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.

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.”

Margin Call — Schedule Margin and Schedule Risk

A discussion at the LinkedIn site for the NDIA IPMD regarding schedule margin has raised some good insight and recommendations for this aspect of project planning and execution.  Current guidance from the U.S. Department of Defense for those engaged in the level of intense project management that characterizes the industry has been somewhat vague and open to interpretation.  Some of this, I think, is due to the competing proprietary lexicon from software manufacturers that have been dominant in the industry.

But mostly the change in defining this term is due to positive developments.  That is, the change is due to the convergence garnered from long experience among the various PM disciplines that allow us to more clearly define and distinguish between schedule margin, schedule buffer, schedule contingency, and schedule reserve.  It is also due to the ability of more powerful software generations to actually apply the concept in real planning without it being a thumb in the air-type exercise.

Concerning this topic, Yancy Qualls of Bell Helicopter gave an excellent presentation at the January NDIA IPMD meeting in Tucson.  His proposal makes a great deal of sense and, I think, is a good first step toward true integration and a more elegant conceptual solution.  In his proposal, Mr. Qualls clearly defines the scheduling terminology by drawing analogies to similar concepts on the cost side.  This construction certainly overcomes a lot of misconceptions about the purpose and meaning of these terms.  But, I think, his analogies also imply something more significant and it is this:  that there is a common linkage between establishing management reserve and schedule reserve, and there are cost/schedule equivalencies that also apply to margin, buffer, and contingency.

After all, resources must be time-phased and these are dollarized.  But usually the relationship stops there and is distinguished by that characteristic being measured: measures of value or measures of timing; that is, the value of the work accomplished against the Performance Management Baseline (PMB) is different from the various measures of progress recorded against the Integrated Master Schedule (IMS).  This is why we look at both cost and schedule variances on the value of work performed from a cost perspective, and physical accomplishment against time.  These are fundamental concepts.

To date, the most significant proposal advanced to reconcile the two different measures was put forth by Walt Lipke of Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center in the method known as earned schedule.  But the method hasn’t been entirely embraced.  Studies have shown that it has its own limitations, but that it is a good supplement those measures currently in use, not a substitute for them.

Thus, we are still left with the need of making a strong, logical, and cohesive connection between cost and schedule in our planning.  The baseline plans constructed for both the IMS and PMB do not stand apart or, at least, should not.  They are instead the end result of a continuum in the construction of our project systems.  As such, there should be a tie between cost and schedule that allows us to determine the proper amount of margin, buffer, and contingency in a manner that is consistent across both sub-system artifacts.

This is where risk comes in and the correct assessment of risk at the appropriate level of measurement, given that our measures of performance are being measured against different denominators.  For schedule margin, in Mr. Qualls’ presentation, it is the Schedule Risk Analysis (SRA).  But this then leads us to look at how that would be done.

Fortuitously, during this same meeting, Andrew Uhlig of Raytheon Missile Systems gave an interesting presentation on historical SRA results, building models from such results, and using them to inform current projects.  What I was most impressed with in this presentation was that his research finds that the actual results from schedule performance do not conform to any of the usual distribution curves found in the standard models.  Instead of normal, triangle, or pert distributions, what he found is a spike, in which a large percentage of the completions fell exactly on the planned duration.  Thus, distribution was skewed around the spike, with the late durations–the right tail–much longer than the left.

What is essential about the work of Mr. Uhlig is that, rather than using small samples with their biases, he using empirical data to inform his analysis.  This is a pervasive problem in project management.  Mr. Qualls makes this same point in his own presentation, using the example of the Jordan-era Chicago Bulls as an example, where each subsequent win–combined with probabilities that show that the team could win all 82 games–does not mean that they will actually perform the feat.  In actuality (and in reality) the probability of this occurring is quite small.  Glen Alleman at his Herding Cats blog covers this same issue, emphasizing the need for empirical data.

The results of the Uhlig presentation are interesting, not only because they throw into question the results using the three common distributions used in schedule risk analysis under simulated Monte Carlo, but also because they may suggest, in my opinion, an observation or reporting bias.  Discrete distribution methods, as Mr. Uhlig proposes, will properly model the distribution for such cases using our parametric analysis.  But they will not reflect the quality of the data collected.

