Project Planning, Schedule & Control–Chapter 4: How to Achieve High-Performance Project Management™

This blog post is part of a series that summarizes the 5th edition of the classic project manager’s handbook Project Planning, Scheduling & Control by James L. Lewis, Ph.D., the founder of the Lewis Institute, Inc.    I wanted to go through the book and take notes for my own use, but also in the hope that my summary would be of interest to both those already in the project management field or those who want to enter that field.

1.  Introduction–What is High-Performance Project Management™

In this chapter, Dr. John Lewis presents his model for High-Performance Project Management™, a model he developed at the Lewis Institute for defining project management maturity.

Here are the five levels of High-Performance Project Management™, which I will abbreviate forthwith as HPPM.

HPPM Level Explanation
One Bare Awareness
Two Minimal Performance—3Σ Level
Three Bronze Level–4Σ Level
Four Silver Level–5Σ Level
Five Gold Level–6Σ Level

The difference in quality between the 3Σ level, which most organizations operate at, and the 6Σ level, is significant.   At the 3Σ level, an organization is losing 25 to 30 cents of every sales dollar because of defects.    That cost of poor quality is reduced to only 3 cents on the dollar at the 6Σ level.

You achieve HPPM not only by achieving the 6Σ level of quality on projects, but by consistently meeting the PCTS (performance-cost-time-scope) targets for your projects.    As per the discussion in the first chapter, three of these variables can be dictated, but the fourth must be allowed to float.    Since these three targets can be estimated, in essence achieving HPPM means being able to improve your ability to estimate.    Since estimation is difficult for highly complex projects such as software design, it may be impossible to hit all these targets consistently, but you should strive to do so nonetheless.

2.  Benefits of HPPM

HPPM takes you from a seat-of-the-pants project management approach to a structured approach.   As an example of the benefits of such an approach, Dr. Lewis mentions the San Diego Building Association’s competition in 1983 to see how fast a typical single-family home could be built (defined as a single-story house built on a cement slab with 2,000 square feet of floor space).   Highly detailed plans were developed, and the best practice run yielded a building time of six hours.   However, by revising the plan, it was estimated that the house could be built in as little as 3 hours and 39 minutes, so the competition was called the “four-hour house project.”   The results were impressive, with the record being 2 hours and 45 minutes!

The key is in the planning, but many project managers are pressured to start work before a project plan is completed.

3.  Three Components of Poor Project Management

Back in Chapter 1, the three elements of project management were introduced:  tools, systems, and people.   Poor project management can have its origin in any of these three areas.

a.  People

Coaches, surgeons, and actors, three totally different professions, have one thing in common:   it takes years for people to master their craft.    And yet, many project managers are expected to perform immediately after taking a seminar!    Project managers don’t just need to learn the tools & techniques of project management, but the skills in dealing with people.   They must be supported by ongoing feedback on how they are performing, and with coaching to improve their performance.    In short, the application of these tools, techniques, and people skills needs to be supported.

b.  Tools

Microsoft Project is a tool, so is a saw.   Handing a person a saw does not make them a carpenter, no more than handing them Microsoft Project makes them a project manager.   Dr. Lewis recommends that prospective project managers need to be given a course in project management first and THEN be taught the software.    Sufficient time must be given for the prospective project manager to learn the software (at least two full days for the basics).

c.  Systems

Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline (New York: Doubleday, 1990) shows that systems generate behavior, regardless of the people in the system.   Unless you change the system, you will continue to get the same behavior.    If people don’t seem to be performing acceptably, you must take into account the system within which they are working.    

Dr. W. Edwards Deming demonstrated in Out of the Crisis (Cambridge, Mass:  MIT, 1986) that if you have given workers a system that is going to inherently produce a certain defect level, you can admonish them to “do it right the first time” all you want, and it will make no difference–they cannot produce results better than those that the system is capable of producing!

The reward system within an organization needs to support good project management.    Most reward systems encourage individuals to maximize their performance, even though it may be at the expense of other people in the group.    In an example not in Dr. Lewis’ book, I can that Edward Lampert, the hedge fund manager who became the chairman of Sears, set up a reward system that encouraged individual departments to maximize their performance, even at the expense of other departments, and the result has been a disaster for Sears.   Department heads spent most of their time battling others in the organization rather than cooperating in order to fight against the competition.   This kind of “Hunger Games” system of rewards does not promote the cooperation either within project teams or between the project manager and the functional managers and should thus be avoided because it does not promote good project management.

d.   Joint Optimization

Since these three elements of project management of people, tools, and systems are interrelated, you cannot optimize any of these three factors independently of the others:    good project management demands improvement of all three elements!

4.  Stages of Development

Of the five stages of maturity level of HPPM described in paragraph 1 above, it takes about one year for an organization to mature from one level to the next.    Many companies abandon project management because they do not get immediate benefits from it.

5.  Problems with Project Management

Here are some problems organizations have with projects.

a.   Too Many Projects

One of the major reasons why organizations have problems with projects is because they are trying to do too many projects given their resources.   The reorientation that people undergo when they shift from one project to another is called setup time in manufacturing parlance, and it is an example of non-value added activity.   Dr. Lewis’ advice for such organizations is

  • quit trying to multitask–it creates the illusion that a lot is getting done
  • prioritize your projects
  • assign each person a top-priority project and a backup project
  • use the backup project to fill dead time on the top-priority project

b.  Negative Environment

This means a climate of blame and punishment for things that go wrong.   When failure to meet project targets is seen as a sign of weakness or moral failure on the part of people, you do not have an environment that support high performance.    Variance is a fact of life and must be accepted.

Tuft battles are also detrimental to high performance.   Senior management needs to spend more time promoting cooperation rather than competition.   (See example about Edward Lampert’s disastrous stewardship at Sears in paragraph c above.)

Most organizations set up a system of external rewards for good performance, but Alfie Kohn in Punished by Rewards (Boston:Houghton Mifflin, 1999) wrote that almost all external reward systems collapse over time, as employees will try to maximize their rewards, and will do even at the expense of cooperation and even actual performance (also known as “gaming the system”).

This is not a popular notion in management circles.   However Daniel Pink confirmed this in his more recent book Drive:  The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009).   When external incentives are used, people lose interest in an activity.   The only true motivation is intrinsic.    The only legitimate reward system is one in which people are rewarded by true achievement and pride in the work that they do.

6.   A Better Approach to Project Management

A management approach that does support high performance project management is that which is outlined in Dr. Lewis’ book Working Together (Baltimore, MD: Beard Books, 2005), where he outlines the principles developed by the former president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Alan Mullally, who went on to be the CEO at Ford.


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