A method for timely information: Project management software gives new insight into major acquisitions

Twenty years ago, U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney shot down the A-12 Avenger II stealth bomber. He found the target with a program management tool called Earned Value Management which revealed that the A-12 had “catastrophic” delivery and cost problems. The program was a year and a half behind and at least US$2 billion over budget.

The cancellation had many consequences, including years of legal battles, but among the most important was a validation of the project management discipline. Over the next 20 years, current plans call for Canada to spend almost $500 billion on defence, including new ships, aircraft, armoured vehicles and their sustainment. Project managers will be central to the success of those acquisitions. And critical to their success will be the project management software that supports them.

The promise information technology makes to any discipline is less art and more science. Nabil Aboutanos, a partner in IBM Canada’s Global Business Services, believes “project management software can really strengthen diverse teams across a large-scale initiative by imposing a common vocabulary that integrates all participants. Together with consulting expertise, software helps automate some routine project activities, facilitates easy cross-team collaboration and provides a common foundation, such as key indicators on progress-against-plan, to help accelerate business outcomes for clients.”

With responsibility for massive infrastructure projects around the world, flagship Canadian company SNC-Lavalin uses a proprietary project management software package called PM+. According to Krikor Der-Ghazarian, the company’s vice president of project management systems, “we manage and control about $33 billion of SNC-Lavalin or client capital expenditure using PM+. There are more than 2,600 PM+ users, and there are more than 16,000 users of the document management and control collaboration tool.”

Over the last 10 years SNC-Lavalin has added or enhanced PM+ modules: cost engineering and control capabilities deal with the analysis of deliverables and earned values to determine the trends and forecast for the project versus cost accounting, which relied mostly on cost and financial data; improved internal mandate control and graphical reporting functionalities; and modifications to the procurement modules to interface the project procurement process with an e-sourcing tool which provides spend analysis, supplier discovery, supplier assessment, RFx/reverse auctions, sourcing decision, sourcing activity management and globalization features. Other improvements include an integrated document management and control tool, with annotation, e-mail control and project handover tools.

Even with increasingly comprehensive capabilities, Der-Ghazarian says, “it should be clear that any project management tool is accompanied with a methodology. In SNC-Lavalin the project management methodology, called the SNC-Lavalin Way, with PM+ are strategic advantages to win major projects.”

However, although PM+ and project management methodology provide the required information to people in management positions to make decisions, “it will not make the decision for them,” Der-Ghazarian added.

Aboutanos agrees: “There is no software tool and no objective measure that will tell you when something is good enough.” He said that is a matter for leadership – charismatic leadership that will help carry a project past doubts and second-guessing, and maintain its momentum.

“Project managers should try to distance subject matter experts from strategic decisions, after carefully considering their recommendations, because they are too close to individual elements,” he insisted.

Aboutanos understands very well the motivation behind trying for the optimum solution. “People believe they only have one chance to get what they want. If they settle for second best now, they think the door is closed forever. Project managers have to counter that by making sure everybody understands that what you are working on is one stage of a program.”

For most people, most of the time, their electronic gateway to a major project is a Microsoft product – Word, Excel, Explorer, Project and Outlook on the desktop, often running through a SharePoint server for collaboration. According to John Weigelt, Microsoft Canada’s national technology officer, “it’s a pretty seamless access point into the project management world.”

That said, Weigelt does expect his company to expand its project management horizons. “I don’t think people are content any more with fill-in-the-blanks software. I think there are a couple of big things that we need to watch, as we look toward modern project management. I think the first thing is the whole social aspect and the ability to interact with people as you require their advice or guidance: the idea of collaboration, presence, the ability to reach out and connect with people, collaborate on documents in a common workspace, the idea of a collaborative team site to be able to share information, and to be able to find and identify information that is important to you.”

More communication means greater stress on security systems, but Weigelt does not believe that will hold back collaboration. “I think the technologies exist to be able to share information in a trusted fashion between people. Identify management can be done today. It’s a matter of reaching the right agreements between organizations for secure messaging. Being able to identify individuals as being engineers or project managers or users between communities can be done.”

As Cheney’s termination of the A-12 proved, timely information is important. Project management software is giving more people faster and deeper insights into big, complex procurements. Today, another major aircraft acquisition, the Joint Strike Fighter, is running into schedule and budget problems. In April of this year, the U.S. government’s General Accounting Office took the F-35 prime contractor, Lockheed-Martin, to task for program management’s failure to deliver “reliable and complete cost data.” For at least three years, “the prime contractor has not had an adequate and disciplined earned value management (EVM) system in place to effectively track costs and control schedule. The prime contractor was found deficient in meeting 19 of 32 required guidelines, calling into question its ability to manage the escalating costs and complex scheduling of the JSF program.”

Last October, the Defense Contract Management Agency declared elements of Lockheed-Martin’s EVM system non-compliant. The company appears to have received the message, and perhaps learned a lesson of history. This summer, the company appointed a vice-president dedicated exclusively to earned value management.

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