Take Me to the River, Part 1, Cost Elements – A Digital Inventory of Integrated Program Management Elements

In a previous post I recommended a venue focused on program managers to define what constitutes integrated program management. Since that time I have been engaged with thought leaders and influencers in both government and industry, many of whom came to a similar conclusion independently, agree in this proposition and who are working to bring it about.

My own interest in this discussion is from the perspective of maximization of the information ecosystem that underlies and describes the systems known as projects and programs. But what do I mean by this? This is more than a gratuitous question, because oftentimes the information essential to defining project and program performance and behavior are intermixed, and therefore diluted and obfuscated, by confusion with those of the overall enterprise.

Project vs. Program

What a mean by the term project in this context is an organization that is established around a defined effort of fixed duration (a defined beginning and projected end) that is specifically planned and organized for the development and deployment of a particular end item, state, or result, with an identified set of resources assigned and allocated to achieve its goals.

A program is defined as a set of interrelated projects and sub-projects which is also of fixed duration that is specifically planned and organized not only for the development and deployment, but also the continues this role through sustainment (including configuration control), of a particular end item, state, or result, with an identified set of resources assigned and allocated to achieve its goals. As such, the program management team also is the first level life-cycle manager of the end item, state, or result, and participates with other levels of the organization in these activities. (More on life-cycle costs below).

Note the difference in scope and perspective, though oftentimes we use these terms interchangeably.

For shorthand, a small project of short duration operates at the tactical level of planning. A larger project, which because of size, complexity, duration, and risk approaches the definition of a program, operates at the operational level, as do most programs. Larger and more complex programs that will affect the core framing assumptions of the enterprise align their goals to the strategic level of planning. Thus, there are differences in scale, complexity and, hence, data points that can be captured at these various levels.

Another aspect of the question of establishing an integrated digital project and program management environment is sufficiency of data, which relates directly to scale. Sufficiency in this regard is defined as whether there is enough data to establish a valid correlation and, hopefully, draw a causation. Micro-economic foundations–and models–often fail because of insufficient data. This is important to keep in mind as we inventory the type of data available to us and its significance. Oftentimes additional data points can make up for those cases where there is insufficiency in the depth and quality of a more limited set of data points. Doing so will also mitigate subjectivity, especially in smaller efforts.

Thus, in constructing a project or program, regardless of its level of planning, we often begin by monitoring the most basic elements. These are usually described as cost, schedule, performance, and risk, though I will discuss and identify other contributors that can be indexed.

This first post will concentrate on the first set of elements–those that constitute cost. In looking at these, however, we will find that the elements within this category are a bit broader than what is currently used in determining project and program performance.

Contract Costs

When we refer to costs in project and program management we oftentimes are referring to those direct and indirect costs expended by the supplier over the course of the effort, particular in Cost Plus contractual efforts. The breakout of cost from a data perspective places it in subcategories:

Note that these are costs within the contract itself, as a cohesive, self-identifying entity. But there are other costs associated with our contracts which feed into program and project management. These are necessary to identify and capture if we are to take an holistic approach to these disciplines.

The costs that are anticipated by the contract are based on cost estimates, which need to be funded. These funded costs will be allocated to particular lines in the contract (CLINs), whether these be supporting contract efforts or deliverables. Thus, additional elements of our digital inventory include these items but lead us to our next categories.

Cost Estimates, Colors of Money, and Cash Flow

Cost estimates are the basis for determining the entire contract effort, and eventually make it into the project and program cost plan. Once cost estimates are applied and progress is tracked through the collection of actual costs, these elements are further traced to project and program activities, products, commodities, and other business categories, such as the indirect costs identified on the right hand side of the chart above.

Our cost plans need to be financed, as with any business entity. Though the most complex projects often are financed by some government entity because of their scale and impact, private industry–even among the largest companies–must obtain financing for the efforts at hand, whether these come from internal or external sources.

Thus two more elements present themselves: “colors” of money, that is, money that is provided for a specific purpose within the project and program cost plan which could also be made available for only some limited period of time, and the availability of that money sufficient to execute particular portions of the project or program, that is, cash flow.

The phase of the project or program will determine the type of money that is made available. These are also contained in the costs that are identified in the next section, but include, from a government financing perspective, Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (RDT&E) money, Procurement, Operations and Maintenance (O&M), and Military Construction (MILCON) dollars. By Congressional appropriation and authorization, each of these types of money may be provided for particular programs, and each type of authorization has a specific period in which they can be committed, obligated, and expended before they expire. The type of money provided also aligns with the phase of the project or program: whether it still be in development, production, deployment and acquisition, sustainment, or retirement.

These costs will be reflected in reporting that reflects actual and projected rates of expenditure, that will be tied to procurement, material management, and resource management systems.

Additional Relative Costs

As with all efforts, the supplier is not the only entity to incur costs on a development project or program. The customer also incurs costs, which must be taken into account in determining the total cost of the effort.

For anyone who has undergone any kind of major effort on their home, or even had to get things other workaday things done, like deciding when to change the tires on the car or when to get to the dentist implicitly understand that there is more effort in timing and determining the completion of these items than the cost of new kitchen cabinets, tires, or a filling. One must decide to take time off from work. One must look to their own cash flow to see if they have sufficient funds not only for the merchant, but for all of the sundry and associated tasks that must be done in preparation for and after the task’s completion. To choose to do one thing is to choose not to do another–an opportunity cost. Other people may be involved in the decision. Perhaps children are in the household and a babysitter is required. Perhaps the home life is so disrupted that another temporary abode is necessary on a short term basis.

