When something goes wrong, people always want to know why. Why did this happen? Why did this go wrong? It’s a logical question, but stopping there is likely to lead to a dead end.
To get at the core of why the unexpected event or challenge happened, you need to dig deeper. Instead of stopping at one, you need to ask why five times.
The 5 Whys
The core idea of the 5 Whys system is exactly what it sounds like: ask the question “Why?” five times to understand the root cause of an issue. It was developed by Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System. “Observe the production floor without preconceptions,” he advised his staff. “Ask ‘why’ five times about every matter.”
Ohno used a malfunctioning welding robot as an example:
“Why did the robot stop?”
The circuit has overloaded, causing a fuse to blow.
“Why is the circuit overloaded?”
There was insufficient lubrication on the bearings, so they locked up.
“Why was there insufficient lubrication on the bearings?” The oil pump on the robot is not circulating sufficient oil.
“Why is the pump not circulating sufficient oil?”
The pump intake is clogged with metal shavings.
“Why is the intake clogged with metal shavings?”
Because there is no filter on the pump.
If the questions had stopped at the first or second why, it would be tempting to think the problem could be solved with a new fuse or pump. But, the problem would have reoccured in a few months. In this case, the issue was caused by human error. Someone had forgotten to attach a filter to the pump.
By asking and answering “Why?” five times, you can drill down to the core issue, which is often hidden behind symptoms. “The root cause of any problem is the key to a lasting solution,” Ohno said.
When to Use the 5 Whys
The 5 Whys system is most effective when used to solve simple to moderately challenging issues. If you’re using 5 Whys for complex issues, you need to be more careful. With complex problems, there are often multiple causes. Using the 5 Whys could lead you down a single path, causing you to ignore the other underlying issues.
Because the 5 Whys is relatively easy, it can be a great tool for kicking off brainstorming around a problem before you take a more in-depth approach.
A Few Limitations to Keep in Mind
The 5 Whys method does have some limitations.
The person leading the 5 Whys must have expert knowledge about the problem and possible issues. If the cause is unknown to the person doing the problem-solving, the method may not lead to the true cause. In the earlier example, it’s unlikely that someone with zero mechanical knowledge would have noticed the missing filter on the pump intake.
The success of the method relies on the skill of the facilitator. One wrong answer may completely throw off the questioning, leading to a wrong conclusion.
An assumption of the 5 Whys method is that there is that presenting symptoms all stem from one cause. For complex problems, this isn’t always the case. A 5 Whys analysis may not reveal all of the causes that are tied to these symptoms.
How the Process Works
Ready to try it? The 5 Whys method follows a very simple five-step process.
1. Assemble your team.
First, invite people who are familiar with the issue and the process you are trying to fix to the 5 Whys meeting.
2. Select a facilitator for your meeting.
The facilitator will lead the discussion, ask the 5 Whys, and keep the team focused on the issue at-hand.
3. Define the problem.
Discuss the problem with your team, and then focus on creating a clear and concise problem statement. To get started, answer the questions, What is going on, when did it happen, where did it happen, and who found the problem.
Write your problem statement on a whiteboard, leaving enough room to answer the 5 Whys below.
4. Ask why five times.
The first why should cover why the problem is happening. The method will work best if your answer is grounded in fact. No guessing allowed. Avoid going down the path of deductive reasoning, which can muddy the process. Answer each question quickly to avoid going down rabbit holes and jumping to conclusions.
Continue asking why until you feel that you’ve examined each path and can go no further. If your first why generated more than one reason, you can now go back and repeat the process until you’ve explored those routes, as well.
Note: As you go through this process, you may find that someone dropped the ball along the way. Instead of placing blame, the goal is to ask, Why did the process fail? This line of questioning will show what organizational processes need to be fixed.
5. Address the root causes.
By now, you should have identified one true root cause. With the group, discuss what countermeasures can be taken to prevent the issue from happening again. The facilitator may assign responsibilities for these countermeasures to the group.
6. Monitor your countermeasures.
The process doesn’t end there.
It’s important to monitor how effectively your measures solved or minimized the problem. If nothing has changed, you may have identified the wrong root cause and need to repeat the process.
That’s it! While the 5 Whys method was originally developed for use in a manufacturing setting, it can be beneficial in a wide range of applications. Do you use the 5 Whys in your work or personal life? If so, how was the method worked for you?
One of the fastest-growing technology trends today is Big Data, probably behind Internet of Things and ahead of Virtual Reality. For instance, a search on the job site Indeed for “Big Data” returned almost 20,000 entries.
But what about Little Data (which only gets four hits on Indeed)?
Big data is mining huge, heterogeneous data sets and pulling out subtle information that can inform all sorts of decisions.
Let’s look at climate change science as an example. Data comes from atmospheric measurements over Hawaii, temperature data across the globe, ice cores from Antarctica and Greenland, underwater measurements from all the world’s seas, and more. Some of the data were taken by satellite last week; others written in notebooks centuries ago.
It’s been pored over by scientists from every country in the world. The data and analysis needed to predict how the climate is changing and will change is complicated. To really understand it requires a PhD. The details are so complex that we have been unable to decisively act on this critical issue.
What Is Little Data?
Little data is the opposite. It’s the 2+2=4 kind of things.
Little data is the obvious observations and conclusions that those paying attention will catch and can use to their advantage. It’s looking outside, seeing it’s raining, and deciding to put on a jacket. It’s noticing that the prices and quality of the food is better at one store than another and using that information to decide where to shop. It’s noticing that if you drink coffee after 5 p.m., you have trouble going to sleep, so you stop drinking coffee after 5 p.m.
Little data has three steps:
Do some straightforward analysis of the data.
Act based on your analysis.
To some extent, little data and big data are close to the same thing, it’s just a matter of degree. The biggest difference is that the analysis for little data is straightforward. If you’re looking for someone with a PhD in math to help with your analysis, that’s not little data. For little data, you should be able to do the analysis in Excel. The challenge is knowing how to respond to your results.
