Back to School Daze Blogging–DCMA Investigation on POGO, DDSTOP, $600 Ashtrays,and Epistemic Sunk Costs

Family summer visits and trips are in the rear view–as well as the simultaneous demands of balancing the responsibilities of a, you know, day job–and so it is time to take up blogging once again.

I will return to my running topic of Integrated Program and Project Management in short order, but a topic of more immediate interest concerns the article that appeared on the website for pogo.org last week entitled “Pentagon’s Contracting Gurus Mismanaged Their Own Contracts.” Such provocative headlines are part and parcel of organizations like POGO, which have an agenda that seems to cross the line between reasonable concern and unhinged outrage with a tinge conspiracy mongering. But the content of the article itself is accurate and well written, if also somewhat ripe with overstatement, so I think it useful to unpack what it says and what it means.

POGO and Its Sources

The source of the article comes from three sources regarding an internal Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA) IT project known as the Integrated Workflow Management System (IWMS). These consist of a September 2017 preliminary investigative report, an April 2018 internal memo, and a draft of the final report.

POGO begins the article by stating that DCMA administers over $5 trillion in contracts for the Department of Defense. The article erroneously asserts that it also negotiates these contracts, apparently not understanding the process of contract oversight and administration. The cost of IWMS was apparently $46.6M and the investigation into the management and administration of the program was initiated by the then-Commander of DCMA, Lieutenant General Wendy Masiello, shortly before she retired from the government in May 2017.

The implication here, given the headline, seems to be that if there is a problem in internal management within the agency, then that would translate into questioning its administration of the $5 trillion in contract value. I view it differently, given that I understand that there are separate lines of responsibility in the agency that do not overlap, particularly in IT. Of the $46.6M there is a question of whether $17M in value was properly funded. More on this below, but note that, to put things in perspective, $46.6M is .000932% of DCMA’s oversight responsibility. This is aside from the fact that the comparison is not quite correct, given that the CIO had his own budget, which was somewhat smaller and unrelated to the $5 trillion figure. But I think it important to note that POGO’s headline and the introduction of figures, while sounding authoritative, are irrelevant to the findings of the internal investigation and draft report. This is a scare story using scare numbers, particularly given the lack of context. I had some direct experience in my military career with issues inspired by the POGO’s founders’ agenda that I will cover below.

In addition to the internal investigation on IWMS, there was also an inspector general (IG) investigation of thirteen IT services contracts that resulted in what can only be described as pedestrian procedural discrepancies that are easily correctable, despite the typically overblown language found in most IG reports. Thus, I will concentrate on this post on the more serious findings of the internal investigation.

My Own Experience with DCMA

A note at this point on full disclosure: I have done business with and continue to do business with DCMA, both as a paid supplier of software solutions, and have interacted with DCMA personnel at publicly attended professional forums and workshops. I have no direct connection, as far as I am aware, to the IWMS program, though given that the assessment is to the IT organization, it is possible that there was an indirect relationship. I have met Lieutenant General Masiello and dealt with some of her subordinates not only during her time at DCMA, but also in some of her previous assignments in Air Force. I always found her to be an honest and diligent officer and respect her judgment. Her distinguished career speaks for itself. I have talked on the telephone to some of the individuals mentioned in the article on unrelated matters, and was aware of their oversight of some of my own efforts. My familiarity with all of them was both businesslike and brief.

As a supplier to DCMA my own contracts and the personnel that administer them were, from time-to-time, affected by the fallout from what I now know to have occurred. Rumors have swirled in our industry regarding the alleged mismanagement of an IT program in DCMA, but until the POGO article, the reasons for things such as a temporary freeze and review of existing IT programs and other actions were viewed as part and parcel of managing a large organization. I guess the explanation is now clear.

The Findings of the Investigation

The issue at hand is largely surrounding the method of source selection, which may have constituted a conflict of interest, and the type of money that was used to fund the program. In reading the report I was reminded of what Glen Alleman recently wrote in his blog entitled “DDSTOP: The Saga Continues.” The acronym DDSTOP means: Don’t Do Stupid Things On Purpose.

There is actually an economic behavioral principle for DDSTOP that explains why people make and double down on bad decisions and irrational beliefs. It is called epistemic sunk cost. It is what causes people to double down in gambling (to the great benefit of the house), to persist in mistaken beliefs, and, as stated in the link above, to “persist with the option which they have already invested in and resist changing to another option that might be more suitable regarding the future requirements of the situation.” The findings seem to document a situation that fits this last description.

