Technology…Communication Made Easy?

I once worked for a large company as a QA manager.  One day word got out that our VP of Customer Service was on the war path because damage complaints were up over 33% year to date!  It was costing us a lot of money to resend orders that were damaged upon arrival at our customer’s locations.

 I was a mid-level manager at the time and only heard rumblings from my superiors from high level meetings they attended.  I was instructed to change product packaging to hundreds of items, perform drop testing and all sorts of comparisons to reduce damage complaints.  Nothing worked.  After about six weeks of panic and fact finding no one had arrived at a reason for the problem .

Then one day I sat in on a high-level meeting.  I recalled a friend of mine that worked in our  call center telling me how we started resending new items, instead of coupons for damaged products.  It just so happened that our system calculated damage complaints based on resent items, not coupons.  I mentioned this during our meeting; we crunched the numbers and determined that damage complaints were NORMAL!  No increase had ever occurred, only the way we calculated them!!

I would have given anything to avoid those six weeks.  We invented new procedures, hired consultants and changed all of our packaging!  If only we would have talked about this before we initiated the changes!  Communication, although not always easy, is always essential.



Diamond Cutting

The four C’s of diamond cutting are Color, Clarity, Caret, and Cut.  Every stone is judged on these characteristics, and the price set accordingly.  My assertion is that these qualities also apply to the art of product development.  Engineers and Product Managers, listen up!  The value of products for your customers follows the same principles as cutting and polishing a beautiful stone.  Indulge me, and I’ll explain.

1. Color.  People expect beauty in the products they use, and will always choose a pleasing product to an ugly one.  This aspect of project development refers to the almost imperceptable touches of style you add to your work.  As left-brain engineers, we often overlook this.

2. Clarity.  Have you applied a ‘usability test’ to your product?  How clear is it?  How easy is it to navigate and complete the basic tasks?  Consider using a digital camera to study people using your product.  You’ll learn a lot about clarity and usability.

Polish: Refers to any blemishes on the surface of the diamond which are not significant enough to affect the clarity grade of the diamond. Examples of blemishes that might be considered as ‘polish’ characteristics are faint polishing lines and small surface nicks or scratches. Polish is regarded as an indicator of the quality of as diamond’s cut; it is graded as either Ideal, Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair or Poor.

3. Caret.  Is your product full-featured?  Is there a lot of value?  Consider building it out to offer more for the money.  But listen closely to customers before launching into your build-out program.  Find out what they want, and add only those features.

4. Cut.  There a dozens of ways to present a product (i.e. cut the product features for use).  Choose an ugly one, and customers will look elsewhere.  They want new ways to approach their problems.  After all, they have exhausted all the conventional wisdom, and are looking to you to solve the real jawbreakers.  Do it, and they will reward you.



What’s More Important than Web 2.0?

Blogs, wikis, and social networks top the list for collaboration tools among project team professionals, right?  After all, they bring the entire team together in ways nobody ever thought possible.  But that’s not what the latest Ziff Davis study found.  In fact, “shared project management tools” was in the top ten, up there with simple old email.  Didn’t know that?  Check out this article by Allan Alder at CIO Insite.

It’s buried on page five, but the zinger quote below tells it all.  Check out the chart on page 5 too.  It tells us that products like Standard Time® really are important!  They are the ones bringing project teams together.  “Shared project management systems” ranked at #8, while “MySpace” was at #27, just above “None of the above.”


Shared project management systems, workflow systems, real-time document collaboration tools and knowledge management systems are considered more important than any Web 2.0 technology: They are widely used by project teams and, to a slightly lesser extent, by co-workers engaged in business processes.

I’d like to see the list of collaboration tools you find useful for your project team.  If you are not using Standard Time, what are you using?  I’d like to hear!


Define: Project Phase

Project phase: A series of project tasks grouped together by time frame.


Project phases help you complete a portion of your project before moving on to other activities.  If your project is so big that it needs phases, good for you!  It probably means you have many resources assigned to it, and you need to break things up to manage them effectively.  This is not always so, but often the case.