Short duration activities are designed to overcome subjectivity through their structure.  The shorter the duration, the more discrete the work being measured, the less likely occurrence of “gaming” the system.  But if we find, as Mr. Uhlig does, that 29% of 20 day activities report exactly 20 days, then there is a need to test the validity of the spike itself.  It is not that it is necessarily wrong.  Perhaps the structure of the short duration combined with the discrete nature of the linkage to work has done its job.  One would expect a short tail to the left and a long tail to the right of the spike.  But there is also a possibility that variation around the target duration is being judged as “close enough” to warrant a report of completion at day 20.

So does this pass the “So What?” test?  Yes, if only because we know that the combined inertia of all of the work performed at any one time on the project will eventually be realized in the form of a larger amount of risk in proportion to the remaining work.  If the reported results are pushing risk to the right because the reported performance is optimistic against the actual performance, then we will get false positives.  If the actual performance is pessimistic against actual performance–a less likely scenario in my opinion–then we will get false negatives.

But regardless of these further inquiries that I think need to be made regarding the linkage between cost and schedule, and the validity of results from SRAs, we now have two positive steps in the right direction in clarifying areas that in the past have perplexed project managers.  Properly identifying schedule reserve, margin, buffer, and contingency, combined with properly conducting SRAs using discrete distributions based on actual historical results will go quite far in allowing us to introduce better predictive measures in project management.

Ace of Base(line) — A New Paper on Building a Credible PMB

Glen Alleman, a leading consultant in program management (who also has a blog that I follow), Tom Coonce of the Institute for Defense Analyses, and Rick Price of Lockheed Martin, have jointly published a new paper in the College of Performance Management’s Measureable News entitled “Building A Credible Performance Measurement Baseline.”

The elements of their proposal for constructing a credible PMB, from my initial reading, are as follows:

1.  Rather than a statement of requirements, decision-makers should first conduct a capabilities gap analysis to determine the units of effectiveness and performance.  This ensures that program management decision-makers have a good idea of what “done” looks like, and ensures that performance measurements aren’t disconnected from these essential elements of programmatic success.

2.  Following from item 1 above, the technical plan and the programmatic plan should always be in sync.

3.  Earned value management is but one of many methods for assessing programmatic performance in its present state.  At least that is how I interpret what the are saying, because later in their paper they propose a way to ensure that EVM does not stray from the elements that define technical achievement.  But EVM in itself is not the end-all or be-all of performance management–and fails in many ways to anticipate where the technical and programmatic plans diverge.

4.  All work in achieving the elements of effectiveness and performance are first constructed and given structure in the WBS.  Thus, the WBS ties together all elements of the project plan.  In addition, technical and programmatic risk must be assessed at this stage, rather than further down the line after the IMS has been constructed.

5.  The Integrated Master Plan (IMP) is constructed to incorporate the high level work plans that are manifested through major programmatic events and milestones.  It is through the IMP that EVM is then connected to technical performance measures that affect the assessment of work package completion that will be reflected in the detailed Integrated Master Schedule (IMS).  This establishes not only the importance of the IMP in ensuring the linkage of technical and programmatic plans, but also makes the IMP an essential artifact that has all too often be seen as optional, which probably explains why so many project managers are “surprised” when they construct aircraft that can’t land on the deck of a carrier or satellites that can’t communicate in orbit, though they are well within the tolerance bands of cost and schedule variances.

6.  Construct the IMS taking into account the technical, qualitative, and quantitative risks associated with the events and milestones identified in the IMP.  Construct risk mitigation/handling where possible and set aside both cost and schedule margins for irreducible uncertainties, and management reserve (MR) for reducible risks, keeping in mind that margin is within the PMB but MR is above the PMB but within the CBB.  Furthermore, schedule margin should be transitioned from a deterministic one to a probabilistic one–constructing sufficient margin to protect essential activities.  Cost margin in work packages should also be constructed in the same manner-based on probabilistic models that determine the chances of making a risk reducible until reaching the point of irreducibility.  Once again, all of these elements tie back to the WBS.

7.  Cost and schedule margin are not the same as slack or float.  Margin is reserve.  Slack or float is equivalent to overruns and underruns.  The issue here in practice is going to be to get the oversight agencies to leave margin alone.  All too often this is viewed as “free” money to be harvested.

8.  Cost, schedule, and technical performance measurement, tied together at the elemental level of work–informing each other as a cohesive set of indicators that are interrelated–and tied back to the WBS, is the only valid method of ensuring accurate project performance measurement and the basis for programmatic success.

