More Project Management Tips from the DOE

Last week, we looked at part of a study released by the DOE in conjunction with the National Academy of Sciences. It’s quite a comprehensive report, and it might make you feel a little inadequate about the state of your project management. However, you’ll be glad to know that even the big boys don’t start out getting things right. In fact, this study was prompted by what the Academy called the DOE’s lack of “a uniform set of objective measures for assessing the quality of project management…(this absence) prevents the identification of best practices and impedes widespread improvement in project management throughout the agency”. If an organization as cumbersome and set in its ways as the typical government institution can recognize this and begin making positive changes, there’s nothing holding your company back from doing the same!

9 Critical Benchmarking Activities

According to the NAS report, there are 9 basic aspects of benchmarking. These activities apply to benchmarking done at any phase of a project (planning, execution, review). For best results, this benchmarking should be integrated into the project management culture rather than being viewed as somehow separate. This encourages openness to new ideas and a willingness to make changes as needed to improve project and program processes. Here are the 9 activities:

  1. Deciding what to benchmark
  2. Defining the metrics to be used
  3. Developing a reliable method of data collection
  4. Actually collecting the required data
  5. Analyzing the data to highlight deficiencies in performance and areas where best practices are not being followed
  6. Identifying the root causes of these PM process and outcome shortcomings
  7. Developing a plan of action to reduce or eliminate known deficiencies
  8. Integrating new best practices into the project delivery process
  9. Making benchmarking a recognized and valued part of the process of continuous improvement

The Input/Process/Output/Outcome Cycle

Because benchmarking is designed for use at each stage of a project, it’s helpful to clearly define the cycle of a standard project. The DOE uses assessments that cover four basic stages. Input is the first stage and benchmarking is done by measuring resources that will be provided for the project. The next stage involves process metrics. The manner in which activities are carried out is compared to PM standards for how things should be done if all policies and procedures are followed. Output focuses on benchmarking the quantity and quality of the end product. The outcome is measured by how well the end product actually serves the purpose for which it was intended and whether it supports larger program objectives. External factors may influence the project at any stage. These influences must be taken into account as issues that should be planned or adjusted for even if they cannot be entirely controlled.

What Makes a Performance Metric Useful?

As you go through the process of actually deciding what data to use, there are some characteristics that have particular value. Data collected for benchmarking should be:

  • Measurable (objectively or subjectively)
  • Reliable, consistent, and verifiable
  • Simple, clear, and easy to understand
  • Timely and cost effective
  • Minimally affected by external influences
  • Meaningful to users at all levels
  • Related to mission outcome
  • Useful for driving effective decisions and process improvement

The more criteria on this list you can match in your performance measures, the better!

Why Is Project Management Benchmarking Important?

What role do benchmarking metrics play in project management? In the broadest sense, benchmarking is what gives an organization the ability to test and evaluate PM processes and methodology, project outcomes, and the performance of individual project managers. Without this type of oversight, it’s still possible to recognize that projects are failing, going over budget, and running past schedule – you just won’t be able to figure out what to do about it.

Benchmarking Overview

Laurence Nicholson published a report on benchmarking in PM World Today back in 2006 that is still relevant and useful now. You can read it free online here. The focus is geared somewhat toward IT projects, but the same principles Nicholson discusses can easily be adapted to any industry. Here are some takeaway points:

  • Not every organization can or should use the same metrics for project analysis. Failing to correctly match metrics with real life objectives simply leads to wasted resources with no added value to show for it.
  • Using a balanced blend of subjective and objective metrics makes sense. Easily measurable factors like cost and time should be weighed alongside more subjective factors like customer satisfaction and team cohesion.
  • Metrics may be used to determine whether processes are consistent or if there are areas where approved methods are not being used.
  • Staffing levels and employee engagement are critical to the success of projects. PMs should understand HR metrics that impact project performance and collaborate with HR to increase the quality and availability of project team members.
  • One of the most often overlooked aspects of project management benchmarking is its role in determining if projects are aligned with larger organizational goals.

Who Uses Project Benchmarking?

Large business enterprises and government agencies that have a well developed project or program management process are more likely to make effective use of benchmarking. Such organizations can be a great resource in providing examples of how benchmarking works. For example, the Department of Energy collaborated with the National Academy of Sciences to publish a report on its own project management processes for educational purposes. Here are some highlights:

  • Many projects can be broken down into a series of critical decision points requiring approval: mission need, system requirements and alternatives, baseline, implementation, and transition to operations. Benchmarking done at each of these junctures can aid in appropriate decision making.
  • Goals should be clearly defined, actionable, and measurable. They should have their origin at the organizational level and flow down to the PM level. To aid in goal alignment, similar performance metrics should be used to measure whether goals are being met at both an organizational and project management level.
  • Data collection is most effective when centered on known sources of accurate, repeatable, and verifiable information (not discounting the fact that subjective data should also be collected and used in benchmarking).
  • Feedback systems should be in place to promote continuous improvement of all aspects of project management from processes to results.
  • Benchmarking should be cumulative so that multiple projects can be compared and evaluated to identify larger patterns of performance.

Federal Project Management Report

As I mentioned in last week’s post, the American Society for the Advancement of Project Management sponsored a study on Federal Project Management: Understanding FAC-P/PM and Competency that has now been published on the ASAPM website. It discusses the purpose of certification for program and project managers. So far, the certification process has been focused primarily at the most senior PM levels. This has left something of a gap in developing entry and mid-level managers who constitute the pool from which tomorrow’s leaders will be drawn. Since these “ground troops” are responsible for much of the day to day project management at many levels of the federal government, they need to have the skills to achieve better near term results as well.

