Complex Projects: Go Slow (To Go Fast Later)
Achieving a high success rate for complex projects is something that many Project Managers strive to do. The only way this can be achieved, though, is by addressing its problems as early on in development as possible. Otherwise you have issues like product design and implementation failure which can be detrimental to the business, as well as the customers who use it!
The January 2020 issue of PM Network provides a case study for one of the 2019 PMI Project of the Year finalists, the Société de transport de Montréal’s (STM) eight-year project to modernize the underground Montréal rail system. I have a soft spot in my heart for this system, having spent most of my formative years in Montréal and having been a frequent user of its services while commuting to university and my first job. I always found it to be a clean, safe, efficient and reliable method of getting around the city. As such, it was a bit of a surprise for me to read about the operating challenges faced by the STM in recent years and the anticipated growth projections, both of which were the impetus for this ambitious project.
While this would be considered a small mega-project (CA$2.1 billion), it is still a testament to the team that they delivered it under budget and on schedule utilizing only one percent of their overall contingency budget. The post-project outcomes are also in line with expected benefits.
What impressed me about the case study was the number of practices which were used by the team which we would normally associate with projects following an agile or adaptive life cycle. This includes close collaboration and short feedback loops with customers, building a “whole” team representing all disciplines, performing operator training in parallel with build activities to streamline transition, and encouraging learning from failures rather than hunting for scapegoats.
However, what really resonated with me was the team’s commitment to shifting quality left.
During the preliminary qualification phase for the new trains, problems were identified during integrated testing which hadn’t been identified in the manufacturer’s unit testing of the individual components. Rather than blaming the contractors, STM owned the issue and worked closely with them to fully resolve the issues. While this caused a two year delay to the qualification phase, over the remaining life of the project it resulted in minimal change requests and contributed to acceptance of the trains upon final delivery with no costly late stage rework required.
Complex projects often experience design or other solution-related issues early in their life. While no one likes reporting negative schedule variance, especially at an early stage, if these issues do not get properly resolved, or worse, are ignored to protect schedule performance (and to save executive embarrassment), the cost and schedule impacts will often be much worse later on.
Courage is one of the values of the Scrum framework, but it applies to all delivery approaches. As project managers, we need to have the courage to convince our executives that it is better to slow down now so that we will be able to speed up later.
A stitch in time saves nine!
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