Category Archives: Planning Skills

The Schedule and Reality

Phillip stared at me. His blood pressure was up, though he appeared calm, but not like a deer in the headlights.

“So, we should teach our Project Managers to schedule?” he asked, knowing the answer was yes.

“Look. Phillip. Think about this. What is the most frequent problem a Project Manager has to deal with?”

Phillip didn’t hesitate. “The contractor calls up and wants to know how come something on the job site isn’t happening the way he expected it to.”

“And what happens then?”

“Well, the PM starts scrambling. He jumps on his radio to find out what happened to the crew or the materials or the equipment. It can get a little chaotic.”

“Why doesn’t the PM immediately go to the schedule to find out what is happening?”

“The schedule?” Phillip almost started laughing. “His schedule won’t tell him anything.”

I stopped, waited for ten long seconds. “And why won’t the schedule tell him what he needs to know.”

It was Phillip’s turn to wait. He was trying to craft a response, but the only thing that came out was the truth. “I guess we don’t take schedules seriously enough to train our PMs on how to create them and use them.”

“So, Phillip. Yes, you need to train them on how to put a schedule together.” Phillip nodded slowly in agreement. “And that’s not all. There’s more.”

It’s a Different Level of Work

As Phillip simmered, he finally blurted out, “But they should know how to schedule. How hard is that?”

“I don’t know, Phillip. How complicated are your scheduling logistics?” I asked.

“It’s just getting the materials and the people scheduled. How hard could it be.” Phillip was firm.

“What is the biggest problem they face in scheduling?”

Phillip thought for a minute, hoping to tell me there were never problems, but he knew better. “I guess the biggest problem is coordinating with the other subs on the job, to make sure their work is finished and the project is ready for the work we do. Since the subs don’t work for us, coordinating is sometimes difficult.”

“So, how do you train your PMs to deal with that?”

“Train ’em. They’re just supposed to know that they have to go check.” It was not a good answer and Phillip began to backpedal.

I pressed. “On the job, do materials ever get back-ordered? Does a crew member ever call in sick or a whole crew get reassigned to an emergency? Does the contractor ever change something without a change order? Does a piece of heavy equipment get delayed on another project and not show up? Does a dumpster load sometimes not get switched out in time. Does a code inspector sometimes not show up?

“Tell me, Phillip. How do you train your Project Managers to create and maintain schedules?”

Phillip hesitated. He knew any response would just sound like an excuse.

“Phillip, here is the critical factor. Actually doing the work is completely different from making sure the work gets done. It’s a different role in the company. It has its own skill set. You didn’t hire for it, you didn’t train for it, and, right now, it’s killing you.”

Scheduling as a Skill

Phillip was perplexed. “I explained it to them three times. They still don’t get it.” His emotion was a mixture of anger and bewilderment.

“What do you think the problem is?” I asked.

“My project managers don’t seem to have the capability to understand. They have 4 or 5 years in the business. Technically, they know how to do the work. They just can’t seem to be able to get other people to perform, at least not on time and most of the time, not on budget.” As Phillip talked, he calmed down.

“Technically, they understand what needs to be done?” I confirm.

“Yes, but the technical skills almost seem unimportant, now.” Phillip shook his head.

“If it’s not technical skills, what is it?”

“It’s like, they can’t even fill out a schedule. Ryan is one of my PMs. I asked to see his weekly schedule. He was so proud, he had it right in his clipboard. It was dated three months ago, all scribbled up with new dates at the top. Three guys on the schedule don’t even work for us anymore.”

“So, one of the skills is the ability to put together a weekly schedule for the project workload, targets, people, materials and equipment?”

The look on Phillip’s face was somewhere between an epiphany and a nervous breakdown. I continued, “So, when you interview for new project managers, do you interview for their ability to schedule?”

He shook his face from side to side, “No, we usually interview for technical skills.”

“Do you think you might start interviewing for scheduling skills?”

A Strong Excuse to Procrastinate

“That was the missing link,” said Jeremy. He explained his meeting with Sylvia. As suggested, he went back to outline the list of next steps for the project he had assigned to her.