All of these are costs that one must take into account, and at the individual level we do these calculations and plan these activities as a matter of fact.

In customer-supplier relationships the former incurs costs above the contract costs, which must be taken into account by the customer project or program executive. In the Department of Defense an associated element is called program management administration (PMA). For private entities this falls into allocated G&A and Overhead costs, aside from direct labor and material costs, but in all cases these are costs that have come about due to the decision to undertake the specific effort.

Other elements of cost on the customer side are contractually furnished facilities, property, material or equipment, and testing and evaluation costs.

Contract Cost Performance: Earned Value Management

I will further discuss EVM in more detail a later installment of this element inventory, but mention must be made of EVM since to exclude it is to be grossly remiss.

At core EVM is a financial measure of value against what has been physically achieved against a performance management baseline (PMB), which ties actual costs and completion of work through a work breakdown structure (WBS). It is focused on the contract level of performance, which in some cases may constitute the entire project, though not necessarily the entire effort for the program.

Linkages to the other cost elements I have delineated elsewhere in this post ranges from strong to non-existent. Thus, while an essential means of linking contractual achievement to work accomplishment that, at various levels of fidelity, is linked to actual technical achievement, it does not capture all of the costs in our data inventory.

An essential overview in understanding what it does capture is best summed up in the following diagram taken from the Defense Acquisition University (DAU) site:

Commercial EVM elements, while not necessarily using the same terminology or highly structured process, possess a similar structure in allocating costs and achievement against baseline costs in developmental efforts to work packages (oftentimes schedule tasks in resource-loaded schedules) under an integrated WBS structure with Management Reserve not included as part of the baseline.

Also note that commercial efforts often include their internal costs as part of the overall contractual effort in assessing earned value against actual work achievement, while government contracting efforts tend to exclude these inherent costs. That being said, it is not that there is no cost control in these elements, since strict ceilings often apply to PMA and other such costs, it is that contract cost performance does not take these costs, among others, into account.

Furthermore, the chart above provides us with additional sub-elements in our inventory that are essential in capturing data at the appropriate level of our project and program hierarchy.

Thus, for IPM, EVM is one of many elements that are part our digital inventory–and one that provides a linkage to other non-cost elements (WBS). But in no way should it be viewed as capturing all essential costs associated with a contractual effort, aside from the more expansive project or program effort.

Portfolio Management and Life-Cycle Costs

There is another level of management that is essential in thinking about project and program management, and that is the program executive level. In the U.S. military services these are called Program Executive Officers (PEOs). In private industry they are often product managers, CIOs, and other positions that often represent the link between the program management teams and the business operations side of the organization. Thus, this is also the level of management organized to oversee a number of individual projects and programs that are interrelated based on mission, commodity, or purpose. As such, this level of management often concentrates on issues across the portfolio of projects and programs.

The main purpose of the portfolio management level is to ensure that project and program efforts are aligned with the strategic goals of the organization, which includes an understanding of the total cost of ownership.

In performing this purpose one of the functions of portfolio management is to identify risks that may manifest within projects and programs, and to determine the most productive use of limited resources across them, since they are essentially competing for the same dollars. This includes cost estimates and re-allocations to address ontological, aleatory, and epistemic risk.

Furthermore, the portfolio level is also concerned with the life-cycle factors of the item under development, so that there is effective hand-off at the production and sustainment phases. The key here is to ensure that each project or program, which is focused on the more immediate goals of project and program execution, continues to meet the goals of the organization in terms of life-cycle costs, and its effectiveness in meeting the established goals essential to the project or program’s framing assumptions.

But here we are focusing on cost, and so the costs involved are trade-off costs and opportunities, assessments of return on investment, and the aforementioned total cost of ownership of the end item or system. The costs that contribute to the total cost of ownership include all of the development costs, external and internal program management costs, procurement costs, operations and support costs, maintenance and life extension costs, and system retirement costs.

Conclusion

I believe that the survey of cost elements presented in this initial post illustrates that present digital project and program management systems are limited and immature–capturing and evaluating only a small portion of the total amount of available data.

These gaps make it impossible, for example, to determine the relative significance any one element–and the analytics that can derived from it–over another; not to mention the inability to provide the linkage among these absent elements that would garner insights into cause-and-effect and predictive behavior so that we have enough time to influence the outcome.

It is also clear that, when we strive to define what constitutes integrated project and program management, that we must learn what is of most importance to the PM in performing those duties that are viewed as essential to success, and which are not yet captured in our analytical and predictive systems.

Only when our systems reach the level of cohesiveness and comprehensiveness in providing organizational insight and intelligence essential to project or program management will PMs ignore them at their own risk. In getting there we must first identify what can be captured from the activities that contribute to our efforts.

My next post will identify essential elements related to planning and scheduling.

 

Note: I am indebted to Defense Acquisition University’s resources in my research across many of my postings and link to them for the edification of the reader. For more insight into many of the points raised in this post I would recommend that readers familiarize themselves with A Guide for DoD Program Managers.

