Wednesday, July 27, 2016

"Jack, Jane, and the cat" AKA "The pragmatic project manager"

Jane, last year, gifted his boyfriend Jack, a kitten for Christmas.
Jack is a professional photographer, and his job, during the year, keeps him away from home for several weeks in a row.
In January, Jack went in Brasil for a 6 weeks photo-shooting job in the Amazonian forest. He did not give the cat in custody to someone, nor left food in some kind of automatic dispenser for the cat to eat.
When Jack came back from Brasil, on his way from the airport, he bought 40 liters of milk. That was enough for the kitten to eat for the previous 6 weeks with an extra bonus for its patience.
When Jack arrived home, with his great surprise, the cat was dead. Starved.
Jack burst into tears, shouting "Why did you die stupid cat? Why didn't you just wait?I have brought you more food to you than you would have never dreamed of in your entire life. You, selfish animal, would not believe it,"
Jane left him the very next day, as soon as Jack told her the whole story. 
Jack is still wondering what he did wrong.

What does this story teach us?

When a Sponsor (Jane) entrust you (Jack) a project (the kitten), be absolutely clear about 2 things
  • That you share with the stakeholders the vision about when the project should start to deliver value or revenues, and
  • That you can manage the project in such a fashion to cope with the stakeholders expectations.
If the stakeholders expect value or even revenues in the first 2 months, and you manage the project in such a fashion to deliver value not before 8 months, do not be surprised to be let down (Jane left you).

Sometimes you just need some early win, to keep interest in the project. In some cases, it doesn't matter what you would be able to deliver a year from now, if you cannot cope with earlier deliveries.
Some projects are just like pets; they need something early and cyclically in their lives.

Don't be like Jack, do not disappoint your stakeholders. 

Be clear about the expected time for delivering values or revenues, and prepare yourself to cope with the expectations.Consider to plan for some early win.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Kanban environment - An introduction - 02

In the first post of the series, we have introduced the concepts at the base of a Kanban system. In the following, we will show 4 easy steps to model any process and to represent it in a Kanban environment.

First step - Map the process

The first step to take is to map the process to be monitored and controlled with kanban. 
Care must be taken to describe the process as it is currently implemented and executed, and not as it was designed. Many times process design and implementation are found to be quite divergent. 

The level of details to which the process must be mapped is a delicate aspect. A too coarse-grained description won’t catch the process peculiarities and soft spots. A too detailed description, on the contrary, could be distracting and de-focus from what is worth to be mapped. There are no rules, a trial and error procedure could do the trick.
Please, take a look at Figure 1.

Figure 1. Examples of mapped processes.

The (a) column depicts an extreme coarse-grained description of a process, not useful for description nor management. It is absolutely impossible to understand what the process is doing; just its interfaces are mapped.
The (b) column, on the contrary, represents a too detailed description of the same process. Please, remember that we are trying to map and to model the process, not to decompose it into its smallest parts. If you model the world, you obtain an easy and useful tool, if you mimic it, you just obtain something as murky as reality itself. 
The (c) column is a well-balanced mapping of the process. Not too many stages, few interactions, a clear flow through the activities. This representation is suitable to monitor and control the process; if we need more details, we will be able to add them later.
Spend 20% of your time to put under control the 80% of your process, not the other way round. 
Improvement is always possible, and it should always be our target, but we need some solid base to take our first steps.

Second step - Map the process’s interfaces

To achieve a reliable application of Kanban, and to be able to keep the process under control, in a satisfying way, we need to understand and map all the process’ interfaces. 
First, we need to identify all the processes that provide inputs to the process we are mapping and the rate at which we are supposed to absorb these inputs. 
Second, we have to identify all the processes to which the process we are mapping provides inputs and the rate at which we are required to deliver them.
Finally, we have to reconcile reality with expectations, negotiating openly, not sacrificing quality nor getting too much in the way of other processes.
Please, remember that Kanban is not about fast delivery, it is about steadiness in delivery, continuous improvement and waste reduction. Still, some constraints must be respected, after all, we are part of a production system and not crazy mavericks.

Third step - Create the informations radiator

It is time to transfer the model of the process, created in the First step, in a suitable information radiator. The classic form of a Kanban Board divided into columns, full of small pieces of sheet. Each column of the board represents a stage of the process, as described in Figure 1.

