Firefighting for Project Managers

  • Technical Project Manager
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • "Managing a project in crisis in comparison to a regular project is like driving the Dakar Rally instead of the highway."

  • The doors close behind me. I leave the CEO's office. Next thing I am headed towards a customer site where about 80 of our engineers are stuck to get an understanding of the project I am supposed to take over for a turnaround.

    The customer is furious, our team is frustrated and demotivated and the general atmosphere is DEFCON 2. We're talking cuban missile crisis here. The schedule and budget are overrun and the machine we are supposed to deliver, though working in principle, is not build to spec. The start of production (SOP) is drawing  closer. We are facing an immovable milestone.

    There is hardly any trust left between the project teams and three different language barriers require interpreters for almost any conversation with the customer. This is spiced up with a significant culture and mentality barrier on top of it.

    The customer is new for us and the project is of strategic importance to them. Visibility couldn't be higher.

    Best case scenario: We enable our customer to maintain their SOP and convince them of our crisis management to handover a machine with a performance that exceeds their shaken expectations.

    The goal: Save our reputation and demonstrate that we do not break under pressure.

    We did. What did it cost us? Sanity, at least. Was it worth it? Every single step of it!

  • After the first 2 and a half weeks, there was an open discussion with management. Expectation management was the biggest issue. I had to make it clear, that budget wise this project is gone and will never come back from the red zone. The only way for us to be successful is to make the customer successful.

    The biggest asset for the turnaround was the sponsorship from the highest level of our management and the commitment to support with extra budget to get it done. There is no running away; there is no calculating if paying the contractual penalties may end up being cheaper. We will deliver this project. This resolve on sponsorship level was the backing I needed and especially our team needed.

    First, we did a reassessment of the cost to completion forecast. We reestablished regular reporting which was dropped amongst the pandemonium of daily business. We focused on clarifying the scope and looking for ways how to reduce the scope where possible.

    The key point here was the resumption of intensive and honest communication with the customer. The long journey to regain trust was started and there were many setbacks to this. We reviewed what went wrong so far, both internally and with the customer to understand the gap in perspective.

    We brought in more interpreters to smoothen the communication and we brought in specialists from several divisions with relevant experience with our customer. This way we could also eliminate part of the language and culture barriers. Mainly we shifted these to the internal level so that the customer would not be bothered by it.

    Reducing the stress for the customer of these communication hurdles saved a lot of time which we could use for specific negotiations. We launched a new kickoff for the project and also had to make some difficult decisions regarding changes in the project team. This included a new budget and a new schedule. For the first time for what felt like ages the project team saw the color green again.

    The biggest challenge to maintain the scheduled start of production (SOP) was the seemingly endless list of open issues for our machines. We set up a small taskforce divided in 2 groups led by one subproject manager that would focus only on the coordination and resolution of these issues. Applying the Pareto principle we reorganized the list and filtered for the "quick wins" (80% of the work done with 20% of the effort) and had one group focus on these items. This way the customer quickly saw progress and grew opener for scope reduction talks. In parallel another team focused on the remaining 20% of issues which would require 80% of our efforts. It turned out to be that the last of those items would also be the last ones to be closed in the project. Having a dedicated team dealing with these from the beginning of the restart proved to be immensely valuable for the schedule.

  • In a project which is in a deep crisis everything is different. While you focus on identifying the fires that need to be put out first, dozen new fires can ignite. There is no point in fighting a hydra alone. You have to create a reliable and resilient team with clear purpose to make the turnaround and bring the project to its best possible outcome.

    Communication with all stakeholders and sponsors is a necessity to create a high degree of transparency. We would have status meetings twice a week with top management with incremental status reports between project teams on a daily basis. Data is necessary and so we found relevant key performance indicators to monitor. As the project progressed and focus of the fires we were putting out changed, so did our KPIs.

    One of the biggest lessons learned for me personally, was how important the presence on-site was. While data was necessary for reporting, it did not always drive the actual progress of the project. Too many things were happening at once to make it into the data to be reflected within the short loops of reporting. Management by wandering around has proven to provide better and faster information than many "carefuly thought-through" communication plans. The team needed to see and feel that they are not left behind to deal with this situation on their own.

    My technical background as a mechanical engineer came in especially handy, as I was able to support the team with my feedback. This helped the communication with the customer as well. In fact, understanding the customer and what he wants and making him feel understood was probably the most sustainable step towards success.

    No matter how difficult the crisis. NEVER STOP THINKING ABOUT THE CUSTOMER'S PERSPECTIVE. If the customer gets what he direly needs, he will help you to get rid of obstacles that hinder your progress. After all, in my understanding there is ONLY ONE PROJECT TEAM. This consists of both our as well as the customers members.

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