarnation. Was good, and I liked it, although the presentation control (for printing) could have done with some tweaking.

I moved to another multi-national D-C firm where Primavera P3 was used: a great PM package. We also looked at Expedition for full project information control, but as we were implementing BAAN ERM, our efforts went there instead. This also distracted us from implementing Cobra for earned value management. We also had a stripped down version of P3 called Suretrak. It was a superb little package. I've got the disks for that somewhere too.

Primavera was great. It really felt and performed as a top of the line professional package (its now P6 and owned by Oracle).

I missed it when I joined a public sector operation and back to MS Project; OK but not great, although it has improved over the years.

One aberration I encountered in this public service organisation was during the implementation of SAP financials and HR systems. SAP projects was bolted on. This was so bad it wasn't even wrong! Project management as conceived by an accountant is not the way to go. It was so clunky and non-project in its concept-of-workflow that it was impossible to use for project management. Reporting, maybe, cost accounting, maybe, but not for PM. No one used it. The idea of tracking people and costs on the one platform was a good one, but force feeding by corporate types who know nothing about project management was a recipe for disaster, they not knowing what they didn't know, and thinking that multi-degreed engineers, architects and quantity surveyors, whose first degrees were twice the length of theirs had nothing to offer was risible.

Now, a few curios:

TurboProject. From the same stable as TurboCad, and pitched at the same market: I'd call it sub-professional. OK but not brilliant. The product seems fast and reliable with sufficient functionality to satisfy more than basic needs. I used it at version 1, and its still around, in a number of variants and would probably be great for a firm that did smaller contained projects: event management, publishing, simple buildings or civil works, etc.

Key Project Manager. A small 'task' management package; came on a magazine cover disk decades ago and I used it in Windows' early days. Simple for non-project tasks and even had task durations with calendar views to help coordinate. But here, as most 'task' managers, the fatal flaw is no way of assigning or tracking dependencies.

In the world of Mac the only offerings I am aware of are Merlin Project and ConceptDraw Project. Both are at the same level as TurboProject, in my estimation, but I'd be happy to be proved wrong. That is, good, but not for major projects with hundreds of activities, dozens of calendars, multiple baselines, earned value reporting, etc.

Update: a quick look at the Mac websites was good; both packages have come along since I encountered  them about 10 years ago. Quite mature products. Merlin has the ability to link lots of files to activities (they call them tasks, like a project is equivalent to cleaning the house). Now this is starting to be where we need project management software. The big job in project management is managing and communicating information. Tracking this torrent of what used to be 'paperwork' is at the heart of it. Tracking project configuration changes is also essential: drawing and specification revisions, scope changes, work remediation...the time schedule approach to PM is nowhere near this.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Sydney INTERNATIONAL Convention Centre

If you label yourself 'international'; you'd better be that...not just pretend with fancy signs.

This is one reaction to the 'internationalness' of the Sydney Convention Centre:

Toilets. Predictably after the long first session, there was a rush on the toilets. On average men take 30 seconds to use the urinal, 15 seconds to wash hands and another 25 seconds to dry hands thoroughly standing at the drying machine. Let’s say that women take twice this for the first two uses.

At an estimate, there were about 1200 people using the level 3 toilets; lets divide that into 2, for the two sets and again into M and F; 300 people possibly wanting to use the toilets in the 20 minutes break.

For men, each toilet on the level should have 7 urinals (a concession to less than 100% usage), and women should have 14 toilet cubicles. Women might then need 7 hand basins and 7 driers in each toilet, men about half that. But what did we have? Less than half that number, and long conjested queues for every service point in the toilets (urinal, basin, hand dryer).

The hand dryers need to be placed in cognizance of the numbers and their flow; not placed in an awkward location that obstructs the smooth flow of patrons. NOT ‘international’.

Men’s urinals need some modesty separation. Some ‘international’ hotels in Sydney provide small, but sufficient panels between them…just like in international hotels I’ve experienced in other countries. Lack of them means NOT ‘international’ and simply offensively undignified. I take no delight in being splashed from an adjoining urinal.

Coffee service. It was good that the milk was placed distant from the tea and coffee service points. However, flow was awkward and there were insufficient points, meaning that the foyer was full of queues snaking around each other: for toilets, drinks and food. To serve the number comfortably probably requires 4 to 6 service points, with rational flow to milk and sugar points. Food points should also be dispersed to manage circulation.

Foyer. Needless to say, movement in the crowded foyer was difficult. There were insufficient seats available, by a factor of about 10. The foyer did not comfortably accommodate the crowd, making it perilous to handle hot drinks, and therefore uncomfortable and uneasy. NOT ‘international’.

So, a nice little place, looks attractive and has some useful qualities, but its ancillary facilities are simply inadequate for scale and pace of demand and do not reflect an international class venue; indeed the venue, in my experience across three continents, is embarrassing in its poor provisions for patrons’ comfort.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

United we fly, united we fall

If you have missed it, United Airlines is now famous for roughly hauling an elderly passenger off a plane that they overbooked.

For those interested in how business handles risk, this is an interesting case: one 'difficult' passenger, a routine request (I would surmise that the  'bumping' requirement is included in the ticket contract), staff with poor PR skills, lack of ability to increase the value of the alternative offer, a CEO who doesn't know the business and regards passengers as freight...and it all unravels in share price and ramifications in China...they picked the wrong passenger. How a small cascade of minor errors potentially wipes huge value off the company. I bet they didn't cover that one in their pretty risk matrix.

One has to chuckle.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

About Risk

I accompanied some junior colleagues to a short course on risk management.