Improve Schedules with Little Data
Here’s a straightforward way to use little data to improve your schedules: record task estimates and actuals. The data should include who did the estimation and the work. Using a pivot table in Excel, you can see which estimators typically underestimate or overestimate. You can also see which of your team members take more or less time than was predicated. There are many ways this data can improve your organization, including:
Decrease the bias of future estimations
Identify team members who are not using best practices (and therefore take longer)
Identify team members who have practices you should transfer to other team members
As is often the case, data acquisition is straightforward, analysis simple, and the response requires further digging.
Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are a common little data management technique. Leadership decides that certain easily measurable metrics are key to the organization’s success, targets are set, and data acquired. If the performance does not reach the target, then some form of response is taken.
For example, you may be managing a manufacturing line. Your KPI is the number of units manufactured per hour. In creating the manufacturing process, you know you can build 100 units an hour, so you set your target at 80 units an hour to account for the normal hiccups (e.g. you’re training a new team member).
Data collection and analysis are easy. If you’re meeting your target, you can move on to other issues or raise the target. Ideally, if you don’t meet your target, the response is agreed to prior to acquiring the data. Often it just indicates you need to dig deeper, as in this case. As is all small data analysis, the challenge is in the response, not acquiring or analyzing the data.
A Real-Life Example: Test Scores
One of the most controversial examples of little data are standardized school tests. The data is homogenous and straightforward (if time consuming) to collect. The naïve analysis is trivial (average score by grade and school). The response is complex and fraught with challenges.
In 2010, an elementary school near my house was labeled as failing according to the No Child Left Behind law. A majority of the students were from refugee and immigrant families. Many didn’t speak English at home, which certainly posed a challenge for the school.
The metric, test scores, didn’t determine what action was called for, but made clear there was a problem. The district responded by bringing in a new principal and new teachers, and a concerted effort was undertaken to improve performance. After four years, the performance of the school went from one of the worst schools in the state to only a bit worse than the average school. The little data approach showed that by the metrics we use, the interventions improved the performance.
But this same metric can be misused. There are two middle schools near our house, and we choose to send our son to the one with lower test scores. The school our son goes to is incredibly diverse (including most of the kids who went to the formerly failing elementary school), with a great vibe and dedicated teachers. Test scores can tell you when a school is broken, but it’s not useful in comparing two functional schools. How a school fosters creativity, teamwork, and curiosity are not captured in any test.
This same data can also be used in a big data analysis. Throw in demographic data from the census, housing prices from the country, income data from the IRS, alcohol and cannabis consumption data from Washington State and some subtle correlations that aren’t immediately apparent might appear.
Of course, they might just be random chance; that’s why you need to be careful with big data in a way that you don’t with little data. If your school has the lowest test scores in the state, you know you have a problem. If there’s a weak positive correlation between playing sports and grades, that doesn’t mean every child needs to immediately join a league.
It can be hard to rally the troops to fix a broken team or process. When you come in with data showing how far you are from where you’re supposed to be, it’s much easier to drive changes. That’s true whether it’s replacing a principal or fixing a broken manufacturing process.
Use Data Thoughtfully
Throughout your day, you’re inundated with data. The key to both little data and big data is to thoughtfully filter out what is unimportant and turn what is important into knowledge, which is data with context and meaning. Then you use that knowledge to inform your actions. If the data can’t lead to action, it’s worthless. An extreme example of this is Sherlock Holmes’s lack of interest in the fact that the Earth orbits the sun,
“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”
Though, as a former astronomer, I don’t encourage following Holmes’s example, it is important to focus our efforts on data, big or small, that help us make better decisions.
During the annual budget cycle, portfolio planning or even the adhoc “just-go-do-it” project, project management resource planning and funding can be marginalized and even entirely overlooked.
I’ve seen budgets and resource staffing assumptions that state the project only needs 10 percent of a project management effort. Or, even worse, the team doesn’t assign an internal project manager because the vendor is responsible to “deliver the work.”
Executive teams can make the mistake of overlooking project management needs to make the costs fit the budget or poor assumptions about the project’s complexity. Underestimating the amount of project management required to deliver a project is a critical mistake.
Below are five reasons why projects need professional and experienced project managers.
1. Ensure the project is organized to achieve the project goals.
When I’m asked to consult on a project turnaround effort or help get a troubled project back on track, one common finding is the lack of organization.
Teams will indicate they communicate frequently, know the status of milestones and have a good handle of the key project issues. But, I often find these troubled projects lack an integrated project schedule, a published and understood communication plan, as well as simple project artifacts like an issue list, weekly status report, or an updated project schedule.
An experienced project manager will help avoid these problems by ensuring the project is organized for success. A little bit of pre-planning, clarification of roles and expectations, and structure goes a long way to set up a team for success. Without the organization, teams can churn needlessly thinking that they are making progress.
2. Establish a single point of communication and accountability.
Assigning a project manager to a project establishes a single point of communication and overall accountability.
Project management is not a support role. In fact, it is a leadership role that helps deliver the project. In most organizations, a business lead and a project manager lead the communication effort and share accountability in the project delivery.
When stakeholders have questions, the business typically leads the communication. But project-level details are the project manager’s responsibility.
It is also important the business lead and the project manager are aligned on the communication. I’ve worked on several projects where the business lead’s project status viewpoint differed greatly from the project management level detail. Often, it is the small things that matter!
3. Apply experience and lessons learned.
Professional project managers bring a wide variety of experience and knowledge based on thousands of hours of successful and challenged projects. If the team is implementing a project in a new domain or new business process, adding a project manager with past experience will be instrumental to the project’s success. Otherwise, you’ll bear the cost of experiencing those lessons learned the first time around!
4. Project management is your assurance policy.
You’ve just funded a one million dollar project that will take 12 to 14 months to complete. The results will improve sales and overall company growth.
Are you comfortable just letting anyone run the project? Wouldn’t it be better to provide professional, skilled overhead to ensure the project goals are achieved and if problems arise, the resource has the skills and expertise to help?
