Ron Baker sure knows how to get my Irish up. (Save your political corrections, I am Irish, I get to say that.) Last week he sent me a link to the WebCPA article by Jeff Stimpson, Project Management: A Means to Efficiency.
Ah, where to start, oh, I know the title! It is inane. Real project management is concerned primarily with effectiveness not efficiency. It is customer and result focused. Its purpose is to insure that the objectives are met according to the customer’s expectations, not to make the firm more efficient and certainly not to protect the firm in the case of a lawsuit. I have battled about the latter belief at just about every project management course I have attended or facilitated.
The teaser sentence is no better – “Staffing issues, varying types of engagements, and a need for greater profitability are causing firms to sharpen project-management skills.” Really! How about wanting to provide better information, not to mention insightful knowledge to their customers? Once again, the focus is wrong, inward, rather than outward.
Perhaps Jeff Stimpson is not to blame since these occur before his by line. In fact, the first quote of the article from Kenneth Jones at least speaks of providing better customer service although it seems to be speaking of it as an afterthought.
The article often references “professional standards” and “quality processes” such as Six Sigma as being necessary to insure that a firms project management is efficient. This is rubbish – knowledge workers are not factory workers. Knowledge transfer cannot be streamlined, nor would you want it to be. The article quotes several “quality experts” who, in my reading of the article, fail to understand the primary absolute of quality – quality is conformance to a requirement rather than goodness. The original guru of quality Philip Crosby in his masterwork, Quality Is Free, first posited this idea.
This idea is critical to understanding quality, yet so few people (yes, even the quality experts) fail to grasp it. A firm cannot say that it does quality work, only a customer can say that about the firm. As Miliken & Company, an international textile and chemical firm and a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award winner, state, “Quality is not the absence of defects as defined by management, but the presence of value as defined by customers.”
The article then goes on to quote (or perhaps misquote) expert after expert waxing on the wonders quality and how it improves a firm internally. One of the most egregious occurs in the section entitled The Form. In it, knowledge workers are reduced to being “budget models” and “supply-versus-demand in total.” Then comes the coup de grace, “firms can look at clients’ data as the ‘raw material.'” Boys and girls, please keep your knowledge workers away from anyone who in any way equates your customers to raw materials.
The process then described is downright foolish:
“If we think of a business tax return as a project, then when we got a thousand of them at once, we said, ‘Okay, let’s take a look at the processes to make sure each return goes through the process efficiently,” says David McCarthy, shareholder and director of profit enhancement services at Rea. “We document out each process step and ask, ‘Is this value-added process step, or a business non-value added, or a non-value-added step?'” Hostetler also says, adding that the goal is to shrink, if not eliminate, the last. Rea’s process also especially goes after bottlenecks and other obstacles in the workflow.
“Let’s say we’ve got five people, and when they’re done with their process step, they’re dumping it on one person. That person becomes the bottleneck,” Hostetler points out. “We try to find ways to sort resources to have another person at that ‘bottleneck’ person’s level.” He adds that typically such an overloaded staffer would be a tax manager or shareholder, or, towards the end of the process, even a staffer in an administrative role.
“Can you see how that’s so similar to a manufacturing process?” McCarthy says. “Last tax season, we got more returns out the door with fewer people and less stress.”
Yes, but did you provide high quality returns from the perspective of the customer? Did you provide any insight or value to those customers or did you eliminate the knowledge worker who could have provided that insight as a “bottleneck?” How does one decide what is a “non-value-added step” for a knowledge worker?
The Reasons Used section of the article is no less absurd although it is less offensive. “What if every time you went into Starbucks, your cup of coffee was different? They use standard cups and temperature, standard pricing and delivery time. Product management is about standardization.” Bullshit! First, the analogy is as bad as week-old cup of coffee. Every cup of coffee at Starbucks is different! Let us do some quick math. Three sizes of drinks times five different milk choices times four coffee choices times seven syrup flavors times three foam levels is 1,260 and I am leaving stuff out! Second, project management is not about standardization. It is about providing a framework to insure the provision of value to a customer.
In the Infrastructure Needed and Software sections the author trots out the standard second defense (cost accounting) of timesheets. When will these folks learn that once you refute a theory you cannot continue to use it in defense of your argument? If labor does not equal value for pricing, then labor does not equal value for cost accounting. You cannot refute my argument that the world is round by saying, “Yeah, but what if you fall off the edge.”
A quick side note – Microsoft Project is a piece of crap! The most harm Microsoft has done to the world was naming the product Project. The real project managers of the world now have to spend needless time on explaining that the mpp file created by that software is not a project plan. It is a pretty and mostly useless Gantt chart. Where is the concept of scope in Microsoft Project? Hint, it ain’t there.
In the section Pros and Cons, we have this gem. “The toughest aspect of project management was the initial load of client budget information, according to Gaino and Archer, who add that their firm, much smaller then, had to ‘literally’ lock 25 staff and partners in a room and not allow anyone to leave until their client budgets were entered into our system, and reviewed and approved by the partner.” Ok, that is downright funny! I love when inappropriate quotation mark usage meets oxymoronic language. They literally put literally in quotes!
While funny, the reality saddens me. The wasted intellectual capital spent inputting a lagging, non-customer centric budget number astounds me. How does that help them in the future? Yippy, Skippy, we met last year’s budget! So what and who cares? Certainly not the customer!
My best advice about the Best Advice section is never to get to it.
A side note about the side bar on sample metrics – there is not one that is customer centric. At least one, however, is predictive – cycle time. The most important, on-time performance, eludes them.
Oh, by the way, the article needed a better editor; I counted at least three times where project management was referred to as product management. I guess quality control does not apply to journalism for accountants.