In going over the findings of the report, it appears that IWMS’s program violated the following:

a. Contractual efforts in the program that were appropriate for the use of Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (R,D,T & E) funds as opposed to those appropriate for O&M (Operations and Maintenance) funds. What the U.S. Department of Defense calls “color of money.”

b. Amounts that were expended on contract that exceeded the authorized funding documents, which is largely based on the findings regarding the appropriate color of money. This would constitute a serious violation known as an Anti-Deficiency Act violation which, in layman’s terms, is directed to punish public employees for the misappropriation of government funds.

c. Expended amounts of O&M that exceeded the authorized levels.

d. Poor or non-existent program management and cost performance management.

e. Inappropriate contracting vehicles that, taken together, sidestepped more stringent oversight, aside from the award of a software solutions contract to the same company that defined the agency’s requirements.

Some of these are procedural and some are serious, particularly the Anti-deficiency Act (ADA) violations, are serious. In the Contracting Officer’s rulebook, you can withstand pedestrian procedural and administrative findings that are part and parcel of running an intensive contracting organization that acquires a multitude of supplies and services under deadline. But an ADA violation is the deadly one, since it is a violation of statute.

As a result of these findings, the recommendation is for DCMA to lose acquisition authority over the DoD micro-contracting level ($10,000). Organizationally and procedurally, this is a significant and mission-disruptive recommendation.

The Role and Importance of DCMA

DCMA performs an important role in contract compliance and oversight to ensure that public monies are spent properly and for the intended purpose. They perform this role mostly on contracts that are negotiated and entered into by other agencies and the military services within the Department of Defense, where they are assigned contract administration duties. Thus, the fact that DCMA’s internal IT acquisition systems and procedures were problematic is embarrassing.

But some perspective is necessary because there is a drive by some more extreme elements in Congress and elsewhere that would like to see the elimination of the agency. I believe that this would be a grave mistake. As John F. Kennedy is quoted as having said: “You don’t tear your fences down unless you know why they were put up.”

For those of you who were not around prior to the formation of DCMA or its predecessor organization, the Defense Contract Management Command (DCMC), it is important to note that the formation of the agency is a result of acquisition reform. Prior to 1989 the contract administration services (CAS) capabilities of the military services and various DoD offices varied greatly in capability, experience, and oversight effectiveness.Some of these duties had been assigned to what is now the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), but major acquisition contracts remained with the Services.

For example, when I was on active duty as a young Navy Supply Corps Officer as part of the first class that was to be the Navy Acquisition Corps, I was taught cradle-to-grave contracting. That is, I learned to perform customer requirements development, economic analysis, contract planning, development of a negotiating position, contract negotiation, and contract administration–soup to nuts. The expense involved in developing and maintaining the skill set required of personnel to maintain such a broad-based expertise is unsustainable. For analogy, it is as if every member of a baseball club must be able to play all nine positions at the same level of expertise; it is impossible.

Furthermore, for contract administration a defense contractor would have contractual obligations for oversight in San Diego, where I was stationed, that were different from contracts awarded in Long Beach or Norfolk or any of the other locations where a contracting office was located. Furthermore, the military services, having their own organizational cultures, provided additional variations that created a plethora of unique requirements that added cost, duplication, inconsistency, and inter-organizational conflict.

This assertion is more than anecdotal. A series of studies were commissioned in the 1980s (the findings of which were subsequently affirmed) to eliminate duplication and inconsistency in the administration of contracts, particularly major acquisition programs. Thus, DCMC was first established under DLA and subsequently became its own agency. Having inherited many of the contracting field office, the agency has struggled to consolidate operations so that CAS is administered in a consistent manner across contracts. Because contract negotiation and program management still resides in the military services, there is a natural point of conflict between the services and the agency.

In my view, this conflict is a healthy one, as all power in the hands of a single individual, such as a program manager, would lead to more fraud, waste, and abuse, not less. Internal checks and balances are necessary in proper public administration, where some efficiency is sacrificed to accountability. It is not just the goal of government to “make the trains run on time”, but to perform oversight of the public’s money so that there is accountability in its expenditure, and integrity in systems and procedures. In the case of CAS, it is to ensure that what is being procured actually gets delivered in conformance to the contract terms and conditions designed to reduce the inherent risk in complex acquisition programs.

