Category Archives: Timespan

Uncertainty in the Project

“Let’s look at some of the specific decisions that you have to make today that will have impact later in the project?” I said.

Taylor sat back. “Okay. Let’s just look at the buy out,” he started. “In the buy out, I have to purchase some large pieces of equipment that will be installed. I have to work with our project managers and also with our purchasing guy. Here are some of my decisions that I have to make today, but it may be months before we find out if it was the right decision.

“Will the price of this equipment (to be installed) go up or go down. If I make a commitment now and the price goes up, I am a hero. If I wait to make the purchase and the price goes up, I am a goat.

“Will the vendor that supplies the equipment still be in business a year from now. I may have to put down some deposit money. But even if we lose the deposit money, the real risk is trying to scramble at the last minute to find an alternate supplier. The costs may have changed and some of this stuff has lead times. If the project gets delayed because we don’t have the equipment on-site to be installed, we may be liable for a delay claim.”

Taylor stopped.

The Third Part of the Story

“I don’t understand,” Roger shook his head. “If Brad would just start earlier on these longer projects, things would be under control, and he wouldn’t be cutting unnecessary corners which compromise project quality.”

“Why do you think he procrastinates until the end?” I asked.

Roger shook his head.

“Because,” I continued, “he cannot see the end until he is two months away. On a project with a nine month deadline, Brad cannot see the end. It is too far away. There is so much uncertainty between now and nine months from now, that he cannot see it.

“So he takes no action.

“Of course, the pressure of the project builds, because now things are getting late, but even that is not what finally kicks Brad into action. With sixty days to go, Brad can now see the end. And when Brad can see the end, he starts to act. It is frustrating for us, because we saw this nine months ago.

“Everyone has a story. And every story has a beginning, middle and an end. When you listen to someone’s story, you will hear the Time Span of their story. They cannot take action in their story until they see the end of their story.”

Overtime and Weekends

I managed to get two steps up the food chain, talking with the boss of Olivia’s boss, a senior vice president in the company.

“So, how did the audit project get delayed for your ISO re-certification?” I asked.

“I don’t know. You spoke with Olivia, one of our supervisors. Her manager, Brad, is really in charge of that project, it’s a Stratum III role, and we have had more troubles than just the audit with Brad.”

“Procrastination?” I suggested.

His eyes grew wide and his head began to nod in agreement. Eyebrows furrowed. “Yes. And I have talked to him about getting a jump on these longer term projects. Brad is okay with projects of about 60 days, but anything longer than that and he really gets in the weeds. In the end, you start to see him power through, working overtime and weekends. When he started working here, he looked really dedicated, but as time goes on, I don’t see that as effective manager behavior.”

“What length project is Brad good at?”

“Two months.”

“And how much time is left before the audit?”

“Two months.”

“What connection can you make from that?”

Time Compression?

“We have an ISO process audit coming up in two months and we have to get all the documentation updated before it starts. So, that makes it a two month Time Span goal,” Olivia described. “I am not sure I understand. This is a very complex project. The documentation is very detailed and technical. It will require someone at my level to supervise, to make sure it is correct. If we fail this audit, it puts several contracts in jeopardy. But a two month Time Span looks like Stratum I work.”

“There are two kinds of complexity. One type is created by the amount of technical detail. The other type of complexity is created by uncertainty,” I replied.

“Okay, I understand that if something has a lot of technical detail, it will take a long time just to parse through it. That might make a project’s Time Span longer. But I cannot get over the fact that this project has to be complete in two months, but the level of work is definitely higher than Stratum I.”

“Don’t be fooled. Because you only have two months, a great deal of uncertainty is gone. While you may think this is a tough project (detailed complexity), the limited Time Span forces this to be a simpler project.

“In two months,” I continued, “you don’t have time to start your documentation over from scratch. You don’t have time for massive overhaul, no in-depth analysis. You only have time to perform a quick review, observe a limited number of examples and make some relatively minor changes. Here’s the rub.

“The real Time Span of this project started the moment you finished version one of your current documentation. The true Time Span of the project is closer to one year than two months. Unfortunately, no manager took this assignment. No work was done. Procrastination killed its true purpose, and likely, the quality of the end product.”

Who Has the Accountability?

Paula, one of the team members from administration, raised her hand. “It seems to me that no one can make a decision around here. Russ has his engineering agenda, and it’s important, but if we don’t get the project done on time, that’s a problem, too.”

“Paula, do you think Russ should fight less hard for project specifications that he believes in?” Alicia asked.

Paula shook her head, “No.”

“And do you think Russ should fight less hard to keep the project on track?”

Paula continued to move her head from side to side.

“So, who should make the decision?” Alicia looked at each team member, around the table, settling on herself. She looked down, then back up to the team.

Identifying Timespan

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Sometimes, identifying level of work seems elusive. I try to look at the timespan of the task, but sometimes, my intuition just seems off.

The biggest mistake most companies make is underestimating the timespan associated with a role. In addition to timespan, there are other clues that can help us with level of work.

Examine the task. The first clue to level of work is the timespan of the task. Here are the two questions. When does it start? When does it end? When we imagine a task, sometimes we focus on the middle without truly defining the start and end of the task.