Each column of the board, except the first one and the last one, represents a stage of the process. The first column represents the gate from which new activities enter the process. The last column represents a kind of archive in which accomplished activities are stored.
Each yellow square in the columns represents an activity in progress, ideally with no external dependencies and assigned to a single resource of the team.

Fourth step - Use Kanban to monitor the situation

Use the Kanban board to monitor the flowing of your process for a few weeks. Take note about how many activities are present in each column for how much time. The kind of analysis suggested here is paramount to process improvement.

In the next post we will go more in depth with the utilization of Kanban to monitor and control the process. Stay tuned.

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Quest' opera è distribuita con licenza Creative Commons Attribuzione - Non commerciale - Non opere derivate 3.0 Unported.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Kanban environment - An introduction - 01

There is a lot of interest, in the project manager community, about Kanban. Since I have noticed some degree of confusion about the topic, I have decided to write a series of posts about the argument. In the series we will examine the characteristics of a Kanban system, how it could be implemented to control a process, common pitfalls encountered during the transition toward Kanban, and advice for a smooth adoption.

What is Kanban?

A parking lot is a perfect description of a Kanban system.
You queue up waiting to be served.
You are allowed in the parking lot just when there is a vacancy.
When you leave the parking lot, someone else is allowed in.
All these events are regulated by the emission and withdrawal of tickets, ensuring that the number of cars in the parking lot never exceed its capacity.

There are many practical reasons for a parking lot to be managed that way. Let’s imagine what could happen if cars were allowed in the lot without any control. The parking lot would rapidly become congested. Many cars would enter the system just to be forced out of it since no place would be available. In the meantime, cars that would leave the parking lot would not be able to do it quickly, since the mass of entering cars will slow them down.

The behavior of an industrial process is surprisingly similar. Too many running jobs could hamper standard activities and sensibly lower the system’s throughput.

In a process monitored and controlled by Kanban, the work to be performed (called Work in Progress or WIP) is continuously maintained under a threshold, called the system’s capacity.

A Kanban environment is a system in which 

  • WIP is limited, ensuring that the system never runs beyond its capacity.
  • A system is in place to allow new work to enter the system.

Can Kanban be used just in a specific industry?

Kanban is a consistency standard; it can be used to monitor and control any process, help to achieve reliability about performances and takt time.
Kanban objective is to optimize processes, walking the path of continuous improvement.
To better clarify the matter, we will provide examples of Kanban utilization both in the manufacturing and the software industry. 

Can Kanban be used to manage Projects?

The short answer is yes.
The long answer is a little more complicated. Kanban can be used to manage projects if the projects is small sized, and it can be modeled as a constant flow of value through different stages. Many times it could be helpful to manage with Kanban not the entire projects but some of its work packages; this is especially the case in agile project management, where a Kanban is used to manage every single development cycle (Sprint if you are using Scrum).

Kanban - an empiric approach

What has to be always kept in mind, is that Kanban is an intrinsically empiric approach. 
Kanban implementation is a perfect example of how to apply the Deming’s cycle. 

  • Plan Map the process that will have to be monitored and controlled through the Kanban approach.
  • Do Dimension the process setting WIP limits. 
  • Check Observe the system’s behavior.
  • Act Map the process with greater/smaller accuracy, adjust WIP limits, Improve the process, or modify the process.

Tools & information radiators

See credit below

The objectives of Kanban are to manage effectively processes (or projects) and to provide complete transparency on what is going on at each stage. 
Given these ambitious goals, it is mandatory to have tools and instrument in place to manage efficient communication towards the process  (or project ) stakeholders.
The most common representation of a Kanban system, used both for process (or project) management and communication purposes, is a simple corkboard. The board is usually divided with vertical and horizontal swimlanes, crowded with pinned small, colored pieces of sheet. The cork board can be optionally substituted with a digital version, very useful when the team is geographically sparse in different locations.   

Nadjeschda via Compfight cc

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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Some Lessons Learned About Conflict Management

Many years ago, I attended a course about assertiveness. 
The course was part of a development program which my company adhered to, and, as a consequence, myself and a colleague of mine were subscribed to the initiative.

Wikipedia defines assertiveness as The quality of being self-assured and confident without being aggressive. In the field of psychology and psychotherapy, it is a learnable skill and mode of communication.