 

Ground Control from Major Tom — Breaking Radio Silence: New Perspectives on Project Management

Since I began this blog I have used it as a means of testing out and sharing ideas about project management, information systems, as well to cover occasional thoughts about music, the arts, and the meaning of wisdom.

My latest hiatus from writing was due to the fact that I was otherwise engaged in a different sort of writing–tech writing–and in exploring some mathematical explorations related to my chosen vocation, aside from running a business and–you know–living life.  There are only so many hours in the day.  Furthermore, when one writes over time about any one topic it seems that one tends to repeat oneself.  I needed to break that cycle so that I could concentrate on bringing something new to the table.  After all, it is not as if this blog attracts a massive audience–and purposely so.  The topics on which I write are highly specialized and the members of the community that tend to follow this blog and send comments tend to be specialized as well.  I air out thoughts here that are sometimes only vaguely conceived so that they can be further refined.

Now that that is out of the way, radio silence is ending until, well, the next contemplation or massive workload that turns into radio silence.

Over the past couple of months I’ve done quite a bit of traveling, and so have some new perspectives that and trends that I noted and would like to share, and which will be the basis (in all likelihood) of future, more in depth posts.  But here is a list that I have compiled:

a.  The time of niche analytical “tools” as acceptable solutions among forward-leaning businesses and enterprises is quickly drawing to a close.  Instead, more comprehensive solutions that integrate data across domains are taking the market and disrupting even large players that have not adapted to this new reality.  The economics are too strong to stay with the status quo.  In the past the barrier to integration of more diverse and larger sets of data was the high cost of traditional BI with its armies of data engineers and analysts providing marginal value that did not always square with the cost.  Now virtually any data can be accessed and visualized.  The best solutions, providing pre-built domain knowledge for targeted verticals, are the best and will lead and win the day.

b.  Along these same lines, apps and services designed around the bureaucratic end-of-month chart submission process are running into the new paradigm among project management leaders that this cycle is inadequate, inefficient, and ineffective.  The incentives are changing to reward actual project management in lieu of project administration.  The core fallacy of apps that provide standard charts based solely on user’s perceptions of looking at data is that they assume that the PM domain knows what it needs to see.  The new paradigm is instead to provide a range of options based on the knowledge that can be derived from data.  Thus, while the options in the new solutions provide the standard charts and reports that have always informed management, KDD (knowledge discovery in database) principles are opening up new perspectives in understanding project dynamics and behavior.

c.  Earned value is *not* the nexus of Integrated Project Management (IPM).  I’m sure many of my colleagues in the community will find this statement to be provocative, only because it is what they are thinking but have been hesitant to voice.  A big part of their hesitation is that the methodology is always under attack by those who wish to avoid accountability for program performance.  Thus, let me make a point about Earned Value Management (EVM) for clarity–it is an essential methodology in assessing project performance and the probability of meeting the constraints of the project budget.  It also contributes data essential to project predictive analytics.  What the data shows from a series of DoD studies (currently sadly unpublished), however, is that it is planning (via a Integrated Master Plan) and scheduling (via an Integrated Master Schedule) that first ties together the essential elements of the project, and will record the baking in of risk within the project.  Risk manifested in poorly tying contract requirements, technical performance measures, and milestones to the plan, and then manifested in poor execution will first be recorded in schedule (time-based) performance.  This is especially true for firms that apply resource-loading in their schedules.  By the time this risk translates and is recorded in EVM metrics, the project management team is performing risk handling and mitigation to blunt the impact on the performance management baseline (the money).  So this still raises the question: what is IPM?  I have a few ideas and will share those in other posts.

d.  Along these lines, there is a need for a Schedule (IMS) Gold Card that provides the essential basis of measurement of programmatic risk during project execution.  I am currently constructing one with collaboration and will put out a few ideas.

e.  Finally, there is still room for a lot of improvement in project management.  For all of the gurus, methodologies, consultants, body shops, and tools that are out there, according to PMI, more than a third of projects fail to meet project goals, almost half to meet budget expectations, less than half finished on time, and almost half experienced scope creep, which, I suspect, probably caused “failure” to be redefined and under-reported in their figures.  The assessment for IT projects is also consistent with this report, with CIO.com reporting that more than half of IT projects fail in terms of meeting performance, cost, and schedule goals.  From my own experience and those of my colleagues, the need to solve the standard 20-30% slippage in schedule and similar overrun in costs is an old refrain.  So too is the frustration that it need take 23 years to deploy a new aircraft.  A .5 CPI and SPI (to use EVM terminology) is not an indicator of success.  What this indicates, instead, is that there need to be some adjustments and improvements in how we do business.  The first would be to adjust incentives to encourage and reward the identification of risk in project performance.  The second is to deploy solutions that effectively access and provide information to the project team that enable them to address risk.  As with all of the points noted in this post, I have some other ideas in this area that I will share in future posts.

Onward and upward.

Technical Foul — It’s Time for TPI in EVM

For more than 40 years the discipline of earned value management (EVM) has gone through a number of changes in its descriptions, governance, and procedures.  During that same time its community has been resistant to improvements in its methodology or to changes that extend its value when taking into account other methods that either augment its usefulness, or that potentially provide more utility in the area of performance management.  This has been especially the case where it is suggested that EVM is just one of many methodologies that contribute to this assessment under a more holistic approach.