It was, unsurprisingly, the same old same old: it culminated in the presentation of a 5X5 matrix with some lovely colours and labels from low to high.

What was missed was the unavoidable error bands around any point on the map, which meant that it was impossible to differentiate between a medium and a high risk on the map. The error bands overlapped.

The result would potentially be misallocation of resources, and the inability to respond to actual risk in the real world appropriately. This is 'the risk in risk matrices'.

An excellent corrective to the reflexive reliance on the rough stepped matrix is Matthew Squair's blog Risk and the matrix. I commend it to you.

Risk is better mapped, in my view, as a series of 'isorisk' lines to guide the analyst in their determination of a risk response. Risk is not cut and dried.

Isorisk Map

Monday, January 30, 2017

Strategy is? 2

The strategy process is historically separated into planning and execution phases. Some writers tie the two together: Mintzberg and Quinn spring to mind. I do too.

This diagram attempts to capture the dynamic as a feedback system revolving around performance (which is where projects live).

Friday, January 20, 2017

The coffee queue problem

I'm sure that we've all been to conferences where we've encountered the 'coffee queue' problem. This is where the conference organisers have organised the coffee table to maximise congestion through coupling of workstations with incompatible dwell times.

Still, how could one expect catering types to understand work flow techniques, I had to study two Masters degrees to gain a decent exposure to them.

This is what we usually have:

People move through the fast stations quickly, only to crowd the slow stations, with those who can skip a station unable to do so because of the 'log-jam'.

A better way, that I've only too rarely encountered where the different rates of flow are de-coupled:

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

What do you mean, 'value'?

In risk analysis we sometimes multiply the probability of occurrence with the event loss to obtain an expected event loss for the risk. Thus, if the the probability of occurrence of cladding collapsing is 1%, and the cost of the collapse (clean up,  insurance premium, make good) is $10m, then the expected event loss is $100k. No much, and across a portfolio of risks it indicates the overall budget risk....of course you include that in a Monte Carlo analysis to introduce some objectivity.

Another page from Matthew's book, Chancing it bears consideration in this context.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Best practice?

Really? Best for whom?

I'd prefer to develop my project practice in Deming's cycle; therefore, not 'best practice' but 'better practice' better for my projects in my circumstances. Using someone else's 'best' ties me to their past, not my future.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Strategy is?

There is possibly not a topic in business that is more written about than 'strategy'; except perhaps 'leadership.

What is 'strategy'?

In my view, all projects are a response to a strategic need: they build capability for mission delivery into the future.

Some concepts of strategy have a static feel to them: Porter's 5 forces, for example. I know Porter's model is not static, but it tends to a static iconography.

This diagram includes the dynamic forces that influence strategic thinking in business. It could be though of as the third dimension to a typical Porter 5 forces diagram:

The 'capability platform' is created by capital investment, responsive organisation structures and processes, and the right people to deliver skills that make strategic sense in the business environment.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Wisdom of crowds?

Having been thinking lately of early warning systems in project management, this passage from Matthew's book Chancing it popped out at me:

Monday, January 9, 2017


The idea of leadership abounds in management discourse; less so in project writing, but here in some ways it is more important: the breakdown of leadership can have immediate and disastrous consequences for the project, its staff and its investor.

Leadership needs to be made tangible. It is not just about the fluffy aspirational manipulation or which we read too frequently, and can do nothing with. It has to be grounded in actions and organisation.

I think John Adair's Action Centred Leadership model achieves this very well, and is directly applicable to a project environment. It requires a dynamic balance (dynamic means changing as per the circumstances) of task, team and individual, with none slipping out of the dynamic.

Diagrammed thusly:

Friday, January 6, 2017

Project predictions

Most of the formal measures we have of project performance (including progress) are backward looking. They report what has been done, sometimes when it is too late to bring corrective action to bear if performance is below expectation.

There is plenty to do to avoid project mistakes: credible baselines, to borrow from Glen Alleman's blog, are a big part of it, as are achievable requirements, risk-adjusted planning, the right team, and so on. That's essential to project performance.

All well and good, but how do we look ahead?

I recently received a newsletter from Charles Pellerin and this turned my mind to the project social climate. Like any business undertaking, projects are delivered socially: that is by people working together to achieve a common goal. Social climate, the sort of thing that Charles writes and practices on, is a large part of determining project success. There are social climate instruments that in expert hands could provide a useful insight into project outcomes. But a wise PM can also maintain observation of social climate: what issues, risks and decisions are coming to him or her, and how quickly are they attended to: a good rule of thumb.

In $300m major urban renewal project that I directed some years ago, I used 'aged decisions' as my rough guide to the performance of the team (reaching across a number of government and private sector players). It also gave me something tangible to open conversations to prompt performance when a decision remained unmade for an excessive period.

Another way of looking at it, is to consider promise reliability: measured by promises delivered. Following Hal Macomber's work in the old Reforming Project Management blog (some of the material might be found on the Lean Construction website); the tracking of promise keeping is an indicator, a robust one, in my view, of project delivery reliability.

There are others as well. In a contracting environment contract commitment against plan is a useful forwarding looking metric, for example.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Positive feedback

We've all heard the phrase "positive feedback", but I wonder how many of us realise that the typical conversational usage is wrong?

Typically the phrase connotes corrective action taken to restore performance. In systems terms, however, this is negative feedback. Positive feedback makes things worse; it continues an already destabilising trend.

Here's 'positive feedback' correctly used and illustrated, on page 298 of Ian Stewart's wonderful book 17 Equations that Changed the World; the chapter on the Black-Scholes equation. More of which here.