Both Microsoft Project® and Standard Time® let you create phases or breakdowns.  They are called by many names: summaries, subprojects, subsystems, or just plain phases.  Anyway you look at it, they are project breakdowns that represent groups of tasks lumped into a time frame.  In other words, all the tasks are expected to be completed within a close proximity of time.

To create a summary task in Microsoft Project, simply click the task under it, and then click the Indent toolbar button.  That will cause the task above it to become bold, signifying that it summarizes the tasks below it.  As you add more tasks to the summary, certain fields (like start and finish dates) will roll up to the summary level.  You can collapse the summary to hide detail.  In Standard Time, these tasks are displayed on the timesheet.


How To: Set Deadlines for Tasks in MS Project

This topic (how to set a deadline for an MS Project task) is so simple, it’s hardly worth mentioning.  But, it might be good to review.  It’s just another little piece of information that might help scheduling projects.

To create a task deadline:

  1. Double-click on a task  (the Task Info dialog box appears)
  2. Click the Advanced tab
  3. Click the Deadline dropdown
  4. Choose a date, sometime after the task finish date

These steps allow you to set a deadline that the task should be finished by.  A small arrow is displayed in the Gantt column at that date.  The image below shows what it looks like.


Arrow indicating task deadline
(normally before the task finish date)


If your task gets bumped (presumably because of linked predecessors) the finish date may go beyond the deadline.  When this happens, a small red indicator is shown next to the task name.  The image below shows what it looks like.  Browse your mouse over it to see a tool tip explaining the reason.

Deadline indicator



Death by Distraction: 3 Ways to Avoid it

A huge number of projects, usually small ones, die ugly drawn-out deaths simply from distraction – and nobody knows.  Yeah, people get distracted and forget them!  It’s true, I’ve seen it happen dozens of times.  Here’s how it happens. First, the big boss decides he wants something.  A new product or policy.  A new way of doing things.  An improvement in procedure.  He’s sure it will save the company money, so he launches a new initiative (a project) to get it.  He assigns it to one of his people, and expects to hear some status in a while.  FIRST MISTAKE! The employeee may have no strong allegence to the new initiative, and gets distracted and never completes it.  He’s bored, and doesn’t want to mess with it.  The boss forgets he asked, and the project is effectively dead.  Every seen that happen?  That what I thought…  So, how do you fix it?   Tip #1: Document it. If you don’t write down your project initiatives, they can easily be sabotaged by bored employees.  If there is no record of them, employees can safely ignore them without any consequences.  And they will.   Tip #2: Don’t pile on. Giving your employees too many projects means they won’t do them when asked.  I’ve seen managers throw so many projects at employees that they simply ignore them until asked later.  If the big boss never asks, he must not want it badly enough.  They simply wait him out and deal with only the important ones when he asks.  Yikes!   Tip #3: Reduce the chain links If Joe is to do the job, but needs input from Britnney and Travis, and they can’t get to it until Keyshawn obtains his status from Lisa who gets her materials from Joe, you may never get anything.  Don’t believe it happens?  It does.  There are sometimes so many links in the project chain that the effort fizzles out, simply because one person can’t get what they need.  Of course, they never bother to find out why, but you need to realize this can happen.   Bottom line: you need a project champion who walks everything through its paces.  If you’re the big boss, that may be you.  No champion?  Well… chances are the project will die of distraction. –newshirt

You Gotta Love It

Are you the leader of a project team?  Or do you hope to be someday?  Here’s a tip for managing people.  Love what you do.  And show it.

If you are in leadership, you will not have success until you love your work so much it’s contagious.  People need to see you digging into every aspect of it.  And digging hard.  They simply will not follow until they see the passion.  Are you uncovering new ideas and methods?  Finding improvements in managing projects?  Making it look fun?

Think of things through your team member’s eyes.  Do they see someone who can take their careers to the next level?  Sure, you may be a good ol’ boy, but do they feel compelled to follow you?  Fight for new business?  Endure the pain for the pleasure of success?  Not if they don’t see you doing those things.