Instead, it has been asserted that EVM is the basis for integrated project management.  (I disagree–and solely on the evidence that if it was so, then project managers would more fully participate in its organizations and conferences.  This would then pose the problem that PMs might then propose changes to EVM that, well…default to the second sentence in this post).  As evidence it need only be mentioned that there has been resistance to such recent developments in using earned schedule, technical performance, and risk–most especially risk based on Bayesian analysis).

Some of this resistance is understandable.  First, it took quite a long time just to get to a consensus on the application of EVM, though its principles and methods are based on simple and well proven statistical methods.  Second, the industries in which EVM has been accepted are sensitive to risk, and so a bureaucracy of practitioners have grown to ensure both consensus and compliance to accepted methods.  Third, the community that makes up practitioners of EVM consist mostly of cost analysts, trained in simple accounting, arithmetic, and statistical methodology.  It is thus a normal human bias to assume that the path of one’s previous success is the way to future success, though our understanding of the design space (reality) that we inhabit has been enhanced through new knowledge.  Fourth, there is a lot of data that applies to project management, and the EVM community is only now learning of the ways that this other data impacts our understanding of measuring project performance and the probability of reaching project goals in rolling out a product.  Finally, there is the less defensible reason that a lot of people and firms have built their careers that depends on maintaining the status quo.

Our ability to integrate disparate datasets is accelerating on a yearly basis thanks to digital technology, and the day in achieving integration of all relevant factors in project and enterprise performance is inevitable.  To be frank, I am personally engaged in such projects and am assisting organizations in moving in this direction today.  Regardless, we can make an advance in the discipline of performance management by pulling down low hanging fruit.  The most reachable one, in my opinion, is technical performance measurement.

The literature of technical performance has come quite a long way, thanks largely to the work of the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) and others, particularly the National Defense Industrial Association through the publication of their predictive measures guide.  This has been a topic of interest to me since its study was part of my duties back when I was still wearing a uniform.  The early results of these studies resulted in a paper that proposed a method of integrating technical performance, earned value, and risk.  A pretty comprehensive overview of the literature and guidance for technical performance can be found at this presentation by Glen Alleman and Tom Coonce given at EVM World in 2015.  It must be mentioned that Rick Price of Lockheed Martin also contributed greatly to this literature.

Keep in mind what is meant when we decide to assess technical performance within the context of R&D.  It is an assessment against expected or specified:

a.  Measures of Effectiveness (MoE)

b.  Measures of Performance (MoP), and

c.  Key Performance Parameters (KPP)

The opposition from the project management community to widespread application of this methodology took two forms.  First, it was argued, the method used to adjust the value of earned (CPI) seemed always to have a negative impact.  Second, there are technical performance factors that transcend the WBS, and so it is hard to properly adjust the individual control accounts based on the contribution of technical performance.  Third, some performance measures defy an assessment of value in a time-phased manner.  The most common example has been tracking weight of aircraft, which has contributors from virtually all components that go into it.

Let’s take these in order.  But lest one think that this perspective is an artifact from 1997, just a short while ago, in the A&D community, the EVM policy office at DoD attempted to apply a somewhat modest proposal of ensuring that technical performance was included as an element in EVM reporting.  Note that the EIA 748 standard states this clearly and has done so for quite some time.  Regardless, the same three core objections were raised in comments from the industry.  Thus, this caused me to ask some further in-depth questions and my revised perspective follows below.

The first condition occurred, in many cases, due to optimism bias in registering earned value, which often occurs when using a single point estimate of percent complete by a limited population of experts contributing to an assessment of the element.  Fair enough, but as you can imagine, its not a message that a PM wants to hear or will necessarily accept or admit, regardless of the merits.  There are more than enough pathways to second guessing and testing selection bias at other levels of reporting.  Glen Alleman in his Herding Cats blog post of 12 August has a very good post listing the systemic reasons for program failure.

Another factor is that the initial methodology did possess a skewing toward more pessimistic results.  This was not entirely apparent at the time because the statistical methods applied did not make that clear.  But, to critique that first proposal, which was the result of contributions from IDA and other systems engineering technical experts, the 10-50-90 method in assessing probability along the bandwidth of the technical performance baseline was too inflexible.  The graphic that we proposed is as follows and one can see that, while it was “good enough”, if rolled up there could be some bias that required adjustment.

TPM Graphic

 

Note that this range around 50% can be interpreted to be equivalent to the bandwidth found in the presentation given by Alleman and Coonce (as well as the Predictive Measures Guide), though the intent here was to perform an assessment based on a simplified means of handicapping the handicappers–or more accurately, performing a probabilistic assessment on expert opinion.  The method of performing Bayesian analysis to achieve this had not yet matured for such applications, and so we proposed a method that would provide a simple method that our practitioners could understand that still met the criteria of being a valid approach.  The reason for the difference in the graphic resides in the fact that the original assessment did not view this time-phasing as a continuous process, but rather an assessment at critical points along the technical baseline.

From a practical perspective, however, the banding proposed by Alleman and Coonce take into account the noise that will be experienced during the life cycle of development, and so solves the slight skewing toward pessimism.  We’ll leave aside for the moment how we determine the bands and, thus, acceptable noise as we track along our technical baseline.