In order to do its job effectively, DCMA requires innovative digital systems to allow it to perform its CAS function. As a result, the agency must also possess an acquisition capability. Given the size of the task at hand in performing CAS on over $5 trillion of contract effort, the data involved is quite large, and the number of personnel geographically distributed. The inevitable comparisons to private industry will arise, but few companies in the world have to perform this level of oversight on such a large economic scale, which includes contracts comprising every major supplier to the U.S. Department of Defense, involving detailed knowledge of the management control systems of those companies that receive the taxpayer’s money. Thus, this is a uniquely difficult job. When one understands that in private industry the standard failure rate of IT projects is more than 70% percent, then one cannot help but be unimpressed by these findings, given the challenge.

Assessing the Findings and Recommendations

There is a reason why internal oversight documents of this sort stay confidential–it is because these are preliminary/draft findings and there are two sides to every story which may lead to revisions. In addition, reading these findings without the appropriate supporting documentation can lead one to the wrong impression and conclusions. But it is important to note that this was an internally generated investigation. The checks and balances of management oversight that should occur, did occur. But let’s take a close look at what the reports indicate so that we can draw some lessons. I also need to mention here that POGO’s conflation of the specific issues in this program as a “poster child” for cost overruns and schedule slippage displays a vast ignorance of DoD procurement systems on the part of the article’s author.

Money, Money, Money

The core issue in the findings revolves around the proper color of money, which seems to hinge on the definition of Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) software and the effort that was expended using the two main types of money that apply to the core contract: RDT&E and O&M.

Let’s take the last point first. It appears that the IWMS effort consisted of a combination of COTS and custom software. This would require acquisition, software familiarization, and development work. It appears that the CIO was essentially running a proof-of-concept to see what would work, and then incrementally transitioned to developing the solution.

What is interesting is that there is currently an initiative in the Department of Defense to do exactly what the DCMA CIO did as part of his own initiative in introducing a new technological approach to create IWMS. It is called Other Transactional Authority (OTA). The concept didn’t exist and was not authorized until the 2016 NDAA and is given specific statutory authority under 10 U.S.C. 2371b. This doesn’t excuse the actions that led to the findings, but it is interesting that the CIO, in taking an incremental approach to finding a solution, also did exactly what was recommended in the 2016 GAO report that POGO references in their article.

Furthermore, as a career Navy Supply Corps Officer, I have often gotten into esoteric discussions in contracts regarding the proper color of money. Despite the assertion of the investigation, there is a lot of room for interpretation in the DoD guidance, not to mention a stark contrast in interpreting the proper role of RDT&E and O&M in the procurement of business software solutions.

When I was on the NAVAIR staff and at OSD I ran into the difference in military service culture where what Air Force financial managers often specified for RDT&E would never be approved by Navy financial managers where, in the latter case, they specified that only O&M dollars applied, despite whether development took place. Given that there was an Air Force flavor to the internal investigation, I would be interested to know whether the opinion of the investigators in making an ADA determination would withstand objective scrutiny among a panel of government comptrollers.

I am certain that, given the differing mix of military and civil service cultures at DCMA–and the mixed colors of money that applied to the effort–that the legal review that was sought to resolve the issue. One of the principles of law is that when you rely upon legal advice to take an action that you have a defense, unless your state of mind and the corollary actions that you took indicates that you manipulated the system to obtain a result that shows that you intended to violate the law. I just do not see that here, based on what has been presented in the materials.

It is very well possible that an inadvertent ADA violation occurred by default because of an improper interpretation of the use of the monies involved. This does not rise to the level of a scandal. But going back to the confusion that I have faced from my own experiences on active duty, I certainly hope that this investigation is not used as a precedent to review all contracts under the approach of accepting a post-hoc alternative interpretation by another individual who just happens to be an inspector long after a reasonable legal determination was made, regardless of how erroneous the new expert finds the opinion. This is not an argument against accountability, but absent corruption or criminal intent, a legal finding is a valid defense and should stand as the final determination for that case.

In addition, this interpretation of RDT&E vs. O&M relies upon an interpretation of COTS. I daresay that even those who throw that term around and who are familiar with the FAR fully understand what constitutes COTS when the line between adaptability and point solutions is being blurred by new technology.

Where the criticism is very much warranted are those areas where the budget authority would have been exceeded in any event–and it is here that the ADA determination is most damning. It is one thing to disagree on the color of money that applies to different contract line items, but it is another to completely lack financial control.