“Even Sylvia was relieved,” Jeremy explained. “She agreed. The reason she did not start the project was that she was never clear on what to do first, so she procrastinated. The simple process, to clarify the next steps made all the difference.”

“And how many steps in this project?” I asked.

“Five simple little steps. But until we laid them out, the project was going to sit until it was too late.”

“When will you follow-up on the five steps?”

“Friday, at 3:00pm. At least I learned that lesson, to calendar my follow-up meetings. We will see how she does.”

All in all, it was a good week.

Interim Checkpoints

Jeremy was standing when I got to the courtyard. “I think I got it figured out,” he said. “You were right. I can tell you exactly when that unfinished report will hit my desk. Next Tuesday, because it is due next Wednesday.”

“And so, sometime on Tuesday, your teammate will realize it won’t (can’t) be done, go ask your boss what he should do and your boss will say what?” I smiled.

“My boss will say, give it back to Jeremy and he will get it done.” Now, it was Jeremy’s turn to smile.

“Why are smiling? You were pretty upset last week when it happened to you.”

Jeremy cracked up. “I know. It’s weird. When you know it is going to happen, it’s funny, like watching America’s Funniest Home Videos. You know the guy is going to smash into the wall and it’s funny.”

“So, what are you going to do differently, because next Tuesday, this will not be so funny?” I asked.

“Well, first I am going to set two follow-up meetings this week to make sure the project is kicked off and underway. Then next Monday, I will have a final follow-up meeting to get the last revision so I can review it on Tuesday. If we have a final touch-up, that will be okay. I guess it’s all in getting ahead of the curve.”

“You learned a valuable lesson about follow-up. It is the one place that most managers drop the ball and it is as simple as scheduling on your calendar.”

By Design

“I keep telling my team that we need to be proactive,” Lonnie said. He wasn’t defensive, but you could tell he wasn’t having any fun.

“So, tell me what happens?” I asked.

Lonnie shook his head. “It’s just day after day. The problems jump up. You know, it’s not like we don’t have a clue. We know what problems customers are going to have. Heck, we even know which customers are going to call us. We just don’t ever get ahead of the curve.”

“Lonnie, being reactive is easy. It doesn’t require any advance thinking, or planning, or anticipating. Being reactive just happens.

“Being proactive, however, requires an enormous amount of conscious thinking. It doesn’t just happen. You have to make it happen. You have to make it happen by design.

“At the beginning of the day, I want you to gather your team together. Show them a list of the work you are doing for the day and for which customers. Then ask these two questions.
–What could go wrong today?
–What can we do to prevent that from going wrong?”

Lonnie smiled. “That’s it?” he asked.

Never Enough Time To Plan

“I don’t understand,” Calvin shook his head. “It was only a two week project. We are almost finished. Why do you think we need a plan, now? All we have to do is get the last of the barcode labels on the product boxes we missed.”

“You tell me,” I said. “How did the barcode project turn out so far?”

“Well, we’re still working on it. It’s a lot of boxes, and we missed some as we were going through the inventory.”

“How did you find that out?”

“Well, my boss showed up late in the afternoon and started to look around. It’s amazing how he can always find the stuff we missed. It’s almost like he went straight to it. Boom. In five minutes he found 36 product bins that we missed completely. Now he is making us go back through and check every single item.”

“What is that doing to your completion schedule?” Calvin, just looked at me. No answer.

“So, there wasn’t enough time to plan this thing up front?” I said. “There wasn’t enough time to do it right, but there is enough time, now, to do it twice?

“Calvin, I know it seems you are really behind the 8-ball, but I want you to stop. Right now. Stop, and get your team around. I want you to draw out each of the steps with your team on a big piece of butcher paper. I want you to plan how you are going to get all the labels on and then plan how you are going to check for accuracy. You should be able to get that plan done in a half an hour. That half hour will end up saving you eight hours on the back end, and you shouldn’t have to do it a third time.

“Remember, doing it a third time is always an option.”