The second objection is valid only so far as any alignment of work-related indicators vary from project to project.  For example, some legs of the WBS tree go down nine levels and others go down five levels, based on the complexity of the work and the organizational breakdown structure (OBS).  Thus where we peg within each leg of the tree the control account (CA) and work package (WP) level becomes relative.  Do the schedule activities have a one-to-one relationship or many-to-one relationship with the WP level in all legs?  Or is the lowest level that the alignment can be made in certain legs at the CA level?

Given that planning begins with the contract spec and (ideally) proceed from IMP –> IMS –> WBS –> PMB in a continuity, then we will be able to determine the contributions of TPM to each WBS element at their appropriate level.

This then leads us to another objection, which is that not all organizations bother with developing an IMP.  That is a topic for another day, but whether such an artifact is created formally or not, one must achieve in practice the purpose of the IMP in order to get from contract spec to IMS under a sufficiently complex effort to warrant CPM scheduling and EVM.

The third objection is really a child of the second objection.  There very well may be TPMs, such as weight, with so many contributors that distributing the impact would both dilute the visibility of the TPM and present a level of arbitrariness in distribution that would render its tracking useless.  (Note that I am not saying that the impact cannot be distributed because, given modern software applications, this can easily be done in an automated fashion after configuration.  My concern is in regard to visibility on a TPM that could render the program a failure).  In these cases, as with other indicators that must be tracked, there will be high level programmatic or contract level TPMs.

So where do we go from here?  Alleman and Coonce suggest adjusting the formula for BCWP, where P is informed by technical risk.  The predictive measures guide takes a similar approach and emphasizes the systems engineering (SE) domain in getting to an assessment to determine the impact of reported EVM element performance.  The recommendation of the 1997 project that I headed in assignments across Navy and OSD, was to inform performance based on a risk assessment of probable achievement at each discrete performance milestone.  What all of these studies have in common, and in common with common industry practice using SE principles, is an intermediate assessment, informed by risk, of a technical performance index against a technical performance baseline.

So let’s explore this part of the equation more fully.

Given that we have MoE, MoP, and KPP are identified for the project, different methods of determining progress apply.  This can be a very simplistic set of TPMs that, through the acquisition or fabrication of compliant materials, meet contractual requirements.  These are contract level TPMs.  Depending on contract type, achievement of these KPPs may result in either financial penalties or financial reward.  Then there are the R&D-dependent MoEs, MoPs, and KPPs that require more discrete time-phasing and ties to the physical completion of work documented by through the WBS structure.  As with EVM on the measurement of the value of work, our index of physical technical achievement can be determined through various methods: current EVM methods, simulated Monte Carlo technical risk, 10-50-90 risk assessment, Bayesian analysis, etc.  All of these methods are designed to militate against selection bias and the inherent limitations of limited sample size and, hence, extreme subjectivity.  Still, expert opinion is a valid method of assessment and (in cases where it works) better than a WAG or coin flip.

Taken together these TPMs can be used to determine the technical achievement of the project or program over time, with a financial assessment of the future work needed to bring it in line.  These elements can be weighted, as suggested by Coonce, Alleman, and Price, through an assessment of relative risk to project success.  Some of these TPIs will apply to particular WBS elements at various levels (since their efforts are tied to specific activities and schedules via the IMS), and the most important project and program-level TPMs are reflected at that level.

What about double counting?  A comparison of the aggregate TPIs and the aggregate CPI and SPI will determine the fidelity of the WBS to technical achievement.  Furthermore, a proper baseline review will ensure that double counting doesn’t occur.  If the element can be accounted for within the reported EVM elements, then it need not be tracked separately by a TPI.  Only those TPMs that cannot be distributed or that represent such overarching risk to project success need be tracked separately, with an overall project assessment made against MR or any reprogramming budget available that can bring the project back into spec.

My last post on project management concerned the practices at what was called Google X.  There incentives are given to teams that identify an unacceptably high level of technical risk that will fail to pay off within the anticipated planning horizon.  If the A&D and DoD community is to become more nimble in R&D, it needs the necessary tools to apply such long established concepts such as Cost-As-An-Independent-Variable (CAIV), and Agile methods (without falling into the bottomless pit of unsupported assertions by the cult such as elimination of estimating and performance tracking).

Even with EVM, the project and program management community needs a feel for where their major programmatic efforts are in terms of delivery and deployment, in looking at the entire logistics and life cycle system.  The TPI can be the logic check of whether to push ahead, or finishing the low risk items that are remaining in R&D to move to first item delivery, or to take the lessons learned from the effort, terminate the project, and incorporate those elements into the next generation project or related components or systems.  This aligns with the concept of project alignment with framing assumptions as an early indicator of continued project investment at the corporate level.

No doubt, existing information systems, many built using 1990s technology and limited to line-and-staff functionality, do not provide the ability to do this today.  Of course, these same systems do not take into account a whole plethora of essential information regarding contract and financial management: from the tracking of CLINs/SLINs, to work authorization and change order processing, to the flow of funding from TAB to PMB/MR and from PMB to CA/UB/PP, contract incentive threshold planning, and the list can go on.  What this argues for is innovation and rewarding those technology solutions that take a more holistic approach to project management within its domain as a subset of program, contract, and corporate management–and such solutions that do so without some esoteric promise of results at some point in the future after millions of dollars of consulting, design, and coding.  The first company or organization that does this will reap the rewards of doing so.

