Growing in the Green: Project management

August 21, 2012
Written by Melhem Sawaya
Parts One and Two in this three-part project management series were published in the June and July issues. You can refer to them by checking our archives at www.greenhousecanada.com.

4929-Creating--garden  
It takes a lot of planning and coordinating to host garden trials.

 
In the last article we talked about getting the project underway, organizing the team and defining the guidelines. We also looked at task analysis and establishing objectives.

In this article we are going to cover:
  • Planning for time.
  • Cost and resources.
  • Implementation: the art of controlling and adjusting the plan, along with trends in project management.
In planning a project, one of the most difficult aspects is to estimate the time needed for a task. Here are six tips on how to get better estimates.
  1. Use actual times from similar tasks in other projects.
  2. Involve the person most knowledgeable with the task in making the estimate.
  3. Maintain a log of the track record of those providing estimates. Learn who is the eternal optimist (always underestimates), and who is the pessimist (always overestimates). Factor accordingly and coach to improve performance.
  4. Research vendors or subcontractors with whom you have no experience if critical path tasks are heavily dependent on them.
  5. Give special consideration to critical path tasks that could be affected by them or by other factors beyond your control.
  6. Consider using computerized estimating software for tasks that are totally new and experimental in nature.
ESTIMATING AND TRACKING COSTS
■  Cost estimating goes hand in hand with estimating time and resources. A few added points worth noting:
  • On expensive items, confirm prices and determine how long the price will be guaranteed.
  • For projects of long duration (one or more years), consider the effects of inflation on resource costs, both people and materials.
  • On high price imported items, stay abreast of currency exchange rates. This can put shock waves into any project budget.
  • Build in a contingency factor – normally 10-15 per cent cost factors.
  • Be sure controls on cost are in place from the outset. Excellent “estimates” will look bad if costs are not controlled.
  • Use the 80/20 principle to ensure both cost and time estimate success. Tracking and controlling costs are primary responsibilities of the project manager.
  • Most companies already have some sort of cost tracking system in place. The project manager must ensure it works. Personal computers are beneficial in tracking costs.
  • Software packages such as Excel are excellent for setting up tracking systems. Most organizations using such programs already have a broad base of knowledge.
  • Project management software is becoming increasingly popular for use in planning and controlling projects.

RESOURCE CATEGORIES AND UNDERSTANDING THEIR AVAILABILITY
■  The broad area of “resources” seems to create more problems for the project manager than any other facet of the profession. Resources can be defined as the “Big 4” – Money, Material, Machines and Human Resources.

Understanding what is available can be difficult.
  • Money and materials are generally no problem. How much money is available is usually specified up front. Materials are generally in unlimited supply … until the money runs out.
  • Human resources: A dedicated team’s availability is reasonably straightforward. But if resources are shared, their availability may not be obvious. The project manager must gain a commitment of how much and when they are available.
  • Machines: Much like people most of the time, they must be shared. Again, the project manager must gain a commitment.
HOW TO ALLOCATE PROJECT RESOURCES
■  Resources are allocated at the task level. Since the schedule will include start dates as well as durations for all tasks, the timing for resource requirement will be known. However, there is a key consideration – do not assume resources are automatically required for the entire task duration.
Five steps are involved when implementing a project:
  1. The project “objective” must be established and agreed to by all parties concerned.
  2. The “plan” in place detailing how, who and when.
  3. “Implementation” can now begin, and triggers the start of steps four and five.
  4. “Control” begins simultaneously with implementation.
  5. “Adjusting” is a constant consideration once “implementation” has begun.
Steps three, four and five now form a loop! As long as you keep the loop in motion, your project is healthy. Do not let it stop!

THE CHALLENGES OF THE PROJECT MANAGER
■  Exceptional project managers are often revealed during the “loop” period. Many are able to plan, schedule and chart the project well. However, not all have the persistence, openness, wisdom, energy, and responsiveness to keep the loop in motion.

The challenges are to:
  • Establish techniques for anticipating problems before they become crises.
  • Have reporting in place that properly communicates project status.
  • Be willing to make timely decisions.
  • Ensure team meetings are a constructive tool, not a waste of time.
4929-Creating-the-perfectjpg  
Creating the perfect flower combination is a mini project.

 
A comment often heard about certain managers is they “have a gift for anticipating problems.” Actually it is not a gift. It is a skill, and the person worked hard to develop it. Anything that can be learned is a skill, not a gift.

To develop this same “skill,” use the keys below:
Reporting: With proper reporting in place, the first sign of a problem is soon detected.

Feedback: Team member feedback is essential, and this includes subcontractors. Create an atmosphere of openness, honesty and fairness within the team.

“Reporting” is the all-important tool that keeps the project manager out of trouble. The following are some guidelines to good reporting:
  • Must be “timely” and generally done at least weekly.
  • Must be “on time.” Distribution must not be late.
  • Must be “thorough,” yet concise.
  • Format must be “consistent.” This precludes any temptations to “pick and choose” content.
  • Must be “non-personal.” Cannot be perceived as a vehicle for discipline and reprimand.
  • Use graphics when possible. “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
Remember … reporting does not have to be threatening. It can be the most positive tool available.

SCHEDULE SLIPPAGE AND SOLUTIONS
■  “The schedule is slipping!” Those words have an ominous sound to the project manager and the team.
The most common causes of slippage are: turnover within the project team; bad time estimates; delays from vendors; over-allocated resources; and unexpected changes to the plan.

Among possible solutions:
  • Always anticipate personnel changes. Have backups for key resources. At the same time, create an air of openness so that team members feel free to keep the project manager informed of potential changes.
  • If a trend in the bad estimates can be detected, consider rescheduling those tasks likely to be involved at the earliest point of detection. Consider alternative resources.
  • Have alternative vendors checked out for possible short-term use on items of critical nature.
  • Most importantly, it is good to plan ahead. This will provide lead time for dealing with resource imbalances. If the problem should occur suddenly, however, consider shifting resources, rescheduling non-critical tasks, contracting labour, or as a last resort, hiring additional people.
  • Include a notation of the changes to the plan in “reporting.” Then consider solutions outlined in the previous paragraph.
Most of us follow many of these steps without knowing it. The difference is that when these steps are on paper, they can be shared by everyone, especially when family is involved and the roles are not defined clearly.

Taking these guidelines and adjusting them to fit your project will save you money, headache and frustration, and the project will finish much closer to the target date!


Melhem Sawaya of Focus Greenhouse Management is a consultant and research coordinator to the horticultural industry. Comments on this or any other article are always welcome; please e-mail This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , or visit www.focusgreenhousemanagement.com .

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