Adding a professional project manager (usually less than 10 percent of project costs) provides assurance the project will be organized and managed appropriately. I’d like to say it actually provides insurance, but even project management is a sunk cost on successful and troubled projects.
5. Cheaper to invest in the fundamentals now than later.
The reality is projects are hard. Projects introduce new processes, systems, and organizational change that the organization hasn’t experienced. Executives may be hesitant to fund project managers for every project as there is usually a team lead who has demonstrated leadership in the past.
Leadership isn’t reserved for just for project managers, as we expect each team member to apply situational leadership when called upon. However, it is cheaper to invest in the project management function now rather than later in the project.
When executive stakeholders finally recognize the project needs professional help, it is often too late to rescue the project and maintain the original timing. Providing a project manager upfront mitigates the risk of cost and schedule overruns. Assigning a project manager doesn’t mean guaranteed success. However, you will be guaranteed communication of project issues, delays, and solutions based on years of experience.
When projects go off track, the way to fix most projects is to return to the fundamentals of managing scope, time, resources, and quality. It is better to invest in the fundamentals upfront rather than paying expensive consultants to turn around a project and install those fundamentals mid-project.
There is no escaping the big data revolution that is sweeping across all sectors of industry. Companies that embrace this revolution are on the road to achieving greater business efficiencies and higher profitability.
Any organization with the ability to assimilate data to provide crucial insights into their operations can benefit. Sectors like financial services and healthcare have already embraced big data analytics to remarkable effect.
Now, manufacturing is getting up-to-speed as companies recognize the value in the vast amounts of data that they create and hold. Manufacturers across a range of industries now have the capability to take previously isolated data sets, aggregate and analyze them to reveal important insights.
However, what many of them lack is a clear understanding of how to use the new technology, or even which big data analytics tools they need to apply to their huge volumes of real-time shop-floor data.
For project managers with big data skills and knowledge, this offers an opportunity to gain a competitive edge in the manufacturing sector.
Demand for Big Data Analytics in Manufacturing
Over the past couple of decades, manufacturers have made progress in tackling some of their sector’s biggest challenges, including waste and variability in production processes. By implementing Lean processes and programs, many have achieved significant improvements in product quality and output.
Nevertheless, in some processing environments, pharmaceuticals and biochemistry for example, Lean methods have not been as effective in curbing processing variability swings, largely because the production activities that influence output in these industries tend to be complex and numerous.
In biopharmaceutical production, it is not unusual for companies to be monitoring more than 150 variables to ensure the purity and compliance of their product. This has created a need for a more granular approach to identifying and resolving errors in these and other industry production processes. And, that’s where data analytics can make a difference.
How Project Managers Can Play A Role
Planning and Delivery
In manufacturing, planning and delivery is often a heavily documented area. It is also an area where big data is shaping project management. The application of data analytics can produce insights that can help to redefine manufacturing planning processes and parameters.
A second area where project managers have already deployed big data technology is in the analysis of quality management data.
Because producing consistently high-quality products is key to remaining competitive, many manufacturers are now looking to big data as a way of improving their quality assurance.
One example of where this has been done successfully is computer chip manufacturer Intel, which uses predictive analytics to deliver quality assurance on its products. Prior to the development of big data technology, the firm would subject every chip to a battery of tests to ensure that it reached the quality standard.
Using big data for predictive analytics, historical data collected during the manufacturing process was analyzed, enabling the company to reduce test time. Instead of running every single chip through thousands of tests, Intel was able to focus tests on specific chips, bolstering its operational efficiencies and its bottom line.
In this fairly typical manufacturing scenario, a project manager can play a strategic role in bringing quality management and compliance systems out of their traditional silos and helping organisations find better ways of operating.
Productivity and Efficiency
Speeding up the production process is key to driving profitability in manufacturing. But doing ramping production without sacrificing quality can be a challenge, particularly in manufacturing sectors such as pharmaceuticals, where multiple factors play a role in the manufacturing process.
Improving accuracy during the production process while increasing output is another task for the project manager with access to big data analytics systems and skills, which can be used to effectively segment their production and identify the fastest stages of the process.
With this insight, manufacturers can focus their efforts on those areas for maximum production and efficiency. In the case of the more complex pharma manufacturing process, big data can analyse these factors effectively and with ease. Segmentation of the process highlights areas with the highest error rates, which when addressed, allow the company to increase production and boost profitability.
Risk to any stage of the manufacturing process is a threat to output. For example, many manufacturers are reliant on the delivery of raw materials, and need to reduce risk in this area. Predictive analytics can be used to calculate the probabilities of delays, for example, due to disruption by severe weather conditions.
Analytics findings on weather patterns can help companies develop contingency plans and identify back up suppliers, etc. to minimize the risk of production being interrupted. Identifying risks and managing them on an ongoing basis is a core part of the project management team’s role, and data analytics will increasingly become a valuable tool for them in maintaining effective risk management within the manufacturing process.
In business terms, the era of big data analytics may just be dawning. However, the technology is already proving to be a critical tool for bringing about improvements across many business processes, particularly in manufacturing, where process complexity, process variability, and capacity restraints present challenges. Those companies that strengthen their capabilities for detailed analysis and assessment of their operations will make themselves more competitive and ultimately more profitable.
How Project Managers Can Become Big Data Savvy
In this age of digital transformation, project managers are increasingly aware of where the intersections lie between emerging technologies, sectors like manufacturing, and their own role.
They understand the impact that big data analytics can have for manufacturers. They have a key role to play in helping manufacturers select the right technology systems that will enable them to maximize their use of this data.
Project managers may need to acquire new skills and learn how to adapt to the needs of big data projects, and there are many training programs available that can help with that.
Leading a big data-driven project team can be quite different to leading more traditional software development teams, so here the project manager can draw on cross-disciplinary skills from other areas within the business, for example, from operations and business analysis.
By leveraging emerging technologies such as big data analytics the project management professional remains relevant and able to deliver real business value in sectors like manufacturing, where demand for these skills are in the greatest demand.
