Money for Nothing — Project Performance Data and Efficiencies in Timeliness

I operate in a well regulated industry focused on project management. What this means practically is that there are data streams that flow from the R&D activities, recording planning and progress, via control and analytical systems to both management and customer. The contract type in most cases is Cost Plus, with cost and schedule risk often flowing to the customer in the form of cost overruns and schedule slippages.

Among the methodologies used to determine progress and project eventual outcomes is earned value management (EVM). Of course, this is not the only type of data that flows in performance management streams, but oftentimes EVM is used as shorthand to describe all of the data captured and submitted to customers in performance management. Other planning and performance management data includes time-phased scheduling of tasks and activities, cost and schedule risk assessments, and technical performance.

Previously in my critique regarding the differences between project monitoring and project management (before Hurricane Irma created some minor rearranging of my priorities), I pointed out that “looking in the rear view mirror” was often used as an excuse for by-passing unwelcome business intelligence. I followed this up with an intro to the synergistic economics of properly integrated data. In the first case I answered the critique demonstrating that it is based on an old concept that no longer applies. In the second case I surveyed the economics of data that drives efficiencies. In both cases, new technology is key to understanding the art of the possible.

As I have visited sites in both government and private industry, I find that old ways of doing things still persist. The reason for this is multivariate. First, technology is developing so quickly that there is fear that one’s job will be eliminated with the introduction of technology. Second, the methodology of change agents in introducing new technology often lacks proper socialization across the various centers of power that inevitably exist in any organization. Third, the proper foundation to clearly articulate the need for change is not made. This last is particularly important when stakeholders perform a non-rational assessment in their minds of cost-benefit. They see many downsides and cannot accept the benefits, even when they are obvious. For more on this and insight into other socioeconomic phenomena I strongly recommend Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. There are other reasons as well, but these are the ones that are most obvious when I speak with individuals in the field.

The Past is Prologue

For now I will restrict myself to the one benefit of new technology that addresses the “looking in the rear window” critique. It is important to do so because the critique is correct in application (for purposes that I will outline) if incorrect in its cause-and-effect. It is also important to focus on it because the critique is so ubiquitous.

As I indicated above, there are many sources of data in project management. They derive from the following systems (in brief):

a. The planning and scheduling applications, which measure performance through time in the form of discrete activities and events. In the most sophisticated implementations, these applications will include the assignment of resources, which requires the integration of these systems with resource management. Sometimes simple costs are also assigned and tracked through time as well.

b. The cost performance (earned value) applications, which ideally are aligned with the planning and scheduling applications, providing cross-integration with WBS and OBS structures, but focused on work accomplishment defined by the value of work completed against a baseline plan. These performance figures are tied to work accomplishment through expended effort collected by and, ideally, integrated with the financial management system. It involves the proper application of labor rates and resource expenditures in the accomplishment of the work to not only provide an statistical assessment of performance to date, but a projection of likely cost performance outcomes at completion of the effort.

c. Risk assessment applications which, depending of their sophistication and ease of use, provide analysis of possible cost and schedule outcomes, identify the sensitivity of particular activities and tasks, provide an assessment of alternative driving and critical paths, and apply different models of baseline performance to predict future outcomes.

d. Systems engineering applications that provide an assessment of technical performance to date and the likely achievement of technical parameters within the scope of the effort.

e. The financial management applications that provide an accounting of funds allocation, cash-flow, and expenditure, including planning information regarding expenditures under contract and planned expenditures in the future.

These are the core systems of record upon which performance information is derived. There are others as well, depending on the maturity of the project such as ERP systems and MRP systems. But for purposes of this post, we will bound the discussion to these standard sources of data.

In the near past, our ability to understand the significance of the data derived from these systems required manual processing. I am not referring to the sophistication of human computers of 1960s and before, dramatized to great effect in the uplifting movie Hidden Figures. Since we are dealing with business systems, these methodologies were based on simple business metrics and other statistical methods, including those that extended the concept of earned value management.