Part of the reason for lack of financial control was the absence of good contracting practices and the imposition of program management.

Contracts 101

While I note that the CIO took an incremental approach to IWMS–what a prudent manager would seem to do–what was lacking was a cohesive vision and a well-informed culture of compliance to acquisition policy that would avoid even the appearance of impropriety and favoritism. Under the OTA authority that I reference above as a new aspect of acquisition reform, the successful implementation of a proof-of-concept does not guarantee the incumbent provider continued business–salient characteristics for the solution are publicized and the opportunity advertised under free and open competition.

After all, everyone has their favorite applications and, even inadvertently, an individual can act improperly because of selection bias. The procurement procedures are established to prevent abuse and favoritism. As a solution provider I have fumed quite often where a selection was made without competition based on market surveys or use of a non-mandatory GSA contract, which usually turn out to be a smokescreen for pre-selection.

There are two areas of fault on IMWS from the perspective of acquisition practice, and another in relation to program management.

These are the initial selection of Apprio, which had laid out the initial requirements and subsequently failed to have the required integration functionality, and then, the selection of Discover Technologies under a non-mandatory GSA Blanket Purchase Agreement (BPA) contract under a sole source action. Furthermore, the contract type was not appropriate to the task at hand, and the arbitrary selection of Discover precluded the agency finding a better solution more fit to its needs.

The use of the GSA BPA allowed managers, however, to essentially spit the requirements to stay below more stringent management guidelines–an obvious violation of acquisition regulation that will get you removed from your position. This leads us to what I think is the root cause of all of these clearly avoidable errors in judgment.

Program Management 101

Personnel in the agency familiar with the requirements to replace the aging procurement management system understood from the outset that the total cost would probably fall somewhere between $20M and $40M. Yet all effort was made to reduce the risk by splitting requirements and failing to apply a programmatic approach to a clearly complex undertaking.

This would have required the agency to take the steps to establish an acquisition strategy, open the requirement based on a clear performance work statement to free and open competition, and then to establish a program management office to manage the effort and to allow oversight of progress and assessment of risks in a formalized environment.

The establishment of a program management organization would have prevented the lack of financial control, and would have put in place sufficient oversight by senior management to ensure progress and achievement of organizational goals. In a word, a good deal of the decision-making was based on doing stupid things on purpose.

The Recommendations

In reviewing the recommendations of the internal investigation, I think my own personal involvement in a very similar issue from 1985 will establish a baseline for comparison.

As I indicated earlier, in the early 1980s, as a young Navy commissioned officer, I was part of the first class of what was to be the Navy Acquisition Corps, stationed at the Supply Center in San Diego, California. I had served as a contracting intern and, after extensive education through the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, the extended Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) courses that were given at the time at Fort Lee, Virginia, and coursework provided by other federal acquisition organizations and colleges, I attained my warrant as a contracting officer. I also worked on acquisition reform issues, some of which were eventually adopted by the Navy and DoD.

During this time NAS Miramar was the home of Top Gun. In 1984 Congressman Duncan Hunter (the elder not the currently indicted junior of the same name, though from the same San Diego district), inspired by news of $7,600 coffee maker and a $435 hammer publicized by the founders of POGO, was given documents by a disgruntled employee at the base regarding the acquisition of replacement E-2C ashtrays that had a cost of $300. He presented them to the Base Commander, which launched an investigation.

I served on the JAG investigation under the authority of the Wing Commander regarding the acquisitions and then, upon the firing of virtually the entire chain of command at NAS Miramar, which included the Wing Commander himself, became the Officer-in-Charge of Supply Center San Diego Detachment NAS Miramar. Under Navy Secretary Lehman’s direction I was charged with determining the root cause of the acquisition abuses and given 60-90 days to take immediate corrective action and clear all possible discrepancies.

I am not certain who initiated the firings of the chain of command. From talking with contemporaneous senior personnel at the time it appeared to have been instigated in a fit of pique by the sometimes volcanic Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. While I am sure that Secretary Weinberger experienced some emotional release through that action, placed in perspective, his blanket firing of the chain of command, in my opinion, was poorly advised and counterproductive. It was also grossly unfair, given what my team and I found as the root cause.

First of all, the ashtray was misrepresented in the press as a $600 ashtray because during the JAG I had sent a sample ashtray to the Navy industrial activity at North Island with a request to tell me what the fabrication of one ashtray would cost and to provide the industrial production curve that would reduce the unit price to a reasonable level. The figure of $600 was to fabricate one. A “whistleblower” at North Island took this slice of information out of context and leaked it to the press. So the $300 ashtray, which was bad enough, became the $600 ashtray.

