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Program Management By Ouija Board

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Going back to work after nearly five years of “retirement” has been both interesting and instructive. When I was asked if I would be willing to do scheduling, which is something I had done many years ago, I happily said “yes”. I would have probably agreed to almost anything they wanted me to do, as I was anxious to supplement my meager retirement income. Actually, I first learned scheduling software using a mainframe tool called Artemis. Shortly afterward, we were introduced to a PC version of Artemis which, if memory serves, was called Schedule Publisher and, within another very short period, it was spun off into a product from Advanced Management Solutions, called AMS REALTIME Projects.

This was somewhere around 1994 and, at the time, Microsoft Project was comparatively bare bones and nowhere near as useful (in my opinion at the time) as REALTIME Projects. Having long been very much a visual person, I find the visualization provided by Gantt charts to be particularly useful when looking to see how the logic in a schedule affects downstream activities as time, and the work contemplated in the schedule, moves forward. Until Project introduced the Timeline view, which allows quick zooming and panning, I was not terribly happy with it compared to the AMS product, which offered a useful timeline capability.

So . . . since I had done scheduling for a few years during the 90s, I readily accepted the challenge and, upon my return on January 19, 2015, I was amused to see the company was still using Project 2002 which, although newer than the version I had struggled with, was still well over a decade old. The main reason for this, I was told, was because a set of macros had been developed over the years that allowed schedules to be matched up with the organization’s earned value management system, which is Deltek MPM.

Unfortunately, using such an old piece of software presented some interesting problems. One of the most egregious, from my point of view, was its inability to run in any of the conference rooms in my building. This was — and still is — due to an IT rule put in place that won’t run software in conference rooms if it’s more than two versions older than the most current one available. In the case of MS Project, the latest version available when I returned was 2013. Also, MS had released a 2007 and a 2010 version, which put the one in widespread use more than two versions behind and, as a result, clicking on the tool (which was installed in all the conference rooms) invoked Project but, instead of seeing the tabular data alongside a Gantt chart, all one got was an empty box with a small red “x” in the upper lefthand corner.

In my experience, scheduling is an activity that absolutely must be done collaboratively. A good, useful schedule requires (at the very least) a great deal of understanding of not only the work to be done, but the ways in which the logic of its progression needs to be modeled in order to accurately reflect how downstream activities are impacted by small changes as work progresses . . . and changes are absolutely unavoidable, especially in large, complex projects such as rocket engine design, manufacture, and test.

Since it was impossible to use the tool in a conference room, where I could sit with the Program Manager, one or more Control Account Managers, and various Engineers (Design, Quality, Manufacturing, etc.) developing schedules became somewhat difficult and inordinately iterative, requiring dozens of communications back and forth between me and the Program Manager, as well as others who we needed input from. As work progressed, I was able to get IT to agree to allow me to log into my computer remotely from any one of the conference rooms, which made working on the schedule much easier. However, the resolution in the conference rooms was far less than that available to me on my Dell all-in-one. Its screen is 23″ diagonally, plus I have an extension display that gives me another 19″ off to the side. What I see on screen in conference rooms is not as inclusive as what I normally work with and it takes a bit of adjusting, which cuts into the speed with which I can get things done.

As I both refamiliarize myself with the scheduling process and learn how the tools have advanced, I’m learning a lot about how best to do it. Perhaps more importantly, I’m also learning how little most people know of the power of a good piece of scheduling software. There are people here who still use Excel spreadsheets and date functions to create schedules. Maybe I’m missing something, but MS Project and other similar tools provide not only calendaring functionality, but also the kind of logic necessary to accurately model the interplay between design, quality, procurement, operations, testing, and numerous other ancillary and important processes that make up the entirety of a program.

Inasmuch as Project also provides for highly detailed resource loading (quite literally down to the gnat’s ass, if one is so inclined), I’m unclear as to why we don’t use it for at least first cut proposal activity. Were we to do so, I’m convinced it would not only speed up the initial process of pricing a decent proposal but, when completed, there would be no need to then create a schedule from scratch, which is generally the way it’s done now. I suspect there are some people out there who actually do what I’m suggesting but, for all I know at this point, my perception could be wildly innacurate.

So . . . I’m kind of hedging my bets and, while I’m agitating for people to consider using MS Project more widely and for deeper resource planning, I’m mostly looking to understand the tool a little more each day. It, like many tools available to organizations of all kinds and sizes, is far more powerful than most individuals understand or are interested in learning. I’m constantly finding myself believing we are crippling ourselves by not using it far more extensively but, as many have pointed out, changing direction in a reasonably large organization, especially one which depends largely on government contracts and oversight, is like turning an aircraft carrier with a canoe paddle. On the bright side, it could keep me working for another decade, the prospect of which does not bother me in the slightest.

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About Rick Ladd

Born in 1947, I was an officially retired pensioner, but in January of 2015 I returned to work as a contractor at Aerojet Rocketdyne. I remain intensely interested in, and fascinated by, Systems Thinking, Knowledge Management, Decision Intelligence, and Business in general. I am also conversant in such concepts as innovation and ideation, collaborative tools and strategies, crowd sourcing, and the use of social media to accomplish goals ranging from improving business processes to promoting small retail businesses. While "retired" I did a little bit of freelancing as an editor/proofreader, as well as some technical writing. There's lots more where that came from. Need some help? Perhaps another set of eyes? Contact me. The first one's free! ;0) View all posts by Rick Ladd

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