With the introduction of PCs in the workplace in the 1980s, desktop spreadsheet applications allowed this data to be entered, usually from printed reports. Each analyst not only used standard methods common in the discipline, but also developed their own methods to process and derive importance from the data, transforming it into information and useful intelligence.

Shortly after this development simple analytical applications were introduced to the market that allowed for pairing back the amount of data deriving from some of these systems and performing basic standard calculations, rendering redundant calculations unnecessary. Thus, for example, instead of a person having to calculate multiple estimates to complete, the application could perform those calculations as part of its functionality and deliver them to the analyst for use in, hopefully, their own more extensive assessments.

But even in this case, the data flow was limited to the EVM silo. The data streams relating to schedule, risk, SE, and FM were left to their own devices, oftentimes requiring manual methods or, in the best of cases, cut-and-paste, to incorporate data from reports derived from these systems. In the most extreme cases, for project oversight organizations, this caused analysts to acquire a multiplicity of individual applications (with the concomitant overhead and complexity of understanding differing lexicons and software application idiosyncrasies) in order to read proprietary data types from the various sources just to perform simple assessments of the data before even considering integrating it properly into the context of all of the other project performance data that was being collected.

The bottom line of outlining these processes is to note that, given a combination of manual and basic automated tools, that putting together and reporting on this data takes time, and time, as Mr. Benjamin Franklin noted, is money.

By itself the critique that “looking in the rear view mirror” has no value and attributing it to one particular type of information (EVM) is specious. After all, one must know where one has been and presently is before you can figure out where you need to go and how to get there and EVM is just one dimension of a multidimensional space.

But there is a utility value associated with the timing and locality of intelligence and that is the issue.

Contributors to time

Time when expended to produce something is a form of entropy. For purposes of this discussion at this level of existence, I am defining entropy as availability of the energy in a system to do work. The work in this case is the processing and transformation of data into information, and the further transformation of information into usable intelligence.

There are different levels and sub-levels when evaluating the data stream related to project management. These are:

a. Within the supplier/developer/manufacturer

(1) First tier personnel such as Control Account Managers, Schedulers (if separate), Systems Engineers, Financial Managers, and Procurement personnel among other actually recording and verifying the work accomplishment;

(2) Second tier personnel that includes various levels of management, either across teams or in typical line-and-staff organizations.

b. Within customer and oversight organizations

(1) Reporting and oversight personnel tasks with evaluating the fidelity of specific business systems;

(2) Counterpart project or program officer personnel tasked with evaluating progress, risk, and any factors related to scope execution;

(3) Staff organizations designed to supplement and organize the individual project teams, providing a portfolio perspective to project management issues that may be affected by other factors outside of the individual project ecosystem;

(4) Senior management at various levels of the organization.

Given the multiplicity of data streams it appears that the issue of economies is vast until it is understood that the data that underlies the consumers of the information is highly structured and specific to each of the domains and sub-domains. Thus there are several opportunities for economies.

For example, cost performance and scheduling data have a direct correlation and are closely tied. Thus, these separate streams in the A&D industry were combined under a common schema, first using the UN/CEFACT XML, and now transitioning to a more streamlined JSON schema. Financial management has gone through a similar transition. Risk and SE data are partially incorporated into project performance schemas, but the data is also highly structured and possesses commonalities to be directly accessed using technologies that effectively leverage APIs.

Back to the Future

The current state, despite advances in the data formats that allow for easy rationalization and normalization of data that breaks through propriety barriers, still largely is based a slightly modified model of using a combination of manual processing augmented by domain-specific analytical tools. (Actually sub-domain analytical tools that support sub-optimization of data that are a barrier to incorporation of cross-domain integration necessary to create credible project intelligence).

Thus, it is not unusual at the customer level to see project teams still accepting a combination of proprietary files, hard copy reports, and standard schema reports. Usually the data in these sources is manually entered into Excel spreadsheets or a combination of Excel and some domain-specific analytical tool (and oftentimes several sub-specialty analytical tools). After processing, the data is oftentimes exported or built in PowerPoint in the form of graphs or standard reporting formats. This is information management by Excel and PowerPoint.