Furthermore, visibility equals action.  Diluting essential TPMs within an overarching set of performance metrics may have the effect of hiding them and failing to properly identify, classify, and handle risk.  Including TPI as an element at the appropriate level will provide necessary visibility to get to the meat of those elements that directly impact programmatic framing assumptions.

River Deep, Mountain High — A Matrix of Project Data

Been attending conferences and meetings of late and came upon a discussion of the means of reducing data streams while leveraging Moore’s Law to provide more, better data.  During a discussion with colleagues over lunch they asked if asking for more detailed data would provide greater insight.  This led to a discussion of the qualitative differences in data depending on what information is being sought.  My response to more detailed data was to respond: “well there has to be a pony in there somewhere.”  This was greeted by laughter, but then I finished the point: more detailed data doesn’t necessarily yield greater insight (though it could and only actually looking at it will tell you that, particularly in applying the principle of KDD).  But more detailed data that is based on a hierarchical structure will, at the least, provide greater reliability and pinpoint areas of intersection to detect areas of risk manifestation that is otherwise averaged out–and therefore hidden–at the summary levels.

Not to steal the thunder of new studies that are due out in the area of data later this spring but, for example, I am aware after having actually achieved lowest level integration for extremely complex projects through my day job, that there is little (though not zero) insight gained in predictive power between say, the control account level of a WBS and the work package level.  Going further down to element of cost may, in the words of the character in the movie Still Alice, where “You may say that this falls into the great academic tradition of knowing more and more about less and less until we know everything about nothing.”  But while that may be true for project management, that isn’t necessarily so when collecting parametrics and auditing the validity of financial information.

Rolling up data from individually detailed elements of a hierarchy is the proper way to ensure credibility.  Since we are at the point where a TB of data has virtually the same marginal cost of a GB of data (which is vanishingly small to begin with), then the more the merrier in eliminating the abuse associated with human-readable summary reporting.  Furthermore, I have long proposed through this blog and elsewhere, that the emphasis should be away from people, process, and tools, to people, process, and data.  This rightly establishes the feedback loop necessary for proper development and project management.  More importantly, the same data available through project management processes satisfy the different purposes of domains both within the organization, and of multiple external stakeholders.

This then leads us to the concept of integrated project management (IPM), which has become little more than a buzz-phrase, and receives a lot of hand waves, mostly by technology companies that want to push their tools–which are quickly becoming obsolete–while appearing forward leaning.  This tool-centric approach is nothing more than marketing–focusing on what the software manufacturer would have us believe is important based on the functionality baked into their applications.  One can see where this could be a successful approach, given the emphasis on tools in the PM triad.  But, of course, it is self-limiting in a self-interested sort of way.  The emphasis needs to be on the qualitative and informative attributes of available data–not of tool functionality–that meet the requirements of different data consumers while minimizing, to the extent possible, the number of data streams.

Thus, there are at least two main aspects of data that are important in understanding the utility of project management: early warning/predictiveness and credibility/traceability/fidelity.  The chart attached below gives a rough back-of-the-envelope outline of this point, with some proposed elements, though this list is not intended to be exhaustive.

PM Data Matrix

PM Data Matrix

In order to capture data across the essential elements of project management, our data must demonstrate both a breadth and depth that allows for the discovery of intersections of the different elements.  The weakness in the two-dimensional model above is that it treats each indicator by itself.  But, when we combine, for example, IMS consecutive slips with other elements listed, the informational power of the data becomes many times greater.  This tells us that the weakness in our present systems is that we treat the data as a continuity between autonomous elements.  But we know that the project consists of discontinuities where the next level of achievement/progress is a function of risk.  Thus, when we talk about IPM, the secret is in focusing on data that informs us what our systems are doing.  This will require more sophisticated types of modeling.

The Song Remains the Same (But the Paradigm Is Shifting) — Data Driven Assessment and Better Software in Project Management

Probably the biggest news out of the NDIA IPMD meeting this past week was the unofficial announcement by Frank Kendall, who is the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics USD(AT&L), that thresholds would be raised for mandatory detailed surveillance of programs to $100M from the present requirement of $20M.  While earned value management implementation and reporting will still be required on programs based on dollar value, risk, and other key factors, especially the $20M threshold for R&D-type projects, the raising of the threshold for mandatory surveillance reviews was seen as good news all around for reducing some regulatory burden.  The big proviso in this announcement, however, was that it is to go into effect later this summer and that, if the data in reporting submissions show inconsistencies and other anomalies that call into question the validity of performance management data, then all bets are off and the surveillance regime is once again imposed, though by exception.

The Department of Defense–especially under the leadership of SecDef Ashton Carter and Mr. Kendall–has been looking for ways of providing more flexibility in acquisition to allow for new technology to be more easily leveraged into long-term, complex projects.  This is known as the Better Buying Power 3.0 Initiative.  It is true that surveillance and oversight can be restrictive to the point of inhibiting industry from concentrating on the business of handling risk in project management, causing resources to be devoted to procedural and regulatory issues that do not directly impact whether the project will successfully achieve its goals within a reasonable range of cost and schedule targets.  Furthermore, the enforcement of surveillance has oftentimes been inconsistent and–in the worst cases–contrary to the government’s own guidance due to inconsistent expertise and training.  The change maintains a rigorous regulatory environment for the most expensive and highest risk projects, while reducing unnecessary overhead, and allowing for more process flexibility for those below the threshold, given that industry’s best practices are effective in exercising project control.