It doesn’t matter what field you operate in, as soon as you bring in creative experts the potential for both personality and technical conflict increases. The why is understandable: truly creative designers and engineers who have established themselves as experts will tend to have a very strong mental model of what should happen on a project. Sometimes this vision of the future conflicts with the reality of the project scope, schedule and cost.
When this happens, it’s not a human resources issue. It’s a leadership and a project team issue that you need to resolve.
So, let’s start with why some creative-types generate so much drama in the project team. Coming from the perspective of a “creative-type”, I can understand why some skilled engineers and designers can be difficult to work with:
Feelings of not being heard has led them to become the loudest voice in the charrette.
They have a sense of entitlement built on a track record of success in their designs. This has now gone to their head and they let their ego run rampant.
The individual is truly a savant who happens to have a low emotional intelligence (EI) functionality.
They are a product of their past, with previous project managers allowing them to behave outside team norms because their technical or aesthetic designs are astounding.
Challenging Creative People Make for Better Project Deliverables
I developed my project management and leadership bona fides in an organization where you didn’t have the chance to simply drop people from the project team. It was my job to create excellence from the people presented, no matter their technical or interpersonal skills. While you may operate in an environment where you can vote challenging people off the team at the first sign of resistance, don’t.
Leadership isn’t about eliminating dissent in a team, it’s about forging a team that accepts and thrives on supportive dissent. What’s that? It is dissent intended to challenge or eliminate group-think and to ultimately lead the project team towards delivering the best quality design that meets scope, schedule, cost and quality. This isn’t going to happen in a homogeneous team where no one questions the design approach or unique risk mitigation strategies.
It’s important to have a status-quo-challenging creative person on the team. It is equally important to ensure that you set parameters, expectations and keep the creative team member on vector.
How to Lead a Creative Team Member for Team Success
In my mind, project leadership entails maximizing the effectiveness of each person on the project team. Most situations will not give you the luxury of selecting each member of the team, so you will be faced with forging an effective team with the people you’re assigned.
Even in situations where you recruit and hire specific team members or bring in outside consultants, you can miss the challenging personality trait and be faced with a challenging personnel problem.
Short of kicking the challenge off the team, let’s consider some actual leadership actions you can take to set up the creative person and entire project team for success:
Establish Expectations Early. Have a one-on-one meeting with the person to explain the norms of behavior, language, etiquette, and meeting protocols. If necessary, set up some type of sign that you give the other person when they are starting to agitate or stir the pot too much – e.g. tugging your left ear lobe or saying a phrase like “that’s interesting” while you stare directly at them.
Main point: ensure they know you will not tolerate disrespect of your project team members.
Prepare the Project Team for Personalities. If you know that a particular incoming project team member will be a personality challenge, don’t surprise the project team. For instance, let’s say you have a design or engineering consultant attending an upcoming charrette who you know to be a challenging personality.
It’s incumbent on you as the project manager to make the project team aware and to let them know why this person is being brought in. Talk about how you’ll react, as a team, to awkward situations (e.g. hot tempers or open challenges to opinions or technical ideas) so everyone is prepared.
As the project manager, visualize how you will react to these situations and at what point you’ll intervene to call a coffee break. Main point: prep the team for the personality and keep your eye on delivering a successful project.
Set a Strict Agenda in Meetings and Charrettes. If you have a full-time project team member who is a personality challenge, ensure meetings are run with a very strict agenda. This means both topical (what is discussed) and time (how long).
Don’t allow a meeting to run any longer than scheduled and if the challenging personality starts to pontificate or derail the meeting, give them the “sign” the two of you established in your one-on-one. If that doesn’t work, simply tell the person that the issue at hand will go “off-line”, meaning it will be discussed outside the current meeting. If you have a temporary team member participating in a charette, such as a consultant or individual on loan from a different division, consider having an outside facilitator run the event.
This person needs to be one with the skills for working with creative designers or engineers, and thus understands how to manage technical personalities and still deliver highly effective results.
When All Else Fails, Document. Not every situation with challenging people works out and you need to be prepared for this. That preparation starts with documenting the individual’s outbursts, inability to work collaboratively, or other instances of friction.
Be certain to highlight what the specific, negative impact is to the project in each instance. You can’t simply indicate that on “Tuesday at 3 p.m., Ted was a jerk”. Be specific and concise, while also being unemotional.
The reason you’re documenting is so that you have a record of performance you can use in private consultation with the challenging individual. If the person is part of your company, make certain that the individuals supervisor (and yours) are informed of the general situation as it develops.
Bad news isn’t like a fine wine, it doesn’t get better as it ages.
Limit Contact. Depending on your project, you may be able to limit the number of people who have to work directly with the challenging person. For instance, let’s say your project has multiple sub-components.
An outside consultant with a challenging personality is only involved in one of these sub-components and that only involves three members of your ten-person project team. Don’t expose everyone to challenging person! Limit the friction and keep the team moving forward.
When All Else Fails, Fire the Person. If, despite your best leadership efforts you can see that the project may fail because of the friction the challenging person is generating, sack them. Terminate their project team membership and ship them back to their division or terminate their contract.
If the individual is part of your company, and you have been documenting performance and sharing your concern with their supervisor, arrange a meeting with HR and their supervisor to close-out the situation. If the individual is an outside contractor, terminate the agreement with specific details on why and the negative impact on the overall project.
In the end, successful, challenging projects require subject matter experts who themselves can be challenging. Effective project managers expect that some people will bring challenging personalities into the project team and visualize how they will handle these situations. Treat this preparation just as you would treat developing risk mitigation strategies. By doing this, you will be prepared for channeling the creative energy people bring to the project while at the same time minimizing the potential for collateral damage that might derail your project.
Looking for more project management and career advice?
When you query a group of second graders about what they want to be when they grow up, they’ll say an astronaut, doctor, firefighter, scientist or some other cool job. By the time they’ve started college, the list has expanded to include engineers, teachers, nurses, and other perfectly reasonable jobs.
But no one picks their college because of its top-rated project management program. We are all accidental project managers.
My journey is a bit more unusual than most. I started college wanting to be a scientist and got the education to match—a PhD in Physics from MIT. But I then decided to follow another path, which has led me to project management.