Second, the disgruntled employee who gave the files to Congressman Hunter had been laterally assigned out of her position as a contracting officer by the Supply Officer because of the very reason that the pricing of the ashtray was not reasonable, among other unsatisfactory performance measures that indicated that she was not fit to perform those duties.

Third, there was a systemic issue in the acquisition of odd parts. For some reason there was an ashtray in the cockpit of the E-2C. These aircraft were able to stay in the air an extended period of time. A pilot had actually decided to light up during a local mission and, his attention diverted, lost control of the aircraft and crashed. Secretary Lehman ordered corrective action. The corrective action taken by the squadron at NAS Miramar was to remove the ashtray from the cockpit and store them in a hangar locker.

Four, there was an issue of fraud. During inspection the spare ashtrays were removed and deposited in the scrap metal dumpster on base. The tech rep for the DoD supplier on base retrieved the ashtrays and sold them back to the government for the price to fabricate one, given that the supply system had not experienced enough demand to keep them in stock.

Fifth, back to the systemic issue. When an aircraft is to be readied for deployment there can be no holes representing missing items in the cockpit. A deploying aircraft with this condition is then grounded and a high priority “casuality report” or CASREP is generated. The CASREP was referred to purchasing which then paid $300 for each ashtray. The contracting officer, however, feeling under pressure by the high priority requisition, did not do due diligence in questioning the supplier on the cost of the ashtray. In addition, given that several aircraft deploy, there were a number of these requisitions that should have led the contracting officer to look into the matter more closely to determine price reasonableness.

Furthermore, I found that buying personnel were not properly trained, that systems and procedures were not established or enforced, that the knowledge of the FAR was spotty, and that procurements did not go through multiple stages of review to ensure compliance with acquisition law, proper documentation, and administrative procedure.

Note that in the end this “scandal” was born by a combination of systemic issues, poor decision-making, lack of training, employee discontent, and incompetence.

I successfully corrected the issues at NAS Miramar during the prescribed time set by the Secretary of the Navy, worked with the media to instill public confidence in the system, built up morale, established better customer service, reduced procurement acquisition lead times (PALT), recommended necessary disciplinary action where it seemed appropriate, particularly in relation to the problematic employee, recovered monies from the supplier, referred the fraud issues to Navy legal, and turned over duties to a new chain of command.

NAS Miramar procurement continued to do its necessary job and is still there.

What the higher chain of command did not do was to take away the procurement authority of NAS Miramar. It did not eliminate or reduce the organization. It did not close NAS Miramar.

It requires leadership and focus to take effective corrective action to not only fix a broken system, but to make it better while the corrective actions are being taken. As I outlined above, DCMA performs an essential mission. As it transitions to a data-driven approach and works to reduce redundancy and inefficiency in its systems, it will require more powerful technologies to support its CAS function, and the ability to acquire those technologies to support that function.

Rear View Mirror — Correcting a Project Management Fallacy

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” —  William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

Over the years I and others have briefed project managers on project performance using KPPs, earned value management, schedule analysis, business analytics, and what we now call predictive analytics. Oftentimes, some set of figures will be critiqued as being ineffective or unhelpful; that the analytics “only look in the rear view mirror” and that they “tell me what I already know.”

In approaching this critique, it is useful to understand Faulkner’s oft-cited quote above.  When we walk down a street, let us say it is a busy city street in any community of good size, we are walking in the past.  The moment we experience something it is in the past.  If we note the present condition of our city street we will see that for every building, park, sidewalk, and individual that we pass on that sidewalk, each has a history.  These structures and the people are as much driven by their pasts as their expectations for the future.

Now let us take a snapshot of our street.  In doing so we can determine population density, ethnic demographics, property values, crime rate, and numerous other indices and parameters regarding what is there.  No doubt, if we stop here we are just “looking in the rear view mirror” and noting what we may or may not know, however certain our anecdotal filter.