Waiting For Your Ship to Come In?

“What’s new?” I asked.

“Just waiting for my ship to come in,” explained Raphael.

“How long have you been waiting?”

“Long time.”

“How do you know your ship will, indeed, come in?”

Raphael looked puzzled.

“Did you send any out?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” Raphael replied.

“For your ship to come in, first, you have to send some out.”

Routine Grooved Behaviors

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
In the Four Absolutes, under Required Behaviors, you talk about habits. How do you interview for habits?

Response:
Habits are routine grooved behaviors kicked in by the brain in an approach to problem solving or decision making. To set the context, here are the Four Absolutes (required for success in any role).

  • Capbility (stated in time span)
  • Skill (technical knowledge, practiced performance)
  • Interest, passion (value for the work)
  • Required behaviors

Under Required Behaviors, there are three strings attached.

  • Contracted behaviors
  • Habits
  • Culture

To be successful in any role, there are some required behaviors. When I interview a candidate, I examine the role description, in each key result area (KRA), I identify the critical role requirements (required behaviors) and identify the habits that support and the habits that detract.

We all have habits that support our success, we also have habits that work against us.

Reading the resume
Habits are patterns. Read the resume from the back page to the front page. Most resumes are written in reverse chronological order, very tough to see a pattern going backward.

Identify the habit, then look for it
When I hire for a project manager, one habit I look for is planning vs improvisation. Improvisation is fun, but creates chaos. Improvisation may get the job done (once), customer may be very happy, but the cost is organizational body bags and friction, negatively impacting project profitability.

Effective project managers possess the habit of planning. Planning is a behavior that I can interview for. I will look for patterns of planning behavior as I move through the resume from past to present. Then I specifically look for planning behavior with specific questions.

  • Tell me about a time when you worked on a project where planning was required?
  • What was the project?
  • How long was the project?
  • What was the purpose of the project
  • How many people on the project team?
  • What was your role on the project team?
  • At what point during the project did planning begin?
  • Step me through the planning process for the project?
  • What was the form of the plan? written? whiteboard? verbal?
  • How was the plan used during the course of the project?
  • How often was the plan referred to during the course of the project?
  • How were revisions to the plan handled during the course of the project?
  • How were revisions to the plan documented during the course of the project? written? whiteboard? verbal?
  • What were the results of the project in comparison to the original plan?
  • Step me through the debrief (post mortem) of the project in relation to the plan?
  • What did you learn from the project debrief that impacted your plan on the next project?

Habits are those routine grooved behaviors automatically initiated by the brain in response to a problem that must be solved or a decision that must be made. -Tom

Slow Down to Go Fast

“If habits are connected to competence, why is that so important?” I asked.

“Sometimes, when I am faced with a problem, especially a new problem, that is difficult to solve,” Muriel was thinking out loud. “Competence is the ability to bring my thinking and resources to the problem quickly. Not just quickly, but easily. Almost like an instinct. Only I know it’s not instinct, because it is something I learned and had to practice,” she replied.

“Give me an example,” I said, looking for clarity.

“Okay, planning. As a manager, I know it is very tempting, when faced with a problem, to just jump in and solve it, dictate a course of action and move on. What I found was, that whenever I did that, I would fail to notice some critical element, misdirect my people and end up with my team losing its confidence in me.

“It took me a while to learn that I needed to slow down, get to the root cause of the problem, then create a plan. It was painful, in the beginning, because planning was not me.

“I would have to stop everything, clear the decks, drag out my books on planning. It was excruciating, worse, it took too long. Sometimes we would miss a deadline because the process took too long. It was difficult not to go back, jump in, dictate a course and move on, even if it was in the wrong direction.

“It was only when I committed the planning model to memory, that things began to change. Once I had it in my head, I could access the steps without having to look them up in my book. I began to break down every problem this way. Planning became quicker and quicker. Better yet, I was able to involve my team in creating the solution by using the steps. We seldom overlooked critical items. The best part was that everyone was on-board when we finished planning.

“Now, planning is a habit. My team does it all the time. It is a competence.”