The point I’m making is that managing teams, projects, and products is more about leading by example than begin one of the gang.  Be a person they want to emulate.


Define: Constraint Type

Contraint type: A task scheduling option that determines how project tasks interact with each other with respect to dates.


Microsoft Project allows you to set constraint types for each task.  Using task constraints can really bugger up a project, if you don’t know what you are doing.  Ever hear of scheduling conflicts?  Consider using deadlines instead.  I feel constraints can be useful when used in moderation.  But most managers do not need to dive this deeply into task management.  Why?

Most projects change rapidly from day to day.  Because of this, you may find yourself fiddling with esoteric task options, only to find that they become irrelevant next week when the schedule changes.  That’s where deadlines can be simpler.

Here are the task constraints MS Project offers:

  1. As Late As Possible (default in a project scheduled from the finish date)
  2. As Soon As Possible (default in a project scheduled from the start date)
  3. Finish No Earlier Than
  4. Finish No Later Than
  5. Must Start On
  6. Must Finish On
  7. Start No Earlier Than
  8. Start No Later Than

 Clearly, these options control the behaviour of tasks that are linked together.  Let’s say you chose the “Start No Later Than” constraint type.  In this case, you would be required to supply a date that the task cannot start after.  Let’s say you chose August 1st.

A scheduling conflict can occur if a predicessor task causes your task to start after August 1st.  Schedules change so frequently that this is likely to happen.  Actually that can be a good thing.  Consider it an alert that something has gone wrong with your project.  If your project slips so badly that these contraints become activated, it can alert you to deeper problems witn your project team.


An Ounce of Inspiration

I suppose it’s no surprise, but I for one, perform better when under the influence of inspiration.  My projects just flow when I am driven with excitement to complete them.  I don’t even have to ignore the boring aspects of the project; I just fly right over them as if they didn’t exist.  But without that inspiration, it’s sometimes a drag.

Okay, that’s me.  Now, how do you get the entire team motivated like that?  All at once?

Clearly the answer lies in goals that every one shares.  Fame, fortune, accomplishment?  It’s different with every project, and every person.  The key is to find common ground that everyone can get behind.

I remember the old MacPaint program on the early Macintosh’s.  All the author’s names were in the About box.  Those guys met in Andy Herxtfeld’s home, and pounded out the next great thing: Fatbits!  But there’s no simple formula for every project team and every project.  In other words, you cannot simply offer comp time or best-employee certificates for every job.

Years later, names in the About Box isn’t enough.  Been there, done that.

Eventually, people grow weary of simple incentives.  They need big “life incentives” that mean something to their lives.  They need to know their efforts are making a difference in the world.  That people recognize their work.  Yes, it takes that much.  Nobody wants a shallow life.

How do you inspire your team, all at once, to change the world?


How to: Split Tasks in Microsoft Project

In this post we’ll discuss how to split tasks in Microsoft Project.  In other words, how to break tasks into segments representing the exact times work will be performed.

Microsoft Project tasks do not necessarily need to start on one day, and continue until the task is complete.  They can be broken up into segments.  In other words, work can be performed in a discontinguous fashion.  For instance, 16 hours in one week, 16 hours in the next week, and a final 4 hours the following week.  This technique is illustrated below.  Steps to perform it as also included.


Split bar, showing each segment of work

Split hours, in Task Usage view


I must warn you…  I feel this is a micro-management technique.  It can be good to define exactly when the work will be performed, right down to the hour, but do you really want to spend your time doing that?  That’s better left to the discretion of engineers who will actually be doing the work.

Follow these steps to split Microsoft Project tasks:

  1. Create a new task in the Gantt view (See the View menu)
  2. Right-click in the header area, and choose Insert Column
  3. Insert the Work column (it represents the planned work for a task)
  4. Enter 10 hours for the Work
  5. Choose View, Task Usage
  6. Notice the number of hours for each day (this is the time you will work on the task)
  7. Skip a few days, and enter some additional hours into the Task Usage view
  8. Choose View, Gantt Chart to return to the preview view
  9. Notice that the Gantt bar has been split to show the new hours