Why project management is a key middle-market tool

I have certain favorites when it comes to executive education, most of which are technically oriented toward distressed companies. But some courses I take just to build my own effectiveness. For example, about every two years I take a time-management course. I come away with sharpened task-tracking skills, and for about two years I am incredibly effective — on time, organized, and ready. Then things wind down and I need a refresher.

About 20 years ago I was running a technology-heavy firm, and I was struck by the lack of project-management skills among our development engineers. So I set up a PM course for all of the staff, and I took one of the courses. In contrast to the time-management courses that need refreshers, this educational experience has proved enduring. It has helped me for the past 20 years.

Of course, I thought project management was a technical skill that only engineers need. How can they roll out a new product unless all the components are finished at the same time? And I had used PM in some systems projects and merger integration, where large groups need to know what’s happening before some big pull-the-switch date.

But over time, I have tended to think of project management as a tool that we all need to use in any corporate improvement exercise, not just product launches and system switches.

An assessment of a new market. A revamped billing procedure. A reorg. A reinvigorated receivables-collections effort.



To review, project management involves a few formal elements: a charter — what we are about to do; a team, given explicit roles, responsibilities, and authorities; a timeline — often in the form of a Gantt chart, showing what will be done by when; and a weekly meeting to go over the progress — and more importantly, the issues that the project is raising.

This is a surprisingly robust management tool that is also notable for the lack of appreciation it receives. I find it not only brings the deliverables — the management objectives — on budget and on time, it is also capable of changing the company’s dynamics between departments and staff members.

Here’s an example. A light manufacturing company in Milwaukee found that its manufacturing process existed as an island with insufficient communications between manufacturing and sales, production setup, and estimating. The company needed to establish that bridge. What did we do? We set up a project team made up of line staff from the departments affected and set up a deliverable — to have a workable, but not necessarily perfect, process in place in eight weeks. We figured this would save the company about 2 percentage points in the manufacturing process.

We gave a short course in project management, but more importantly, we encouraged open communication on the issues. Mind you, this company had experienced a number of highly embarrassing manufacturing errors in the past, which almost always resulted in personal fights. Foreman vs. salesperson, drafting department vs. casting department. We got the former combatants together and discussed the charter, which was the shared task to fix this problem for good. The word “charter” became an important one, as line personnel saw that they could make executive-level decisions to make things better.

The teamwork, in turn, led to greater accountability in delivering results. As it happens, designing a new business process is time consuming, detailed, and frequently frustrating. But, assured that their process design would not only help their collective work experience but also be a signal achievement that the whole company would celebrate, they invested lunch hours and late evenings to get the process designed and debugged. Weekly meetings raised the troublesome issues early, and the team finished on time.

Then a funny thing happened. Everyone noticed that the sense of pride in achieving measurable, long-term results stayed with the group. The infighting ended. People who previously thought of themselves as workers started thinking of themselves as executives. And they were hungry for another challenge.

So I recommend using project management for many one-time challenges that companies face. The techniques will help achieve the immediate results desired — and the benefits will accrue far longer.

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