Now, let us say that we have an affinity for this street and may want to live there.  We will take the present indices and parameters that noted above, which describe our geographical environment, and trend it.  We may find that housing pricing are rising or falling, that crime is rising or falling, etc.  If we delve into the street’s ownership history we may find that one individual or family possesses more than one structure, or that there is a great deal of diversity.  We may find that a Superfund site is not too far away.  We may find that economic demographics are pointing to stagnation of the local economy, or that the neighborhood is becoming gentrified.  Just by time-phasing and delving into history–by mapping out the trends and noting the significant historical background–provides us with enough information to inform us about whether our affinity is grounded in reality or practicality.

But let us say that, despite negatives, we feel that this is the next up-and-coming neighborhood.  We would need signs to make that determination.  For example, what kinds of businesses have moved into the neighborhood and what is their number?  What demographic do they target?  There are many other questions that can be asked to see if our economic analysis is valid–and that analysis would need to be informed by risk.

The fact of the matter is that we are always living with the past: the cumulative effect of the past actions of numerous individuals, including our own, and organizations, groups of individuals, and institutions; not to mention larger economic forces well beyond our control.  Any desired change in the trajectory of the system being evaluated must identify those elements that can be impacted or influenced, and an analysis of the effort that must be expended to bring about the change, is also essential.

This is a scientific fact, proven countless times by physics, biology, and other disciplines.  A deterministic universe, which provides for some uncertainty at any given point at our level of existence, drives the possible within very small limits of possibility and even smaller limits of probability.  What this means in plain language is that the future is usually a function of the past.

Any one number or index, no doubt, does not necessarily tell us something important.  But it could if it is relevant, material, and prompts further inquiry essential to project performance.

For example, let us look at an integrated master schedule that underlies a typical medium-sized project.

 

We will select a couple of metrics that indicates project schedule performance.  In the case below we are looking at task hits and misses and Baseline Execution Index, a popular index that determines efficiency in meeting baseline schedule planning.

Note that the chart above plots the performance over time.  What will it take to improve our efficiency?  So as a quick logic check on realism, let’s take a look at the work to date with all of the late starts and finishes.

Our bow waves track the cumulative effort to date.  As we work to clear missed starts or missed finishes in a project we also must devote resources to the accomplishment of current work that is still in line with the baseline.  What this means is that additional resources may need to be devoted to particular areas of work accomplishment or risk handling.

This is not, of course, the limit to our analysis that should be undertaken.  The point here is that at every point in history in every system we stand at a point of the cumulative efforts, risk, failure, success, and actions of everyone who came before us.  At the microeconomic level this is also true within our project management systems.  There are also external constraints and influences that will define the framing assumptions and range of possibilities and probabilities involved in project outcomes.

The shear magnitude of the bow waves that we face in all endeavors will often be too great to fully overcome.  As an analogy, a bow wave in complex systems is more akin to a tsunami as opposed to the tidal waves that crash along our shores.  All of the force of all of the collective actions that have preceded present time will drive our trajectory.

This is known as inertia.

Identifying and understanding the contributors to the inertia that is driving our performance is important to knowing what to do.  Thus, looking in the rear view mirror is important and not a valid argument for ignoring an inconvenient metric that may only require additional context.  Furthermore, knowing where we sit is important and not insignificant.  Knowing the factors that put us where we are–and the effort that it will take to influence our destiny–will guide what is possible and not possible in our future actions.

Note:  All charted data is notional and is not from an actual project.

The Monster Mash — Zombie Ideas in Project and Information Management

Just completed a number of meetings and discussions among thought leaders in the area of complex project management this week, and I was struck by a number of zombie ideas in project management, especially related to information, that just won’t die.  The use of the term zombie idea is usually attributed to the Nobel economist Paul Krugman from his excellent and highly engaging (as well as brutally honest) posts at the New York Times, but for those not familiar, a zombie idea is “a proposition that has been thoroughly refuted by analysis and evidence, and should be dead — but won’t stay dead because it serves a political purpose, appeals to prejudices, or both.”

The point is that to a techie–or anyone engaged in intellectual honesty–is that they are often posed in the form of question begging, that is, they advance invalid assumptions in the asking or the telling.  Most often they take the form of the assertive half of the same coin derived from “when did you stop beating your wife?”-type questions.  I’ve compiled a few of these for this post and it is important to understand the purpose for doing so.  It is not to take individuals to task or to bash non-techies–who have a valid reason to ask basic questions based on what they’ve heard–but propositions put forth by people who should know better based on their technical expertise or experience.  Furthermore, knowing and understanding technology and its economics is really essential today to anyone operating in the project management domain.