Most interestingly, in conclusion the authors present as a simplified case an historical example how their method proves itself out as both a common sense and completely reasonable approach, by using the Wright brothers’ proof of concept for the U.S. Army in 1908.  The historical documents in that case show that the Army had constructed elements of effectiveness and performance in determining whether they would purchase an airplane from brothers.  All measures of project success and failure would be assessed against those elements–which combined cost, schedule, and technical achievement.  I was particularly intrigued that the issue of weight of the aircraft was part of the assessment–a common point of argument from critics of the use of technical performance–where it is demonstrated in the paper how the Wright brothers actually assessed and mitigated the risk associated with that measure of performance over time.

My initial impression of the paper is that it is a significant step forward in bringing together all of the practical lessons learned from both the successes and failures of project performance.  Their recommendations are a welcome panacea to many of the deficiencies implicit in our project management systems and procedures.

I also believe that as an integral part of the process in construction of the project artifacts, that it is a superior approach than the one that I initially proposed in 1997, which assumed that TPM would always be applied as an additional process that would inform cost and schedule at the end of each assessment period.  I look forward to hearing the presentation at the next Integrated Program Management Conference, at which I will attempt some live blogging.

More on Excel…the contributing factor of poor Project Management apps

Some early comments via e-mails on my post on why Excel is not a PM tool raised the issue that I was being way too hard on IT shops and letting application providers off the hook.  The asymmetry was certainly not the intention (at least not consciously).

When approaching an organization seeking process and technology improvement, oftentimes the condition of using Excel is what we in the technology/PM industry conveniently call “workarounds.”  Ostensibly these workarounds are temporary measures to address a strategic or intrinsic organizational need that will eventually be addressed by a more cohesive software solution.  In all too many cases, however, the workaround turns out to be semi-permanent.

A case in point in basic project management concerns Work Authorizations Documents (WADs) and Baseline Change Requests (BCRs).  Throughout entire industries who use the most advanced scheduling applications, resource management applications, and–where necessary–earned value “engines,” the modus operandi to address WADs and BCRs is to either use Excel or to write a custom app in FoxPro or using Access.  This is fine as a “workaround” as long as you remember to set up the systems and procedures necessary to keep the logs updated, and then have in place a procedure to update the systems of record appropriately.  Needless to say, errors do creep in and in very dynamic environments it is difficult to ensure that these systems are in alignment, and so a labor-intensive feedback system must also be introduced.

This is the type of issue that software technology was designed to solve.  Instead, software has fenced off the “hard’ operations so that digitized manual solutions, oftentimes hidden from plain view from the team by the physical technological constraint of the computer (PC, laptop, etc.), are used.  This is barely a step above what we did before the introduction of digitization:  post the project plan, milestone achievements, and performance on a VIDS/MAF board that surrounded the PM control office, which ensured that every member of the team could see the role and progress of the project.  Under that system no one hoarded information, it militated against single points of failure, and ensured that disconnects were immediately addressed since visibility ensured accountability.

In many ways we have lost the ability to recreate the PM control office in digitized form.  Part of the reason resides in the 20th century organization of development and production into divisions of labor.  In project management, the specialization of disciplines organized themselves around particular functions: estimating and planning, schedule management, cost management, risk management, resource management, logistics, systems engineering, operational requirements, and financial management, among others.  Software was developed to address each of these areas with clear lines of demarcation drawn that approximated the points of separation among the disciplines.  What the software manufacturers forgot (or never knew) was that the PMO is the organizing entity and it is an interdisciplinary team.

To return to our example: WADs and BCRs; a survey of the leading planning and scheduling applications shows that while their marketing literature addresses baselines and baseline changes (and not all of them address even this basic function), they still do not understand complex project management.  There is a difference between resources assigned to a time-phased network schedule and the resources planned against technical achievement related to the work breakdown structure (WBS).  Given proper integration they should align.  In most cases they do not.  This is why most scheduling application manufacturers who claim to measure earned value, do not.  Their models assume that the expended resources align with the plan to date, in lieu of volume-based measurement.  Further, eventually understanding this concept does not produce a digitized solution, since an understanding of the other specific elements of program control is necessary.

For example, projects are initiated either through internal work authorizations in response to a market need, or based on the requirements of a contract.  Depending on the mix of competencies required to perform the work financial elements such as labor rates, overhead, G&A, allowable margin (depending on contract type), etc. will apply–what is euphemistically called “complex rates.”  An organization may need to manage multiple rate sets based on the types of efforts undertaken, with a many-to-many relationship between rate sets and projects/subprojects.