So the question that lay beneath the discussion of the new policy coming out of the meeting was: why now?  The answer is that technology has reached the point where the ability to effectively use the kind of Big Data required by DoD and other large organizations to detect patterns in data that suggest systems issues has changed both the regulatory and procedural landscape.

For many years as a techie I have heard the mantra that software is a nice reporting and analysis tool (usually looking in the rear view mirror), but that only good systems and procedures will ensure a credible and valid system.  This mantra has withstood the fact that projects have failed at the usual rate despite having the expected artifacts that define an acceptable project management system.  Project organizations’ systems descriptions have been found to be acceptable, work authorization, change control, and control account plans, PMBs, and IMSs have all passed muster and yet projects still fail, oftentimes with little advance warning of the fatal event or series of events.  More galling, the same consultants and EVM “experts” can be found across organizations without changing the arithmetic of project failure.

It is true that there are specific causes for this failure: the inability of project leadership to note changes in framing assumptions, the inability of our systems and procedures to incorporate technical performance into overall indicators of project performance, and the inability of organizations to implement and enforce their own policies.  But in the last case, it is not clear that the failure to follow controls in all cases had any direct impact on the final result; they were contributors to the failure but not the main cause.  It is also true that successful projects have experienced many of the same discrepancies in their systems and procedures.  This is a good indication that something else is afoot: that there are factors not being registered when we note project performance, that we have a issue in defining “done”.

The time has come for systems and procedural assessment to step aside as the main focus of compliance and oversight.  It is not that systems and procedures are unimportant.  It is that data driver assessment–and only data driver assessment–that is powerful enough to quickly and effectively identify issues within projects that otherwise go unreported.  For example, if we call detailed data from the performance management systems that track project elements of cost, the roll up should, theoretically, match the summarized data at the reporting level.  But this is not always the case.

There are two responses to this condition.  The first is: if the variations are small; that is, within 1% or 2% from the actuals, we must realize that earned value management is a project management system, not a financial management systems, and need not be exact.  This is a strong and valid assertion.  The second, is that the proprietary systems used for reporting have inherent deficiencies in summarizing reporting.  Should the differences once again not be significant, then this too is a valid assertion.  But there is a point at which these assertions fail.  If the variations from the rollups is more significant than (I would suggest) about 2% from the rollup, then there is a systemic issue with the validity of data that undermines the credibility of the project management systems.

Checking off compliance of the EIA 748 criteria will not address such discrepancies, but a robust software solution that has the ability to handle such big data, the analytics to identify such discrepancies, and the flexibility to identify patterns and markers in the data that suggest an early indication of project risk manifestation will address the problem at hand.  The technology is now here to be able to perform this operation and to do so at the level of performance expected in desktop operations.  This type of solution goes far beyond EVM Tools or EVM engines.  The present generation of software possesses both the ability to hardcode solutions out of the box, but also the ability to configure objects, conditional formatting, calculations, and reporting from the same data to introduce leading indicators across a wider array of project management dimensions aside from just cost and schedule.

 

Days of Future Passed — Legacy Data and Project Parametrics

I’ve had a lot of discussions lately on data normalization, including being asked the question of what constitutes normalization when dealing with legacy data, specifically in the field of project management.  A good primer can be found at About.com, but there are also very good older papers out on the web from various university IS departments.  The basic principals of data normalization today consist of finding a common location in the database for each value, reducing redundancy, properly establishing relationships among the data elements, and providing flexibility so that the data can be properly retrieved and further processed into intelligence in such as way as the objects produced possess significance.

The reason why answering this question is so important is because our legacy data is of such a size and of such complexity that it falls into the broad category of Big Data.  The condition of the data itself provides wide variations in terms of quality and completeness.  Without understanding the context, interrelationships, and significance of the elements of the data, the empirical approach to project management is threatened, since being able to use this data for purposes of establishing trends and parametric analysis is limited.

A good paper that deals with this issue was authored by Alleman and Coonce, though it was limited to Earned Value Management (EVM).  I would argue that EVM, especially in the types of industries in which the discipline is used, is pretty well structured already.  The challenge is in the other areas that are probably of more significance in getting a fuller understanding of what is happening in the project.  These areas of schedule, risk, and technical performance measures.

In looking at the Big Data that has been normalized to date–and I have participated with others in putting a significant dent in this area–it is apparent that processes in these other areas lack discipline, consistency, completeness, and veracity.  By normalizing data in sub-specialties that have experienced an erosion in enforcing standards of quality and consistency, technology becomes a driver for process improvement.

A greybeard in IT project management once said to me (and I am not long in joining that category): “Data is like water, the more it flows downstream the cleaner it becomes.”  What he meant is that the more that data is exposed in the organizational stream, the more it is questioned and becomes a part of our closed feedback loop: constantly being queried, verified, utilized in decision making, and validated against reality.  Over time more sophisticated and reliable statistical methods can be applied to the data, especially if we are talking about performance data of one sort or another, that takes periodic volatility into account in trending and provides us with a means for ensuring credibility in using the data.