From the beginning, I knew I was following an unconventional path, so I needed to keep my eyes open to the side paths that became part of my journey. It’s a journey that I’m still on and the path to its end (i.e., a comfortable retirement) remains murky, but I believe the tools and lessons that have carried me this far will carry me forward.
I hope some of my lessons can help you in your journey, as well.
Always be open.
In 1996, I had decided to move from academia to industry, but I had no experience, the wrong degrees, no connections, and really no clue on how to make that move. I took the summer off to visit family, spend a week pretending to be an oceanography graduate student, and travel around the Alaskan panhandle by ferry and foot.
On the flight home from Juneau, I started chatting with the person next to me. He was a headhunter who specialized in hiring mathematicians and physicists for Wall Street. I had no interest in moving to New York, but he was happy to share advice working with headhunters. As soon as I got back to Seattle, I followed his advice, which directly resulted in finding a perfect job. How different my life would be if I hadn’t started chatting with him!
Most people are happy to talk about what they do and offer advice. Look for people who have your dream job and reach out to them. Offer to take them out for coffee. Make it easy for them by being flexible about time and meeting near their office. Don’t ask for a job; ask for advice. If they have a job for you, they’ll let you know.
When networking, you should have an interest in what others have to offer. It’s not about you impressing them as much as learning from them. And Karma is a big part of networking: always be on the lookout for opportunities to help others.
It’s much easier today than it was in 1996, which was two years before Google was founded and six years before LinkedIn. Build your LinkedIn profile. If you ask someone to meet for coffee, you can be sure they’ll look you up there before they say yes. Just like your resume, don’t lie or exaggerate, but put your best foot forward.
Always be learning.
In the movie Paycheck, Ben Affleck starred as an engineer who has his memory wipedafter every project. I found that premise absurd. Engineers (and project managers) improve by doing the work and learning from their successes and failures. If your memory was wipedafter each project, you would stagnate while others kept getting better.
My first job was at Neopath, a company that made an automated microscope that diagnosed cervical cancer. I worked on a host of projects across the company, including optics, electronics, root-cause analysis, and manufacturing. What I didn’t work on was image processing, which was our core technology. But over the course of three years I learned enough to develop image processing algorithms for an automated microscope in my next job.
This happened again when I was at Calypso Medical, a company that developed an amazing technology to target radiation therapy for cancer treatment. I developed a camera system to determine the location of a sensor array, but our core technology used AC magnetic fields to determine the location of the prostate. My next job at Digital Control was developing industrial equipment using AC magnetic fields to determine the location of a underground drill.
My role at Calypso started as very technical, but once I had built a prototype and demonstrated my concept would meet our requirements, I was tasked with selecting a vendor and managing them to deliver a solution using my concept. My role became that of a project manager.
My next role at Digital Control also started out as technical, but I found my newly developed project management skills were more important to a project’s success than my technical ones.
As I found myself doing more project management at companies with no project managers, I looked elsewhere for help. I considered getting an MBA. But I couldn’t carve out the time to make that happen, so I enrolled in a certificate program for “Management in the Technology Sector.” The program included classes in project management, team leadership, and business strategy.
If you’re not learning new skills at work, it might be time for a change. Talk to your manager about taking on new responsibilities or moving to a new group. If that’s not an option, take a class or look for opportunities outside of work that will challenge you. Find a non-profit that you care about and offer to help. Before you know it, you’ll be drowning in learning opportunities.
Always be positive.
My career has had more than its share of bumps in the road. The worst was in 2008, when I was laid-off at the beginning of the Great Recession. Over 10 months, I had one phone interview. Every day I would look for open positions and networking opportunities.
Finally I got a job running an energy efficiency project funded by the federal stimulus act. I was offered the job because of my volunteer experience founding the energy committee at the Sierra Club and my work as a project manager. Though it wasn’t my dream job, I involved myself in every aspect of the project, including marketing, training, and quality control. I met some great people and the project exceeded our targets. When the high-tech sector recovered, I moved back into product development, now with even more project management experience.
It’s great to have a vision of where you’d like your career to go and to get the experience and training you need to get there, but in the fast-moving world of technology that’s unlikely to be sufficient. So many interesting industries of today didn’t exist twenty years ago. Just in the Seattle area we have Facebook/Oculus doing virtual reality, Amazon in eCommerce, and Blue Origin in space tourism.
No one starting their career in 1997 would have thought to create the perfect path for a job working at any of these places. But if you are always learning, watching for new opportunities, and keeping a positive outlook, you might just find you’re the perfect person for the dream job you couldn’t have imagined five years earlier.
It’s fine for your journey to follow a circuitous route; sometimes that’s the only way to get to where you’re going.
I’ve been a “professional writer” for nine years. I should be able to effortlessly crank out the words by now, right? Well, if we’re being completely honest with each other, I’ve spent 15 minutes on this intro alone. It’s a slog. Every. Time.
Writing is a hard skill to master (and that’s coming from someone who does this for a living). And just when you think you’ve got it, you find yourself staring at an ugly first draft, wondering where the magic went.
But here’s the good news: you don’t need to master it. No one expects literary quality from your briefs and emails. In fact, if you’ve done it well, no one will notice your writing.
In business writing, you have a simple goal: to clearly and concisely share your message. You’re not going to begin a quarterly earnings report with, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Unless you’re an aspiring business novelist (Eliyahu Goldratt, anyone?), you can leave the prose to Dickens.
Why Solid Writing Skills Make a Difference for Project Managers
When I give this spiel to fellow office dwellers, it’s sometimes met with an apathetic, “Well, I’m not a writer, so it doesn’t matter.”
Hold up, I say. How many emails, IMs, briefs, and memos have you written today? Tweets? Facebook posts? Text messages? That’s what I thought.
You may not have the job title, but I’m willing to wager that you spend at least an hour or two every day writing.
For project managers, solid writing skills become even more important. The success or failure of your project hinges on your communication skills.