Once again, the task of establishing the proper relationships at the appropriate level is necessary.  This will then affect the timing of WAD initiation, and will have a direct bearing on the BCR approval process, given that it is heavily influenced by “what-if?” analysis against resource, labor, and financial availability and accountability (a complicated process in itself).  Thus the schedule network is not the only element affected, nor the overarching one, given the assessed impact on cost, technical achievement, and qualitative external risk.

These are but two examples of sub-optimization due to deficiencies in project management applications.  The response–and in my opinion a lazy one (or one based on the fact that oftentimes software companies know nothing of their customers’ operations)–has been to develop the alternative euphemism for “workaround”: best of breed.  Oftentimes this is simply a means of collecting revenue for a function that is missing from the core application.  It is the software equivalent of division of labor: each piece of software performs functions relating to specific disciplines and where there are gaps these are filled by niche solutions or Excel.  What this approach does not do is meet the requirements of the PMO control office, since it perpetuates application “swim lanes,” with the multidisciplinary requirements of project management relegated to manual interfaces and application data reconciliation.  It also pushes–and therefore magnifies–risk at the senior level of the project management team, effectively defeating organizational fail safes designed to reduce risk through, among other methods, delegation of responsibility to technical teams, and project planning and execution constructed around short duration/work-focused activities.  It also reduces productivity, information credibility, and unnecessarily increases cost–the exact opposite of the rationale used for investing in software technology.

It is time for this practice to end.  Technologies exist today to remove application “swim lanes” and address the multidisciplinary needs of successful project management.  Excel isn’t the answer; cross-application data access, proper data integration, and data processing into user-directed intelligence, properly aggregated and distributed based on role and optimum need to know, is.

Frame by Frame: Framing Assumptions and Project Success or Failure

When we wake up in the morning we enter the day with a set of assumptions about ourselves, our environment, and the world around us.  So too when we undertake projects.  I’ve just returned from the latest NDIA IPMD meeting in Washington, D.C. and the most intriguing presentation at the meeting was given by Irv Blickstein regarding a RAND root cause analysis of major program breaches.  In short, a major breach in the cost of a program is defined by the Nunn-McCurdy amendment that was first passed in 1982, in which a major defense program breaches its projected baseline cost by more than 15%.

The issue of what constitutes programmatic success and failure has generated a fair amount of discussion among the readers of this blog.  The report, which is linked above, is full of useful information regarding Major Defense Acquisition Program (also known as MDAP) breaches under Nunn-McCurdy, but for purposes of this post readers should turn to page 83.  In setting up a project (or program), project/program managers must make a set of assumptions regarding the “uncertain elements of program execution” centered around cost, technical performance, and schedule.  These assumptions are what are referred to as “framing assumptions.”

A framing assumption is one in which there are signposts along the way to determine if an assumption regarding the project/program has changed over time.  Thus, according to the authors, the precise definition of a framing assumption is “any explicit or implicit assumption that is central in shaping cost, schedule, or performance expectations.”  An interesting aspect of their perspective and study is that the three-legged stool of program performance relegates risk to serving as a method that informs the three key elements of program execution, not as one of the three elements.  I have engaged in several conversations over the last two weeks regarding this issue.  Oftentimes the question goes: can’t we incorporate technical performance as an element of risk?  Short answer:  No, you can’t (or shouldn’t).  Long answer: risk is a set of methods for overcoming the implicit invalidity of single point estimates found in too many systems being used (like estimates-at-complete, estimates-to-complete, and the various indices found in earned value management, as well as a means of incorporating qualitative environmental factors not otherwise categorizable), not an element essential to defining the end item application being developed and produced.  Looked at another way, if you are writing a performance specification, then performance is a key determinate of program success.

Additional criteria for a framing assumption are also provided in the RAND study.  These are that the assumptions must be determinative, that is, the consequences of the assumption being wrong significantly affects the program in an essential way.  They must also be unmitigable, that is, the consequences of the assumption being wrong are unavoidable.  They must be uncertain, that is, the outcome or certainty of it being right or wrong cannot be determined in advance.  They must be independent and not dependent on another event or series of events.  Finally, they must be distinctive, in setting the program apart from other efforts.