Dorland's Medical Dictionary defines assertiveness as a Form of behavior characterized by a confident declaration or affirmation of a statement without need of proof; this affirms the person's rights or point of view without either aggressively threatening the rights of another (assuming a position of dominance) or submissively permitting another to ignore or deny one's rights.

In other words, assertiveness is the art of defending and sustaining our idea, respecting other people and their point of view. 

I remember that, at the time, I was rather skeptical about the subject; I simply categorized all the soft-skills as a “matter of good will and common sense”. Still I took the course, trying to keep an open mind. 

Today, looking back at that opportunity, I feel like that it had been a real changing point in my career; It had been the moment on which I began to be attracted to project management and the study of human relationships.
From those days, I kept on trying to improve myself on the communication side, paying attention and always taking good care of every interaction I have with other people.

Obviously, this do require a certain dose of “good will and common sense”, but it also requires constant efforts to empathize with other human beings, and to contain our impulsive reactions. 

Assertiveness is different from flattering
Pay attention. Assertiveness is different from flattering. You have to be assertive not because you just need something from someone else; you have to be assertive because every human being deserves attention, credit, empathy and explanations. Assertiveness works if and only if you are sincere in your intents and your actions.

In the following, I will just present some lessons learned that I collected in all these years of “interactions”.

Better safe than sorry
One of the most sensitive matter with people is to give constructive criticisms.
Criticism requires a great deal of empathy, sensibility, and intelligence, from all the parts involved; it pushes anyone out from him/her comfort zone and, if properly applied and acknowledged, adds real value to one’s professional development. 

On the contrary, if the message is not well crafted, delivered and understood, criticism can create enormous damages. The workplace would rapidly fill with anger and resentment, impeding smooth executions of project’s activities and hindering the professional growth of the people involved.

In my humble opinion, bad criticism can significantly rise HR risks in a project and can lead teams on the verge of dysfunctionality. 

My advice is to reduce the need for criticism, by giving appreciation for good pieces of work. Make clear to everyone what is expected of them, praise good work, to give a concrete indication of the level of performance needed. Empower people through good examples. The bottom line is: if someone tells you he is hungry, do not take him a sandwich, just show him the way to the company canteen.

Obviously, this won’t completely eradicate the need for criticism, but, in the long run, I have found that is a kind of behavior that pays off.

Positive rephrasing
There are few concepts, explained with a negative form sentence, that could not be as equally well described using a positive form sentence. Let’s provide an example. Try to imagine the impact of the next sentence on a listener

The deliverables of work packages 23 that your team shipped yesterday, don’t respect the quality standard set for the project. Rework will be required. 

Quite hard, isn’t it? My instinctive reaction would be to select immediately and adopt a defensive strategy. The same concept could be passed saying something more positive, as

The deliverables of work packages 23, that your team shipped yesterday, have been built around a quality standard inferior to the one set for the project. Rework will be required. 

Even better would be

The deliverables of work packages 23, that your team shipped yesterday, have been built around a quality standard inferior to the one set for the project. Rework could not be avoided. 

Use a positive form in giving criticism and a negative, more empathic form, in announcing the need for an action. It could be discouraging for people seeing their work refused. You have to be direct and firm, sure, but there is no need to be brutal as well. People deserve truth and empathy.

Also do not forget always to explain why a piece of work does not reach adequate quality standards. Remember the first point, better safe than sorry. Errors tend to be less frequent if analyzed and explained.

Empathize with your interlocutor
Nobody, except a few exceptions, deliberately underperforms. Most of the people wants to be considered valuable and praised for their work. As a consequence, rarely people intentionally deliver poor pieces of work.

Having this in mind, try to understand what could be your interlocutor reasons for his/her behavior; try yourself to stand in his/her shoes.

Doing this, you will be forced to question your reasons and positions too. It could be an amazing experience. You never know what you can learn about yourself if you look at your reality with a new set of eyes.

Focus on similarities, not differences
Start evidencing what you and your interlocutor agree on; this will place the entire discussion on a positive scenario. If you both climb the mountain of positivity, you would see a broader horizon and maybe, mountains which seemed grueling, will look no more than small hills.

A positive framework helps engagement, collaboration, and the identification of new solutions.

If you are wrong, admit it quickly
Do not be afraid to show that you acknowledge your own errors. It is a way to show your self-confidence, not a symptom of weakness.

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Quest' opera è distribuita con licenza Creative Commons Attribuzione - Non commerciale - Non opere derivate 3.0 Unported.