It’s likely that a majority of your team communications are via email, IM, or comments. In the past, how many times have you gone back and forth with people who didn’t say what they meant the first time around? How many hours have you wasted trying to decipher poorly written status updates?
Project managers also need to write important documents like project proposals and charters, training documents, plans, and reports. Considering these documents build the foundation of a project, writing plays an important role in successful execution.
Tried and True Techniques
Here are six easy techniques you can use to improve your writing skills.
Think before you write.
Sometimes we panic when we’re presented with that blank page. Just get it out, we think, as we furiously type away. What’s left is a messy brain dump of a document. While that’s a great way to kickstart your writing, it’s not a great experience for the reader.
Those extraneous details muddy the waters, and the reader walks away confused. That’s how balls get dropped, deadlines are missed, and miscommunication happens.
Before you begin writing, answer these three questions:
Who am I writing for?
What do I want them to know?
What do I want them to do?
If you can’t immediately answer these questions, you’ll need to take a step back and collect your thoughts. Everything you write should have a clear audience and purpose.
Get to the point.
In school, we’re taught to spend our first four to five sentences warming up the reader. We then hit them with our main point at the end of the intro. While that format may have impressed your eighth grade English teacher, it’s not going to impress a hurried executive.
Instead, begin with your main point. Dedicate your first paragraph to a quick summary of the situation and the proposed solution if you’re writing longer memos. For emails, use the first sentence to summarize why you’re writing and what you’re trying to accomplish.
If you’re unsure, ask a colleague to read your email and summarize your message in two to three sentences. If he or she can’t do that easily (or gets it wrong), you’ll need to answer the three questions above and work on clarifying your message.
Cut out unnecessary words.
I once had a boss who was a former magazine editor. She was absolutely ruthless. When she’d return my articles, it looked like someone had squeezed a pomegranate onto the page. Red. Everywhere.
Her biggest pet peeve was needless words: very, like, that, in order to, suddenly.
The folder that you need is on my desk.
I’m reading the report in order to prepare for my meeting.
It’s very important to be on time tomorrow.
She taught me how to tighten my sentences by removing the unnecessary. Cut these filler words and your writing will immediately improve.
Empower yourself to ban the buzzwords.
A word that once had so much meaning is now carelessly thrown around in business communications.
I mean, just look at this graph. From 1980 to now, the use of “empower” in publications has tripled.
Business writing is full of words like this:
Depth and breadth
While these terms are sometimes accurate for the situation, I’ve found that it’s more often a sign of lazy writing. These buzzwords tend to confuse or bore your reader.
Check out this handy “bizspeak blacklist” from Harvard Business Review for a list of words to ban from your vocabulary.
Read what you write.
Pretend that you’re the reader. Is your point clear and concise? Does it flow clearly from one idea to another? Or is it abrupt and confusing? Is the call to action obvious? Reading your work aloud can be incredibly helpful. You’ll quickly notice jarring sentence structures and words that trip up your reader.
Good writing is like music. It should have a rhythm. Watch what writing guru Gary Provost does here:
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.
Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important. So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music.”
Reading your work out loud (or loudly in your head if you don’t want to interrupt your colleagues) will help you hear the music (or lack thereof) in your writing.
Read other people’s writing.
Finally, if you want to be a writer, you also need to be a reader. Don’t limit yourself to business books. Read novels, newspapers, blogs, longform journalism. As you read, take note of the writer’s style and structure. Think about ways you can apply these things to your own writing.
And don’t forget to enjoy it. After you apply these techniques, you may find that maybe writing isn’t so bad after all.
While engineers learn a lot of valuable skills in school, project management isn’t always one of them. Many engineers end up learning PM skills on the job and on their own time.
If you’re an engineer looking to grow your project management skillset, you’re in the right place. To compile this list, we dug through Amazon listings, forums, blogs, and review websites to identify the best project management books specifically for those in the manufacturing and engineering industries.
Who said business books have to be a bore? Dr. Eliyahu M. Goldratt turned the traditional how-to book on its head with this “business novel.” Goldratt explore his Theory of Constraints (TOC) through the story’s main character, a university professor who has just returned from a large corporation that uses TOC. Over the course of the book, Goldratt walks readers through the five principle steps of TOC. This is an excellent overview of TOC packaged in a novel full of character development, conflict, and the occasional dramatic scene.
Epiphanized: A Novel on Unifying Theory of Constraints, Lean, and Six Sigma by Bob Sproull and Bruce Nelson
Management consultants Bob Sproull and Bruce Nelson borrow from Goldratt’s storytelling concept to explore the advantages of using Theory of Constraints, Lean, and Six Sigma together. This book tells the story of two consultants who turn around an ailing company by implementing a unification of the three methodologies.
In the appendix, the authors offer a closer look at how the methodologies described in the novel can be applied to your own organization and why a combination of the three creates the best results.
Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager by Kory Kogon, Suzette Blakemore, and James Wood
In today’s workplace, most employees are expected to competently run and manage projects. The trouble is, many haven’t been formally trained.
This book offers practical, jargon-free advice for the accidental project manager. The authors use real-world examples of project successes and failures to illustrate the most important steps and practices for effective people and project management.
Industrial Megaprojects by Edward W. Merrow
When large-scale engineering and construction projects—think off-shore oil platforms, chemical plants, dams—go wrong, they go horribly wrong. In “Industrial Megaprojects,” Edward W. Merrow uses humor, conversational language, and 30 years of experience to explore why large-scale projects fail and what can be done to prevent this. While this book focuses on megaprojects, many of the insights can be applied to engineering and manufacturing projects of any size.
Project Management Case Studies by Harold Kerzner
If you enjoy learning from others’ mistakes and successes, this one’s for you. Project management guru Harold Kerzner dives into more than 100 case studies drawn from real companies to show what worked, what failed, and what could have been done differently. The book covers a wide array of industries, including medical and pharmaceutical, aerospace, manufacturing, and more.
