Post-Workshop Talking Blues — No Bucks, No Buck Rogers: Cashflow Analysis in Projects (Somewhat Wonkish)

When I used this analogy the week before last during the last Integrated Project Management Workshop in the D.C. area I was accused of dating myself–and perhaps it is true. For those wondering the quote was popularized by the 1983 movie The Right Stuff, which was based on the 1979 book written by Tom Wolfe of the same title. The book and movie was about the beginnings of the U.S. space program culminating in the creation of NASA and the Project Mercury program.

A clip from the movie follows:

It goes without saying that while I was familiar as a boy with Project Mercury and followed the seven astronauts as did the rest of the country, transfixed on the prospect of space exploration during the days of the New Frontier, Buck Rogers was from the childhood of my father’s generation through, at first, its radio program, and then through the serials that were released to the movie theaters during the 1930s.

The point of the quote, of course, is that Project Mercury’s success was based on its ability to obtain funding and, no doubt, the Mercury 7 astronauts so inspired the imagination of the nation that even the most parsimonious Member of Congress could not help but provide it with sufficient funding for success. That this was also the era of the “space race” with the Soviet Union, which also helped to spur funding.

The lesson of “No Bucks, No Buck Rogers” also applies to project management, but not just in the use of imagery and marketing to gain funding. Instead, the principle applies through a more mundane part of the discipline: financial management and the relationship between cash flow and project performance.

What I am referring to as cash flow is not the burn rate of expenditures against an end point, but the intersection of sufficient money at the right time programmed in accordance with the project plan (in alignment with both the IMS and PMB), and informed by project performance.

To those unfamiliar with this method it sounds similar to earned value management, but it is not. EVM informs our decision, but the analysis is not the same.

First, in using this analysis the cumulative actual cost of work performed (ACWP in earned value) should be compared to accrued expenditures for the project. These figures will not be exact, but will provide an indication whether accruals to date have been in line with what was forecasted. In government contracting and project management, these figures will also be somewhat off because earned value figures do not include fee or profit, while financial management figures will include fee or profit. Understanding the profit center from which the financial expenditures are being accrued will allow for a reconciliation of these differences.

Secondly, if projected accruals against the project plan begin to deviate, it is an early indication of programmatic risk being manifested in the physical expenditures of the project. For example, if management anticipates that there will be a delay in project execution in some area, they may decide to defer acquisition of spare parts used in the construction of a component, or they may delay the award of a subcontract that was meant to augment staff in an area requiring specialized expertise.

Third, and conversely, deviations of expenditures for needed materials or manpower may adversely affect project execution, and provide an early warning that such shortages or misalignments will move project accomplishment to the right. For example, a company may have underestimated the combined Procurement Action Lead Time (PALT) and delivery of critical materials, which will now arrive much later than anticipated. This misalignment will cascade through the schedule and future planned work.

For both of these previous conditions, the proper determination of cause-and-effect is essential, since either may appear to suggest the opposite cause.

Fourth, variances in performance either in earned value achievement or schedule performance may require an adjustment to the type of money being provided. For example, when a project fails to execute and risk is manifested in terms of cost and/or schedule, financial management and budgeting personnel, always under pressure to apply excess funds to more immediate needs, may mistakenly believe that a budget mark (a decrease) is appropriate since the allocated money will not be executed in the current time-frame.

But this is not necessarily the case. Performance management data tracks the performance measurement baseline (PMB) for the life of the project, but funding has a finite period in which it can be executed. In government contracting it is not uncommon for there to be different “colors” of money: Research, Development, Test & Evaluation (RDT&E), Procurement, Operations and Maintenance (O&M), and others. Furthermore, these types of appropriations have different expiration dates: two years in terms of RDT&E, three years for procurement, and one year for O&M. The financial management plan takes into account the life of money allocated to the project, as well as the costs of activities necessary to project execution. The time frame for financial execution is shorter and, therefore, more sensitive to risks or variances than project plans that are projected across a longer period of time.

For an R&D program experiencing risk during a particular portion of its PMB, for example, a variance this year may require not only a steady funding profile, but a larger expenditure to handle risk. Marking two-year RDT&E money in its first year in this case would be a mistake, of course, but *not* properly anticipating the proper level of risk adjusted expenditures to handle risk may exacerbate the ability of the project to recover and execute, causing it to fall into a spiral of compounding misalignments and variances from which it may never recover.

Thus, what we can see is that, oftentimes, the availability of cash–and the right kind of cash at the right time–will have as much impact on project execution as the factors of technical and engineering risk. Furthermore, tracking and reconciling the financial plan against actual accomplishment will provide a very detailed early indicator into project performance since it is sensitive to deviations in the fiscal plan.

Postscript.

For those not savvy about the cultural reference to Buck Rogers what follows is a sampling of the first of what became a movie serial in the 1930s, which originated as a radio “space opera”. Later it became a TV series in 1950 as well. For the record, I was not around yet when these were popular, though I did watch the reruns on Saturday mornings in the 1960s and early 1970s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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