RAND then applied the framing assumption methodology to a number of programs.  The latest NDIA meeting was an opportunity to provide an update of conclusions based on the work first done in 2013.  What the researchers found was that framing assumptions which are kept at a high level, be developed early in a program’s life cycle, and should be reviewed on a regular basis to determine validity.  They also found that a program breached the threshold when a framing assumption became invalid.  Project and program managers, and requirements personnel have at least intuitively known this for quite some time.  Over the years, this is the reason given for requirements changes and contract modifications over the course of development that result in cost, performance, and schedule impacts.

What is different about the RAND study is that they have outlined a practical process for making these determinations early enough for a project/program to be adjusted with changing circumstances.  For example, the numbers of framing assumptions of all MDAPs in the study could be boiled down to four or five, which are easily tested against reality during the milestone and other reviews held over the course of a program.  This is particularly important given the lengthened time-frames of major acquisitions from development to production.

Looking at these results, my own observation is that this is a useful tool for identifying course corrections that are needed before they manifest into cost and schedule impacts, particularly given that leadership at PARCA has been stressing agile acquisition strategies.  The goal here, it seems, is to allow for course corrections before the inertia of the effort leads to failure or–more likely–the development and deployment of an end item that does not entirely meet the needs of the Defense Department.  (That such “disappointments” often far outstrip the capabilities of our adversaries is a topic for a different post).

I think the court is still out on whether course corrections, given the inertia of work and effort already expended at the point that a framing assumption would be tested as invalid, can ever truly be offsetting to the point of avoiding a breach, unless we then rebrand the existing effort as a new program once it has modified its structure to account for new framing assumptions.  Study after study has shown that project performance is pretty well baked in at the 20% mark.  For MDAPs, much of the front-loaded efforts in technology selection and application have been made.  After all, systems require inputs and to change a system requires more inputs, not less, to overcome the inertia of all of the previous effort, not to mention work in progress.   This is basic physics whether we are dealing with physical systems or complex adaptive (economic) systems.

Certainly, more efficient technology that affects the units of measurement within program performance can result in cost savings or avoidance, but that is usually not the case.  There is a bit of magical thinking here: that commercial technologies will provide a breakthrough to allow for such a positive effect.  This is an ideological idea not borne out by reality.  The fact is that most of the significant technological breakthroughs we have seen over the last 70 years–from the microchip to the internet and now to drones–have resulted from public investments, sometimes in public-private ventures, sometimes in seeded technologies that are then released into the public domain.  The purpose of most developmental programs is to invest in R&D to organically develop technologies (utilizing the talents of the quasi-private A&D industry) or provide economic incentives to incorporate technologies that do not currently exist.

Regardless, the RAND study has identified an important concept in determining the root causes of overruns.  It seems to me that a formalized process of identifying framing assumptions should be applied and done at the inception of the program.  The majority of the assessments to test the framing assumptions should then need to be made prior to the 20% mark as measured by program schedule and effort.  It is easier and more realistic to overcome the bow-wave of effort at that point than further down the line.

Note: I have modified the post to clarify my analysis of the “three-legged stool” of program performance in regard to where risk resides.

Synchroncity — What is proper schedule and cost integration?

Much has been said about the achievement of schedule and cost integration (or lack thereof) in the project management community.  Much of it consists of hand waving and magic asterisks that hide the significant reconciliation that goes on behind the scenes.  From an intellectually honest approach that does not use the topic as a means of promoting a proprietary solution is that authored by Rasdorf and Abudayyeah back in 1991 entitled, “Cost and Schedule Control Integration: Issues and Needs.”

It is worthwhile revisiting this paper, I think, because it was authored in a world not yet fully automated, and so is immune to the software tool-specific promotion that oftentimes dominates the discussion.  In their paper they outlined several approaches to breaking down cost and work in project management in order to provide control and track performance.  One of the most promising methods that they identified at the time was the unified approach that had originated in aerospace, in which a work breakdown structure (WBS) is constructed based on discrete work packages in which budget and schedule are unified at a particular level of detail to allow for full control and traceability.

The concept of the WBS and its interrelationship to the organizational breakdown structure (OBS) has become much more sophisticated over the years, but there has been a barrier that has caused this ideal to be fully achieved.  Ironically it is the introduction of technology that is the culprit.