While a craft trade (S-I) might look at a task as a one-day project, the supervisor (S-II) may be concerned about the permit inspection in two weeks. The manager (S-III) may be concerned with the system in which the project was completed, accountable for a one-year warranty that accompanies the work product. The VP of Quality Control (S-IV) may be accountable beyond the warranty to multi-year statutes related to defects. For the role, when does the project start, when does the project end?

Examine the tools. A craft trade (S-I) generally uses real tools, machinery, equipment. The supervisor (S-II) will use schedules, checklists and meetings. The manager (S-III) will use flowcharts, sequence and planning. The VP (S-IV) will use multi-project Gant charts.

Examine the problem solving. A craft trade (S-I) may make good use of trial and error problem solving. The supervisor (S-II) may rely on documented experience like SOPs and best practices. The manager (S-III) may employ root cause analysis. The VP (S-IV) has to look at multiple systems simultaneously, systems analysis.

All of these are clues. With the work defined, the next question, is the team member effective in the work?

Get It Off Your To-Do List

“I’m struggling with my to-do list,” Sarah sighed. “Very depressing.”

I nodded. “And?”

“Two days ago, I had ten things on my list,” she started. “At the end of the day, I had twelve things on my list. The next morning, yesterday, two more things were added overnight. I finished three items during the day, but that was replaced by three more. I never seem to make headway and it is getting me down.”

“How do things get off your list? As a manager, you have a lot on your plate and we can’t have depressed managers walking around infecting everyone else.”

“I just work really hard. I come in early, I stay late, take work home with me over the weekend, but, my list stays full. I have trouble knowing what’s important, what to do next, if I am going to miss a deadline. There is no rhyme or reason to my priorities.”

“When you look at your list, how do you decide what to work on next?” I asked.

“Whatever I think I can get accomplished. It feels really good to get something off my plate that day, but all the other things on my list pile up, distract me, make me anxious.”

“Would it feel good to get some things off your list? Not get them all done, but get them off your list?”

“I can’t just cross stuff off the list. It ALL has to get done, eventually,” Sarah complained.

“There are three ways to get things off your list,” I explained. “You are only using one, that is the do-it-now strategy, which works but leaves you depressed. Here are two other strategies to get things off your to-do list. Schedule the task on your calendar. Commit the necessary amount of time in the future, before the deadline to get it done. Cross it off your list.”

Sarah thought and finally replied. “If I do that, I can see my priorities clearer. My deadlines show up, but are under control because I know I have committed time to complete. But, what if my calendar gets full? I have more tasks to complete, but no more committed time.”

“Yes, and you said it ALL has to get done. If you have no available time to commit, and it ALL has to get done, you have no choice but to delegate some of the tasks out to other people on your team. This is management, it all has to get done, but you have to use the other two strategies –

  • Do it now, get it done, myself.
  • Schedule it on my calendar, with committed time, before the deadline.
  • Delegate it.

“Now, when you delegate, it doesn’t mean it’s done. You still have to check on it, but don’t put the check-in on your to-do list. Where do you put the check-in?”

Sarah smiled, looking way less depressed. “I put it on my calendar.”

Three Questions

“Team members have three questions,” Pablo continued, “and they all have a bearing on retention.”

  • What is expected of me?
  • How am I doing?
  • Who do I go to for help?

“The third question is the key,” I replied, “and, we can use that key to help us with the first two questions. It is a question of WHO?”

  • Who helps me set expectations in my role, to which I agree?
  • Who helps me understand how I am doing?
  • Who do I go to for help?

Pablo nodded. “How does the saying go? People join companies. People quit managers. People will work (for a while) with substandard pay, substandard benefits, as long as they have a great relationship with their manager. But, even with competitive pay and superior benefits, people will quit if they have a lousy manager.”

“So, it’s not just the role, its the working relationship with their manager,” I said.

“And, working relationships is how we define organizational structure,” Pablo stepped on my line. “Organizational structure is the way we define the working relationships (accountability and authority) between people. Organizational structure is the context in which people work. It is the context in which people engage in work or engage in non-work. Change the context, behavior follows.”**
**Famous quotation from Gustavo Grodnitzky, Culture Trumps Everything

Leveraging External Systems

“I am sick and tired of the government putting things in the way of our growth,” Rory said. “We’ve got a good business, but all the regulations are killing us.”

“Indeed. I see that,” I replied. “So, why did you decide that this was the business to be in?”

“Because we are good at it,” Rory beamed trying not to show too much pride.

“May I use some exaggeration?” I asked, then continued without waiting for a response. “If you were good at manufacturing music CDs with the highest quality, at an operating cost lower than any of your competitors, would you choose that as a business model?”

“Your example is absurd,” Rory smirked. “An operating cost lower that any competitor is ridiculous, there would be no competitors.”

“And, why is that?”

“Because nobody buys CDs anymore,” he explained. Then stopped. “I wouldn’t be in that business, it would be a poor choice.”

“Rory, the most strategic decision you make is to decide what business to be in. Your market, market demand is an external system in which you have little control. Government regulation is an external system over which you have little control. You are fighting the headwinds of your market, fighting the headwinds of regulation. Pick (or adapt) your business model that doesn’t fight these external systems, but takes advantage of them.”

Rolling Forward

Seventeen year’s ago, (Nov 2004) we began this writing sojourn. I want to thank you for taking a precious minute out of your day to observe those events around you, reflect on your impact and think about the next move you make.

Management Blog will be back next Monday. Don’t eat too much turkey. -Tom