In sum, in all too many cases the project management domain, in terms of data and business intelligence, continues to party like it is 1995. This condition also fosters and reinforces insular organizational domains, as if the project team is disconnected from and can possess goals antithetical and/or in opposition to the efficient operation of the larger organization.

A typical timeline goes like this:

a. Supplier provides project performance data 15-30 days after the close of a period. (Some contract clauses give more time). Let’s say the period closed at the end of July. We are now effectively in late August or early September.

b. Analysts incorporate stove-piped domain data into their Excel spreadsheets and other systems another week or so after submittal.

c. Analysts complete processing and analyzing data and submit in standard reporting formats (Excel and PowerPoint) for program review four to six weeks after incorporation of the data.

Items a through c now put a typical project office at project review for July information at the end of September or beginning of October. Furthermore, this information is focused on individual domains, and given the lack of cross-domain knowledge, can be contradictory.

This system is broken.

Even suppliers who have direct access to systems of record all too often rely on domain-specific solutions to be able to derive significance from the processing of project management data. The larger suppliers seem to have recognized this problem and have been moving to address it, requiring greater integration across solutions. But the existence of a 15-30 day reconciliation period after the end of a period, and formalized in contract clauses, is indicative of an opportunity for greater efficiency in that process as well.

The Way Forward

But there is another way.

The opportunities for economy in the form of improvements in time and effort are in the following areas, given the application of the right technology:

  1. In the submission of data, especially by finding data commonalities and combining previously separate domain data streams to satisfy multiple customers;
  2. In retrieving all data so that it is easily accessible to the organization at the level of detailed required by the task at hand;
  3. In processing this data so that it can converted by the analyst into usable intelligence;
  4. In properly accessing, displaying, and reporting properly integrated data across domains, as appropriate, to each level of the organization regardless of originating data stream.

Furthermore, there opportunities to realizing business value by improving these processes:

  1. By extending expertise beyond a limited number of people who tend to monopolize innovations;
  2. By improving organizational knowledge by incorporating innovation into the common system;
  3. By gaining greater insight into more reliable predictors of project performance across domains instead of the “traditional” domain-specific indices that have marginal utility;
  4. By developing a project focused organization that breaks down domain-centric thinking;
  5. By developing a culture that ties cross-domain project knowledge to larger picture metrics that will determine the health of the overarching organization.

It is interesting that when I visit the field how often it is asserted that “the technology doesn’t matter, it’s process that matters”.

Wrong. Technology defines the art of the possible. There is no doubt that in an ideal world we would optimize our systems prior to the introduction of new technology. But that assumes that the most effective organization (MEO) is achievable without technological improvements to drive the change. If one cannot efficiently integrate all submitted cross-domain information effectively and efficiently using Excel in any scenario (after all, it’s a lot of data), then the key is the introduction of new technology that can do that very thing.

So what technologies will achieve efficiency in the use of this data? Let’s go through the usual suspects:

a. Will more effective use of PowerPoint reduce these timelines? No.

b. Will a more robust set of Excel workbooks reduce these timelines? No.

c. Will an updated form of a domain-specific analytical tool reduce these timelines? No.

d. Will a NoSQL solution reduce these timelines? Yes, given that we can afford the customization.

e. Will a COTS BI application that accepts a combination of common schemas and APIs reduce these timelines? Yes.

The technological solution must be fitted to its purpose and time. Technology matters because we cannot avoid the expenditure of time or energy (entropy) in the processing of information. We can perform these operations using a large amount of energy in the form of time and effort, or we can conserve time and effort by substituting the power of computing and information processing. While we will never get to the point where we completely eliminate entropy, our application of appropriate technology makes it seem as if effort in the form of time is significantly reduced. It’s not quite money for nothing, but it’s as close as we can come and is an obvious area of improvement that can be made for a relatively small investment.

2 thoughts on “Money for Nothing — Project Performance Data and Efficiencies in Timeliness

  1. I haven’t read the article yet, but thought I should tell you that it doesn’t appear in your RSS. I saw it in EMail but not in Feedly, re-created the feed, still nothing. I’m stumped, but hope you can sort it out.

    Like

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