So here are a few zombies that seem to be most common:

a.  More data equals greater expense.  I dealt with this issue in more depth in a previous post, but it’s worth repeating here:  “When we inform Moore’s Law by Landauer’s Principle, that is, that the energy expended in each additional bit of computation becomes vanishingly small, it becomes clear that the difference in cost in transferring a MB of data as opposed to a KB of data is virtually TSTM (“too small to measure”).”  The real reason why we continue to deal with this assertion is both political in nature and also based in social human interaction.  People hate oversight and they hate to be micromanaged, especially to the point of disrupting the work at hand.  We see behavior, especially in regulatory and contractual relationships, where the reporting entity plays the game of “hiding the button.”  This behavior is usually justified by pointing to examples of dysfunction, particularly on the part of the checker, where information submissions lead to the abuse of discretion in oversight and management.  Needless to say, while such abuse does occur, no one has yet to point quantitatively to data (as opposed to anecdotally) that show how often this happens.

I would hazard to guess that virtually anyone with some experience has had to work for a bad boss; where every detail and nuance is microscopically interrogated to the point where it becomes hard to make progress on the task at hand.  Such individuals, who have been advanced under the Peter principle must, no doubt, be removed from such a position.  But this often happens in any organization, whether it be in private enterprise–especially in places where there is no oversight, check-and-balances, means of appeal, or accountability–or government–and is irrelevant to the assertion.  The expense item being described is bad management, not excess data.  Thus, such assertions are based on the antecedent assumption of bad management, which goes hand-in-hand with…

b. More information is the enemy of efficiency.  This is the other half of the economic argument to more data equals greater expense.  And I failed to mention that where the conflict has been engaged over these issues, some unjustifiable figure is given for the additional data that is certainly not supported by the high tech economics cited above.  Another aspect of both of these perspectives also comes from the conception of non-techies that more data and information is equivalent to pre-digital effort, especially in conceptualizing the work that often went into human-readable reports.  This is really an argument that supports the assertion that it is time to shift the focus from fixed report formatting functionality in software based on limited data to complete data, which can be formatted and processed as necessary.  If the right and sufficient information is provided up-front, then additional questions and interrogatories that demand supplemental data and information–with the attendant multiplication of data streams and data islands that truly do add cost and drive inefficiency–are at least significantly reduced, if not eliminated.

c.  Data size adds unmanageable complexity.  This was actually put forth by another software professional–and no doubt the non-techies in the room would have nodded their heads in agreement (particularly given a and b above), if opposing expert opinion hadn’t been offered.  Without putting too fine a point on it, a techie saying this to an open forum is equivalent to whining that your job is too hard.  This will get you ridiculed at development forums, where you will be viewed as an insufferable dilettante.  Digitized technology for well over 40 years has been operating under the phenomenon of Moore’s Law.  Under this law, computational and media storage capability doubles at least every two years under the original definition, though that equation has accelerated to somewhere between 12 and 24 months.  Thus, what was considered big data, say, in 1997 when NASA first coined the term, is not considered big data today.  No doubt, what is considered big data this year will not be considered big data two years from now.  Thus, the term itself is relative and may very well become archaic.  The manner in which data is managed–its rationalization and normalization–is important in successfully translating disparate data sources, but the assertion that big is scary is simply fear mongering because you don’t have the goods.

d.  Big data requires more expensive and sophisticated approaches.  This flows from item c above as well and is often self-serving.  Scare stories abound, often using big numbers which sound scary.  All data that has a common use across domains has to be rationalized at some point if they come from disparate sources, and there are a number of efficient software techniques for accomplishing this.  Furthermore, support for agnostic APIs and common industry standards, such as the UN/CEFACT XML, take much of the rationalization and normalization work out of a manual process.  Yet I have consistently seen suboptimized methods being put forth that essentially require an army of data scientists and coders to essentially engage in brute force data mining–a methodology that has been around for almost 30 years: except that now it carries with it the moniker of big data.  Needless to say this approach is probably the most expensive and slowest out there.  But then, the motivation for its use by IT shops is usually based in rice bowl and resource politics.  This is flimflam–an attempt to revive an old zombie under a new name.  When faced with such assertions, see Moore’s Law and keep on looking for the right answer.  It’s out there.

e.  Performance management and assessment is an unnecessary “regulatory” expense.  This one keeps coming up as part of a broader political agenda beyond just project management.  I’ve discussed in detail the issues of materiality and prescriptiveness in regulatory regimes here and here, and have addressed the obvious legitmacy of organizations to establish one in fiduciary, contractual, and governmental environments.