Project Management for Engineering and Construction by Garold D. Oberlender
This book presents the principles and techniques for managing engineering and construction projects from the initial concerting phase, through design and construction, to completion. What sets it apart from other PM books is the focus on applying PM techniques and principles to the beginning stages of a project to influence the budget, scope, and timeline as early as possible. While other books dive right into the construction phase, Oberlender offers a solid argument for applying PM principles earlier in the process.
Here’s a lesson I’m thankful I learned early in my career: successfulengineering projects rely more on non-technical skills than technical skills. It’s not that the technical skills aren’t important – they are. One can’t design a building without knowledgeable, skilled structural, MEP, and fire engineers. An airplane isn’t safe unless there are skilled aeronautical engineers involved. You can’t rely on the quality of electricity unless there are smart electrical engineers involved.
The project a skilled engineer might be working on, however, won’t be successful unless there is an equally skilled project manager involved leading and managing the engineering project.
Think I’m wrong? Project Management Institute’s (PMI) 2016 report The High Cost of Low Performance: How will you improve business results? cited that $122 million was wasted for every $1 billion invested due to poor project performance. Other studies from Gallup and Harvard Business Review report equally grim statistics for project timeliness, cost overruns and scope creep. For those familiar with project management basics, you’ll quickly recognize these as the infamous project management triangle.
While there are smart, talented engineers involved in engineering projects that go sideways, why do these projects still fail?
Because engineering projects aren’t just about technical issues and rational factors, they are often more heavily influenced by non-technical and emotional factors.
Why Engineers Need to Care About Project Management Skills
I know that my undergraduate work in civil engineering didn’t include any courses on project management, let alone communications or leadership. While I did have an engineering economics course, I recall that it was more about net present value calculations and internal rate of review, than it was about cost estimating, earned value management and how to develop effective cost controls for a construction project.
My project management skills were learned through on-the job training, or OJT. Most engineers who move into project management roles get there via the OJT path. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, if it isn’t bolstered with legitimate study of project management fundamentals, then it can become a bad thing in the right situation.
I gave little thought to the study of project management until fifteen years into my professional engineering career. In an attempt to give my career skills a boost, I began studying for the Project Management Professional (PMP) course. Only then did I begin realizing that my OJT project management skills were inadequate in terms of the processes, procedures and general vernacular necessary to deliver successful projects. While I wasn’t a slouch in managing a project with regards to scope, schedule and cost, I was lacking in my ability to visualize how leadership, communications, strategic guidance, and even personal emotion, factor into the management of said project.
Engineers who think they don’t need to care about developing their project management skills will one day run into a situation where technical and rational means of solving a problem won’t work.
The technical/rational skills of engineers are useful for solving technical or rational problems on engineering projects, such as cost estimation and adjustments, forecasting, quality assurance or scheduling. These skills aren’t useful, however, when dealing with problems linked to project team members or stakeholders. The reason should be obvious: project team members and stakeholders are humans or groups of humans. Humans aren’t always rational, they tend to be emotional. So, the technical/rational approach to many issues faced in project management won’t always work. In some situations, they will never work.
Benefits of Developing Project Management Skills
Spending time on project management skills development may be the last thing you want to add to your already busy schedule. With the normal churn and demands of life and work, you’re likely not jumping up and down to throw another requirement on to the calendar.
However, I’ll give you two specific reasons engineers may want to reconsider priorities and extend the effort to develop project management skills on top of the on-the-job training or organizational project management training:
I don’t simply mean climbing the engineering firm latter to partner or VP. Even if you aren’t interested in a leadership position in an engineering firm, you must continue to advance your career via advancing your skills. Engineers already know that maintaining one’s engineering mojo requires consistent study, reading of trade journals, and attending training courses. Each of us does this to advance our career by advancing, or growing our skills.
William S. Boroughs had something to say about consistent growth: “When you stop growing you start dying.” If you stop advancing your skills you won’t literally die, however, you run a good chance of killing your career.
Studying project management will provide you with the processes, procedures and lingo to enhance your planning, delivery, controlling and hand-over of projects. It will also begin to posture you for the other type of career advancement – movement into leadership positions.
Some of us are interested in progressing forward into positions of increased responsibility and yes, salary. There are various salary surveys accessible on the web, so go take a look at the median salary variance between engineering and project management positions. As a civil engineer, I’m looking at a median salary of $82,000 in the U.S., contrasted with a median salary of $91,000 for a project manager.
Even if you are truly altruistic and position, title, and compensation don’t matter to you, then the second benefit from studying project management should suffice as a reason to crack the books.
Increased Benefit for Your Organization and Clients
A situation I’m experiencing currently is a lack of qualified engineering project managers in the building and infrastructure sector. Why the lack of such experts? My speculation is twofold: (1) engineers not interested in moving into project management roles and developing the skills needed to make that move; (2) retirement of engineers who have developed strong project management skills and no qualified engineer project managers available to fill the void.
This lack of skilled engineer-project managers means that engineering firms are not able to deliver, let alone realize, benefits internal to the company or more importantly, to their clients. What do I mean by benefits? To keep it simple, I’ll highlight the big three we’re all familiar with: scope, schedule and cost. According to the PMI’s report I cited earlier, 32% of assessed projects experienced scope creep, 47% were over budget, and 51% were late.
What this translates to is a loss of money to a client, and most clients see cost avoidance or savings as a benefit.
Project management study develops skills that you can put to use in ensuring that a project is maintained within scope, kept on schedule, and controlled within the budget. Yes, you can pick up skills from on-the-job training, however, you’re certain to miss some critical pieces of knowledge that you can only gain from a concentrated effort to build your skills. I know this from personal experience.
Both clients and your organization want projects to be properly scoped and kept within that scope; controlled to a realistic schedule; and constrained to the planned budget. Developing the skill set needed to make this happen will take experience, but it will also require study.
Here are five more benefits that engineers, their firms, and clients can realize from development of project management skills:
1. Improved Efficiency. One benefit I’ve experienced from developing my project management skills is increased efficiency in moving from initiating the project to closing it out. Specifically, this means that I have a mental model for each of the five phases of a project, standard operating procedures, flowcharts and templates developed, and a general understanding of how the project will unfold. Taking the guesswork out of the simple items frees me up to put my cranial energy onto the not-so-simple issues – the reason projects have project managers.