In my last post on Four Trends in Project Management, I posited that the question wasn’t more or less data but utilization of data in a more effective manner, and identifying what is significant and therefore “better” data.  I recently heard this line repeated back to me as a means of arguing against providing data.  This conclusion was a misreading of what I was proposing.  One level of reporting data in today’s environment is no more work than reporting on any other particular level of a project hierarchy.  So cost is no longer a valid point for objecting to data submission (unless, of course, the one taking that position must admit to the deficiencies in their IT systems or the unreliability of their data).

Our projects must be measured against the framing assumptions in which they were first formed, as well as the established measures of effectiveness, measures of performance, and measures of technical achievement.  In order to view these factors one must have access to data originating from a variety of artifacts: the Integrated Master Schedule, the Schedule and Cost Risk Analysis, and the systems engineering/technical performance plan.  I would propose that project financial execution metrics are also essential in getting a complete, integrated, view of our projects.

There may be other supplemental data that is necessary as well.  For example, the NDIA Integrated Program Management Division has a proposed revision to what is known as the Integrated Baseline Review (IBR).  For the uninitiated, this is a process in which both the supplier and government customer project teams can come together, review the essential project artifacts that underlie project planning and execution, and gain a full understanding of the project baseline.  The reporting systems that identify the data that is to be reported against the baseline are identified and verified at this review.  But there are also artifacts submitted here that contain data that is relevant to the project and worthy of continuing assessment, precluding manual assessments and reviews down the line.

We don’t yet know the answer to these data issues and won’t until all of the data is normalized and analyzed.  Then the wheat from the chaff can be separated and a more precise set of data be identified for submittal, normalized and placed in an analytical framework to give us more precise information that is timely so that project stakeholders can make decisions in handling any risks that manifest themselves during the window that they can be handled (or make the determination that they cannot be handled).  As the farmer says in the Chinese proverb:  “We shall see.”

No Bucks, No Buck Rogers — Project Work Authorizations, Change Control, and Cash Flow

As I’ve written here most recently, the most significant proposal coming out of the Integrated Program Management Conference (IPMC) this year was the comprehensive manner of integrating all essential elements of a project, presented by Glen Alleman et al.  In their presentation, Alleman, Coonce, and Price, present a process flow (which, in my estimation, should be mirrored in data and information flow) in which program artifacts were imbued with measures of effectiveness, measures of performance, and measures of progress, to achieve an organic integration of all parts of the project that allow the project team to make a valid assessment of achievement against the plan, informed by risk and opportunity.  (Emphasis my own).  The three-legged stool of cost, schedule, and technical performance are thereby integrated properly at the appropriate level of the project structure, and done in such a way as to overcome the rigidity and fallacy of the single point estimate.

But, as is always the case with elegant models, while they replicate a sufficient portion of reality to allow us to make our assessments using statistical methods, there are other elements that we have purposely left out because our present models do not incorporate them into the normal and normative process.  They are considered situational, and so lie just outside of the process flow, though they insert themselves when necessary–and much more frequently than desired.  I am referring to the availability of money and resources, and the manner in which they affect the project: through work authorizations (WADs) and baseline change requests (BCRs).

I have seen situations where fully 90% of the effort in project management is devoted to manage and adjust the plan based on baseline changes.  This is particularly the case where estimates are poorly developed due to the excuse of uncertainty.  Of course there is uncertainty–that’s the purpose of developing a plan.  The issue isn’t the presence of risk (and opportunity) but that our risks are educated ones, that is, informed by familiarity with similar efforts, engineering assessment, core competency, and other empirical factors.  This is where the most radical elements of the Agile Cult gets it wrong–in focusing on risk and assuming that the only way to realize opportunity is to forgo the empirical process.  This is not only a misreading of risk and opportunity assessment in project management, it is a sort of neo-Luddite position regarding scientific management.

The environment in which a project operates undergoes change.  The framing assumptions of the project determine the expectations of scope, cost, and what defines success.  The concept of framing assumptions was fully developed in a RAND study that I covered in a previous blog post.  Most often, but not always, the change in framing assumptions is reflected in the WAD and BCR process, most often in the latter.  Thus, we have a means of determining and taking account of changes in framing assumptions.  This is in the normal process of project management, as opposed to the more obvious examples of a complete replan or over target baseline (OTB).

So where do we track WADs and BCRs in our processes that will provide us sufficient indicators in our measures of effectiveness, performance, and progress that our resources (both size and type) many not be sufficient or that these changes are sufficient enough that our framing assumptions have changed?  I would argue that the linkage for resources must also be made through the Integrated Master Plan (IMP) and reflect in the IMS, cross-referenced to the PMB.  Technology can provide the remainder of the ability to integrate these elements and provide the process flow necessary to provide early warning.  This integration goes beyond the traditional focus on cost and schedule (and the newly reintroduced emphasis on technical achievement).  It involves integration with resource management systems (personnel, skillset assignments, etc.) as well as financial management systems to determine the availability of money (both its sufficiency and “color”*) being applied to the right place at the right time.

Integrating these elements together then allows for more sophisticated methods of determining project success through the introduction of metrics that provide correlations between the elements.  It also answers, absent politics, the optimum level of both analysis and reporting.

*The “color” of money applies mostly to public investments in which monies appropriated are designed by their purpose:  operations, maintenance, engineering, R&D, etc.

Note: This post was modified to add a point of clarification in applying WADs and BCRs to the PMB.