My usual response to the assertion of expense is to simply point to the unregulated derivatives market largely responsible for the financial collapse, and the resulting deep economic recession that followed once the housing bubble burst.  (And, aside from the cost of human suffering and joblessness, the expenses related to TARP).  Thus we know that the deregulation of banking had gone so well.  Even after the Band-Aid of Dodd-Frank the situation probably requires a bit more vigor, and should include the ratings agencies as well as the real estate market.  But here is the fact of the matter: such expenses cannot be monetized as additive because “regulatory” expenses usually represent an assessment of the day-to-day documentation, systems, and procedures required when performing normal business operations and due diligence in management.  I attended an excellent presentation last week where the speaker, tasked with finding unnecessary regulatory expenses, admitted as much.

Thus, what we are really talking about is an expense that is an essential prerequisite to entry in a particular vertical, especially where monopsony exists as a result of government action.  Moral hazard, then, is defined by the inherent risk assumed by contract type, and should be assessed on those terms.  Given the current trend is to raise thresholds, the question is going to be–in the government sphere–whether public opinion will be as forgiving in a situation where moral hazard assumes $100M in risk when things head south, as they often do with regularity in project management.  The way to reduce that moral hazard is through sufficiency of submitted data.  Thus, we return to my points in a and b above.

f.  Effective project assessment can be performed using high level data.  It appears that this view has its origins in both self-interest and a type of anti-intellectualism/anti-empiricism.

In the former case, the bias is usually based on the limitations of either individuals or the selected technology in providing sufficient information.  In the latter case, the argument results in a tautology that reinforces the fallacy that absence of evidence proves evidence of absence.  Here is how I have heard the justification for this assertion: identifying emerging trends in a project does not require that either trending or lower level data be assessed.  The projects in question are very high dollar value, complex projects.

Yes, I have represented this view correctly.  Aside from questions of competency, I think the fallacy here is self-evident.  Study after study (sadly not all online, but performed within OSD at PARCA and IDA over the last three years) have demonstrated that high level data averages out and masks indicators of risk manifestation, which could have been detected looking at data at the appropriate level, which is the intersection of work and assigned resources.  In plain language, this requires integration of the cost and schedule systems, with risk first being noted through consecutive schedule performance slips.  When combined with technical performance measures, and effective identification of qualitative and quantitative risk tied to schedule activities, the early warning is two to three months (and sometime more) before the risk is reflected in the cost measurement systems.  You’re not going to do this with an Excel spreadsheet.  But, for reference, see my post  Excel is not a Project Management Solution.

It’s time to kill the zombies with facts–and to behead them once and for all.

The End (of Analysis) Is the Beginning Is the End

Been back in the woodshed for a bit.  I just completed my latest post for AITS.org, which should be published sometime in mid-July.  In the meantime, I’ve been looking at issues of data visualization, process improvement, and performance management–and their interdependencies.  The APQC blog has some interesting things to say about project management challenges which, to be quite honest, sound a lot like “mom, apple pie, and Chevrolet.”

But there are nuggets of gold in there which I will save for another post, while focusing on another article by Holly Lyke-Ho-Gland on the top challenges in organizational performance management.  There are essentially three challenges.  The first is “establishing a performance culture.”  Given that APQC’s mission is broader than what I would view as traditional complex project management, this first statement is more than gratuitous.  The second is “identifying the right benchmarks and their source.”  At first blush this gets a big “duh”, but in every profession and discipline this is an area with a pretty consistent failing, especially on the back end of that statement.  For example, if one transitions from processed, human-readable reporting to just accessing the source data should not the results be the same?  I have been told otherwise in both meetings and during private conversations at project management conferences, which should be a counterfactual and raise some eyebrows.  The third and last is “defining and using process measures (leading, in-process, and lagging) in the business.”

While somewhat conceptual and non-specific, I would view all three of these challenges as elements necessary to an successful performance management system.  Furthermore, what is interesting here is that Ms. Lyke-Ho-Gland illustrates the connection between process and performance management.  The source of the data–and its credibility–is as important as collecting data.  Furthermore, I would posit that the job doesn’t stop at finding anomalies in the data or variances in performance.  This is just the beginning of the process in determining root causes of the issues and appropriate corrective action.  Thus, information analysis isn’t the end of the process, but the beginning of the process that will lead us to the ends.

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.