2. Enhanced Effectiveness. The project manager is responsible for control of a project so it remains within scope, on schedule and in budget. It is also to lead and communicate with project team members and a universe of stakeholders. A project manager’s effectiveness is pegged to the individual’s ability to understand that 80% of what they will be doing day-in/day-out is non-technical work – communicating with someone; managing expectations of a stakeholder; handling a personnel issue on the project management team; etc. Ones effectiveness in handling any of the myriad of issues that will arise will be determined by their skills and experience.
3. Can Help You Replicate Success. I love standard operating procedures, checklists and templates. One reason is they help to increase efficiency and enhance effectiveness by eliminating the time needed to create them. Another reason is that when an SOP contributes to a successful project, you increase the likelihood of replicating that success by using the same SOP on the next project. Experience will help you develop SOPs that become enduring, as well as understanding which ones must be modified for a specific project. However, if you can standardize even 60% of activities from one project to the next, you open up a lot of time that can be spent on monitoring and controlling a project’s key performance indicators, managing risk and fulfilling a client’s expectations.
4. Helps You Learn Leadership and Communications. Project management, as you’ve read repeatedly in this article, is less about technical issues and more about non-technical issues. Developing project management skills provides you with the foundation for developing the other skills required to be effective: leadership, communications, and strategic assessment. We don’t learn these skills in engineering school and many engineers will move through their entire career never learning them. OJT isn’t entirely effective for building the repertoire of skills one needs to be an effective engineering project manager.
While I came into project management with a strong dose of leadership and communication skills from fifteen years as an Air Force civil engineering officer, it’s not likely you will be so fortunate. Study project management and develop your skills in these areas – and more.
5. Common Operating Language and Picture. The study of project management, especially if it follows the structure outlined by PMI or the U.K.’s Association for Project Management, will provide you with a common operating language and picture for how project management is supposed to be conducted. Once you have this foundation, you can make educated adjustments to fit your industry, organization, or unique situation. You will also be able to look back at past projects and identify where the application of the body of knowledge of project management may have yielded a different, better result. Why does this matter? Because introspection and development of skills and knowledge is what professionals do.
“Dear Elizabeth: My boss wants a lot of work done, and he’s put me in the project management role. But I don’t think he really understands what a project manager does.
I have previous project management experience in my old job, and I’d love to be able to run this project properly. But it’s hard to get time with him. On top of that, there isn’t the executive interest in good practice, software tools, etc. even though I know these would make it easier for the team to do what we need to do successfully.
How can I gain buy-in from a boss who isn’t interested in managing projects effectively?”
Wow, there are quite a few problems there! Let’s unpack what’s going on.
First, your boss isn’t available to you.
This is an issue. It says to me that he just wants you to get on with it and not bother him with the details. I get that. Everyone is busy. But you don’t want time. You want support. That’s very different but equally tough to get.
Be specific. What is it that you want from him but are not getting? Once you have truly questioned this, can you go to him (schedule a meeting so he isn’t cornered or too busy) and spell it out. It’s highly likely he thinks he doesn’t need to do anything because you have it under control.
This is even more of a problem if he is your project sponsor. An absent sponsor is never a good thing for a project because it slows down decision making. Thus, you lack the directional steer and vision that helps the team move forward.
Can you get a different sponsor? Many project managers find that their line manager isn’t the best person to be sponsoring the project because the client, a senior user in another department, or the product owner is a better fit. So think about switching out your sponsor.
It sounds like you are in quite an unstructured environment, so you don’t have to do this formally. Just switch allegiances to the person who best fits your understanding of who should be the sponsor.
Trust me, bosses soon find time for you when they feel you are overstepping your boundaries. As long as what you do doesn’t make him look bad, his reaction is likely to range from not caring to thinking you’ve done a great job.
OK, next problem. Your boss doesn’t understand what a project manager does.
As a project manager myself, I love it when people get me. I spent a pleasant hour chatting to another project manager whom I’d only just met recently. I couldn’t believe how fast the time went. We clicked, and he completely understood my challenges. But let’s face it, most people, even our friends and family, don’t really understand what a project manager does.
The textbooks will say that it’s your job to educate your line manager about how valuable you are and what you do, and there is some truth in that. But pick your battles!
Maybe right now isn’t the best time to be explaining your role. He’s not going to listen. Let your results speak for themselves at the moment, and think of ways to shout about the team’s successes so that he can see what you do rather than being told what you do. (Novelists call this technique “show, don’t tell”).
Third, you’re lacking the support you need to implement best practice and software that will make your lives easier.
One of the best pieces of advice ever given to me by a colleague was this: “You have more authority than you think you do. Step up and lead.” This is definitely true in your case too.
One of the top benefits of a line manager who leaves you alone is that you can implement best practices. As long as it doesn’t cost anything, set up the processes and use the templates you want for your project. You want to write a Project Charter? Write one. You want a risk log? Keep one. Create reports to your own standards and send them to him monthly. Make them awesome and helpful. Then in three months, explain some of the issues you’ve found.
Talk authoritatively, using experience from your previous roles. Say what you could achieve if you had a project board, Gantt chart software, a collaborative project environment, whatever. Tell him that what you’d like to do next is… and would he support you with time/cash/training etc? It’s fantastic if you can throw in a few examples of where your team has wasted time or worked on the wrong specification document, or didn’t finish something when another team needed it through not tracking dependencies or some other issue that good practice would help avoid.
To summarize: Get the results then make the ask. Sell the benefits of what you want. The benefits are not “because project managers always work like this.”
Professional project management approaches and tools help you deliver faster, work more effectively, avoid duplication of effort, and be more productive. Speak the language of the exec and make project management meaningful, not administrative.
I hope that makes sense! Be aware this is a long journey. Turning someone round from indifferent to supportive of project management isn’t something that is going to happen overnight, but armed with a strategy to get there you will hopefully manage to get him on side and get the support you need.