During the first phase of digitalization that occurred in the project management industry not too long after Radsdorf and Abudayyeah published their paper, there was a boom in dot coms.  For business and organizations the practice was to find a specialty or niche and fill it with an automated solution to take over the laborious tasks of calculation previously achieved by human intervention.  (I still have both my slide rule and first scientific calculator hidden away somewhere, though I have thankfully wiped square root tables from my memory).

For those of us who worked in project and acquisition management, our lives were built around the 20th century concept of division of labor.  In PM this meant we had cost analysts, schedule analysts, risk analysts, financial analysts and specialists, systems analysts, engineers broken down by subspecialties (electrical, mechanical, systems, aviation) and sub-subspecialties (Naval engineers, aviation, electronics and avionics, specific airframes, software, etc.).  As a result, the first phase of digitization followed the pathway of the existing specialties, finding niches in which to inhabit, which provided a good steady and secure living to software companies and developers.

For project controls, much of this infrastructure remains in place.  There are entire organizations today that will construct a schedule for a project using one set of specialists and the performance management baseline (PMB) in another, and then reconciling the two, not just in the initial phase of the project, but across the entire life of the project.  From the standard of the integrated structure that brings together cost and schedule this makes no practical sense.  From a business efficiency perspective this is an unnecessary cost.

As much as it is cited by many authors and speakers, the Coopers & Lybrand with TASC, Inc. paper entitled “The DoD Regulatory Cost Premium” is impossible to find on-line.  Despite its widespread citation the study demonstrated that by the time one got down to the third “cost” driver due to regulatory requirements that the projected “savings” was a fraction of 1% of the total contract cost.  The interesting issue not faced by the study is, were the tables turned, how much would such contracts be reduced if all management controls in the company were reduced or eliminated since they contribute as elements to overhead and G&A?  More to the point here, if the processes applied by industry were optimized what would the be the cost savings involved?

A study conduct by RAND Corporation in 2006 accurately points out that a number of studies had been conducted since 1986, all of which promised significant impacts in terms of cost savings by focusing on what were perceived as drivers for unnecessary costs.  The Department of Defense and the military services in particular took the Coopers & Lybrand study very seriously because of its methodology, but achieved minimal savings against those promised.  Of course, the various studies do not clearly articulate the cost risk associated with removing the marginal cost of oversight and regulation. Given our renewed experience with lack of regulation in the mortgage and financial management sectors of the economy that brought about the worst economic and financial collapse since 1929, one my look at these various studies in a new light.

The RAND study outlines the difficulties in the methodologies and conclusions of the studies undertaken, especially the acquisition reforms initiated by DoD and the military services as a result of the Coopers & Lybrand study.  But, how, you may ask does this relate to cost and schedule integration?

The present means that industry uses in many places takes a sub-optimized approach to project management, particularly when it applies to cost and schedule integration, which really consists of physical cost and schedule reconciliation.  A system is split into two separate entities, though they are clearly one entity, constructed separately, and then adjusted using manual intervention which defeats the purpose of automation.  This may be common practice but it is not best practice.

Government policy, which has pushed compliance to the contractor, oftentimes rewards this sub-optimization and provides little incentive to change the status quo.  Software industry manufacturers who are embedded with old technologies are all too willing to promote the status quo–appropriating the term “integration” while, in reality, offering interfaces and workarounds after the fact.  Those personnel residing in line and staff positions defined by the mid-20th century approach of division of labor are all too happy to continue operating using outmoded methods and tools.  Paradoxically these are personnel in industry that would never advocate using outmoded airframes, jet engines, avionics, or ship types.

So it is time to stop rewarding sub-optimization.  The first step in doing this is through the normalization of data from these niche proprietary applications and “rewiring” them at the proper level of integration so that the systemic faults can be viewed by all stakeholders in the oversight and regulatory chain.  Nothing seems to be more effective in correcting a hidden defect than some sunshine and a fresh set of eyes.

If industry and government are truly serious about reforming acquisition and project management in order to achieve significant cost savings in the face of tight budgets and increasing commitments due to geopolitical instability, then systemic reforms from the bottom up are the means to achieve the goal; not the elimination of controls.  As John Kennedy once said in paraphrasing Chesterton, “Don’t take down a fence unless you know why it was put up.”  The key is not to undermine the strength and integrity of the WBS-based approach to project control and performance measurement (or to eliminate it), but to streamline it so that it achieves its ideal as closely as our inherently faulty tools and methods will allow.