Monday, May 26, 2008

PM Meets 6σ

Six Sigma is a tool of choice for companies working to improve quality, process time, and customer satisfaction. Borne out of the manufacturing environment, Six Sigma today can be found across nearly all sectors of business. Banks use it, software developers swear by it as do service industries. It is a mature protocol with a wealth of knowledge content that can be adapted by any organization, large or small.

Regardless of what the business of your business is and how evolved it is, beginning a Six Sigma effort will bring changes. The Six Sigma process forces a rigorous evaluation of every facet of operations. As a result, organizational culture may become stressed causing shifts in working methodologies, process design, and efforts to enhance teamwork and communication to name just a few. It is a bit ironic that these very positive changes are sometimes impossible to measure because of their “soft” nature, although they result from a system of disciplined measurement, analysis, and correction.

The application of Six Sigma is becoming more prevalent in the Project Management realm, and can have direct positive benefit to virtually the entire PM process. There are a few specific suggestions to improve the quality of your Six Sigma effort.

Developing a solid Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) brings clarity. Charting and comparing old and new methods and processes improves visibility and spotlights key opportunities. Achieving that helps ensure that stakeholders are informed, the right resources are engaged, and that consensus is attained in the earliest stages.

Put your project planning process under the microscope. As Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said, the Devil is in the details (so is God, by the way, but that’s another story). In the project planning continuum we deal with tasks, sequences, costs, resources, and contracts. Each one of these has a myriad of details, each a chance for that mischievous guy we call Murphy to work his ill. But Murphy only gets into the room if you leave the door open to him. Knowing that you know the details, in detail, brings confidence and keeps him out.

Increase your Risk Management focus. Since we have all experienced the effects of the aforementioned Murphy’s Law, we know that in hindsight we most often say “I should have seen that coming.” Why didn’t you see it? Probably because you skimped on the Risk Management portion of the project planning process. A key part of project planning is to develop a list of “what ifs?” What if management approval is delayed beyond the scheduled date? What if the critical long lead component is delayed out of the factory? What if one of the subcontractors doesn’t perform? What if field conditions consume contingency money early? And so on and so on. You know what I’m talking about. Each foreseeable risk should be quantified in terms of scale, probability, and impact, and a work out plan developed in advance.

Be intentional about PM skills and career development. Good projects require strong leaders and smooth functioning teams. Technical skills, people skills, specialty knowledge, and the abilities to both develop consensus and motivate agreeable participation from those who may not naturally be so inclined are important. These are the hallmarks of good leaders. Look for these traits in your PM staff and invest in them when you find them.

Water from the top, grow from the bottom. That is my silly way of saying that Six Sigma must have strong executive sponsorship, but bears the best results when it transitions to a grass roots effort with widespread participation and enthusiastic acceptance. Easy to say, you say, and you are correct. It is not easy to do. It requires a vision and commitment from the top, and will only truly be successful when it is part of the organization’s DNA. Common languages, standards, metrics, processes and the like all contribute to this commonality and shared vision.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Commissioning is About One Thing – OPR

The Owner’s Project Requirements (OPR) is the foundation which supports the need for commissioning. At its most basic level, commissioning can be described as the ongoing feedback and verification that project requirements are being properly met throughout the construction process, as opposed to “Owner Acceptance” at the end of a project in which the Owner has been an observer without leverage. The Owner’s leverage in a well-constructed commissioning process derives from the fact that the Commissioning Agent (CA) works directly for the Owner, who controls funding. The link between ongoing project validation and funding in a continuous review and approval process changes the project quality dynamic significantly. There are numerous other benefits to commissioning as well, including increased knowledge retention which in turn benefits lifecycle operations.

These benefits grow larger as the breadth of commissioning expands. Commissioning used to be reserved for major mechanical and electrical systems and was conducted as a post-installation verification activity. Today, virtually all building systems can be commissioned and the process begins in early design. For example, the building envelope is a “system” and can be inspected and tested via a commissioning process during construction. Since building envelope failure is the number one source of construction insurance claims it seems a good place to focus the kind of attention that commissioning brings.

At heart, commissioning is a Pareto optimization tool. It provides a feedback loop which informs best solution decisions among competing agendas during the course of the project. Continuous commissioning takes this to another level with constant real time monitoring of building performance, with the goal of optimizing system and building performance.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Trends In Research Lab Design

This week I am attending the Research Facilities conference produced by Tradeline, Inc. Aside from getting to enjoy historic Boston, I am also learning a lot about the current state of research lab design. It is impressive to say the least. While I work at a research institution, it is pure academic research focused on policy issues. Our “labs” are offices and conference rooms. Here, however, I am learning about research facilities in the life, materials, and bio science disciplines. It is a window to a whole new universe on one hand, yet reinforces common issues and solutions on the other. These folks deal with hard science requiring physical elements to their projects that we in the “office” world just don’t see, but at a practical level many of the issues are the same. Here are a few trends in the world of lab design that I have heard discussed.

“Dance Floor” labs are emerging as a team/project strategy. Labs used to be filled with fixed benches and hard piped utilities. Now, everything on the floor is mobile and can be reconfigured as needed, and utilities are located overhead in “service carriers” that contain water, power, and gasses.

In some cases, offices are being co-located inside labs, without walls to separate them. This places the researcher immediately adjacent their work, enables greater communication/collaboration, and increases productivity.

Eliminating visual barriers is becoming more important. New labs have a lot more glass in them, providing increased natural light, allowing visibility throughout large lab spaces. One point of conflict, as you might imagine, is the tension between this increased visibility and code requirements for two and four hour separation of some types of lab space. Glass in these environments is extremely expensive, yet more and more projects pay the up front construction cost penalty in order to capture the benefits in productivity, collaboration, and researcher morale. One important note – the competition for researcher talent is fierce and the recruiting / retention value of this type of facility and environmental investment is recognized and supported.

LEED certification has become next to mandatory for new labs. Scientists recognize the importance of the issue and will not accept anything less than an organization’s honest commitment to sustainability. While expecting every project to attain Platinum certification would be unrealistic, it is undeniable that there is a sense of “rightness” about doing everything possible to support the environment when building these facilities. This position has at least three legs: Scientific integrity requires recognition of the issue and an honest attempt to contribute to solutions; organizations that are in the business of creating products that take from, improve, or help us live in a faltering environment face a marketing challenge if they do not contribute, and; the talent these organizations depend upon require it.

Being here is educational and fun. I am meeting new people with new perspectives on some of the same issues I face every day. I am learning new things about work I have never thought of before, and beginning to draw connections to my daily experiences. All in all, not a bad way to spend a couple of days. It is a ‘High-ROI” experience, and I encourage you to look outside your normal channels for information.