Friday, September 28, 2007

Project management revisited

I've written about project management before multiple times. A new tool has become available, and so I thought it time to provide an update.

Project management was part of my professional life as an engineer from the start. My first manager took a course in Netzplantechnik and had me manage my design project using a paper PERT chart. At my second company, mainframe computers produced PERT data in tabular format, which I found far less user-friendly but certainly more voluminous. At my third company, I discovered and used MacProject, one of the friendlier and more intuitive project management programs I have seen.

Yet my third company also introduced me to process management and continuous process improvement. I started in manufacturing engineering and heard many a statement about improvement being continuous, having no end. I saw and participated in the great strides such approaches could make, even as we did run specific projects to accomplish specific objectives.

When I returned to a product development organization as R&D productivity manager, I struggled with what I saw as a project vs. process dilemma: projects seemed to be closed systems on far too many levels to be the unifying organizational approach. While certainly highly useful, they didn't seem to capture the reality of the world nor enable the strides I had seen a process focus capture. My manager was patient, reminding me of the business advantages of a project orientation that focused on achieving a specific goal with specified resources over a specific time frame.

With a few more years to reflect on the process vs. project issue, I now see the ideal as both-and, not either-or. To manage a business, there are many times when we are best served by dedicating fixed amounts of resources and schedule to achieving defined goals, and those call for projects and project management. Yet, to be competitive and to make a sustainable contribution requires a steady focus on getting better, a focus that isn't limited by a project release (or completion) date. I discovered an early statement of the idea of blending a project and a process focus in Experiences with Defect Prevention in the IBM Systems Journal from 1990, and I applied their notion of an action team to a project that reduced the prototyping time of printed circuit assemblies by 83% ("Emphasis on Business, Technology, and People Cuts Turnaround Time at Hewlett-Packard's Lake Stevens Division," National Productivity Review, Winter 1998-99).

I've updated the Project Management section of my Links page for new software that has become available. While GanttProject and TeXProject are still useful (TeXProject more for those who use LaTeX regularly), there's a newcomer to the scene: OpenProj™ by Projity. Some see that as a possible adjunct to; others see it as a tool that works with Microsoft Project files.

There are other solutions, especially for online collaboration. eProject offers a well-known commercial solution, and Projity offers its Project-ON-Demand™ SaaS. PHProjekt is a free alternative.

Whatever tools you pick, it's most important to think. As I related in the first links above, paper and pen with good project management approaches can work quite well; complex tools with poor approaches may get you nowhere (of course, complex tools may be necessary to manage the complexity of large projects). Certainly get the basics of project management down, but keep an eye out for new ideas such as critical chain theory (a decade old now) which may help you do better, and integrate project and process approaches in ways that serve your organization well.

Incidentally, chapter 11 of the novel Critical Chain by Eliyahu Goldratt is available online.

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