Federal PMs Had a Head Start; But Results are Still Uncertain

As some of the earliest adopters of PM methodology, the government is uniquely positioned to develop it further. However, there is still a critical need for better assessment of competencies and outcomes. Without this data, it’s impossible to tell which initiatives and approaches are working well and which ones need to be revamped.

FAC-P/PM was only instituted in 2007. According to the authors of the report, at this time there are relatively few agencies that are even fully aware of the ramifications of the program or how they should be leveraging it to create greater competency and ensure better project (and mission) results. So, the report spends less time evaluating what FAC-P/PM has accomplished so far and more on what still remains to be done.

Competency Takes Center Stage

The certification program is based around competency rather than simply knowledge acquisition. The recommendations at the end of the ASAPM report make it clear that this is the right approach and that it should be given even more importance. The 7 core FAC-P/PM competencies are:

  • Requirements Development Management Process
  • System Engineering
  • Test and Evaluation
  • Life Cycle Logistics
  • Acquisition/Contracting
  • Business Financial Management
  • Leadership Professional

This is a big change from the time period prior to 2007 when acquisition received all the attention. The government has realized that there’s a lot more to an actual project than simply what you buy. Interestingly, the GSA is one of the recent adopters of this more comprehensive approach to project management. The ASAPM urges them to take notes from early adopters such as the Treasury Department. Those agencies that have the most experience with this methodology have the best documented results and the greatest appreciation for what PM competency can achieve.

How Is Competency Defined?

It’s a combination of knowledge, experience, behaviors, and skills. Obviously, more than classroom training is required to become competent. Performance management, goal setting, and mentoring also play an important role in developing good project managers. Part of making the FAC-P/PM work will be determining an overarching strategy that can be used by all agencies.


Currently, a lack of inter-agency collaboration and widely varying standards still exist for PM development. These differences must be addressed to make both program implementation and data collection for results-based evaluation of individual projects more streamlined and effective.

Should Your Organization Have a Project Management Office?

Do you have the time and resources to sit down and look at the big picture regarding how your portfolio of projects is managed? Not every organization needs a project management office. But those that do are missing out on some tangible benefits if they fail to put a PMO in place.


First, it’s important to note that the acronym PMO is often used to refer to a program management office. To find out the difference between project and program management, go here. If you’ve got program management established in your organization, you’ve already reached the level of complexity where a PMO is essential. So, in this post, we’ll just use the term PMO to refer to a project rather than a program management office.

IT Leads the Way In PMOs

Information technology is one of the most common areas where a PMO is implemented. The term “office” in this context refers to a function rather than a physical place (although a location may be set aside as a headquarters for this purpose if needed). The responsibilities of a PMO include:

  • Developing and administering project management policies, processes, and principles
  • Providing a centralized view of the full portfolio of projects (past, present, and proposed)
  • Planning strategically to ensure the highest rate of success for all projects
  • Determining how to handle resources to serve the needs of multiple, concurrent projects
  • Assisting, facilitating, and mentoring individual project managers/teams as needed
  • Collecting and reviewing knowledge gained from each project (managing lessons learned knowledge base)
  • Analyzing all data to discover areas for improvement in project processes

Who Needs It?

For an organization that only handles one project at a time, having a separate individual or team fulfill the role of the PMO may not be necessary. A project manager could work in concert with upper management (or a consultant) to ensure all the functions listed above are taken care of.

However, organizations that juggle multiple projects should consider creating a PMO. Otherwise, there is a risk that PMs who are better at negotiating for the resources they need will have success while those with less skill/experience will fail. A PMO plays the role of a neutral third party with the final say in determining how projects are administered.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

Research from the Gartner Group indicates that businesses that establish organization-wide project management standards and a PMO might cut project cost overruns by 50%. According to a survey from PricewaterhouseCoopers, it’s hard to pin an exact dollar amount on how much money is saved by having better control and more in-depth information. However, of those companies surveyed, the ones that had their PMO in place the longest tended to report much better rates of success for their projects (a 65% improvement for organizations with a PMO that had been in place for 4 years of more). Since an enormous percentage of projects in the IT industry experience cost and schedule overruns, instituting a long term solution such as a PMO can make good business sense.

Taking a Daily Work Break

Workplace interruptions can wreak havoc on project management production. The more people in your organization, the more potential there is for interruptions to occur. We’ve all heard about water cooler conversations where an interesting topic can attract a small crowd and in the meantime not much work is getting accomplished. Also, imagine that anytime a team member has a question they just barge in to their co-worker’s office. Multiple interruptions like this can slow down productivity and potentially cost the project time and money.

The use of email helps with time management, avoiding telephone interruptions or people stopping by unannounced. Communications can be responded to at a worker’s convenience rather than stopping and starting on important tasks.

However, another innovative project management idea might be to implement a “daily work break”. Not the kind where co-workers sit down and chat over a cup of coffee or where one plays Tetris to help clear the mind. Instead, this break is a one to two hour, interruption free, time to focus on work at hand. Possible rules might include:

  • No one enters another person’s work space.
  • No telephone calls between offices.
  • No instant messaging
  • No scheduled meetings.
  • Outside callers will leave a message.

Of course, if there could be exceptions for emergencies.

The optimal time for such a break would probably be mid-morning, giving workers time to settle in before concentrating on work and allowing time to return phone calls before lunch.

Taking a daily work break can be an effective project management tool, but as project manager you must decide whether it is the best idea for your own team.