State of the Art

Do you have the personnel, equipment, and capital you need to meet your deadlines? Project-management software can help you optimize and organize your resources

Monday mornings like this one used to tie dave long's stomach up in knots. Presiding over his weekly project-management meeting, the 55-year-old cofounder of Pro Mold & Die has just learned that a major vacuum-cleaner manufacturer wants its mold for a new part delivered three weeks early. The project manager on the job is headed to the hospital for bypass surgery, and his replacement, Dave Baldassarre, who's a master of the machines that cut, grind, and burn various-size steel blocks into molds for everything from headlight housings to cell-phone antennae, has never led a project. Baldassarre is starting to panic.

At almost any other time in the 25-year history of the Roselle, Ill., company, Long would have responded to the customer with an unconditional yes and prayed that things would turn out OK. As the deadline approached, he would have counseled Baldassarre to mandate 16-hour shifts, but likely as not that wouldn't have been enough. "Quality is always within our grasp," proclaims the sign over Pro Mold's shop floor, but in the past, timely delivery had often been out of reach: at one time, the company's on-time delivery rate hovered around 50%.

Today, however, seated with his three project managers and two top salespeople at a conference table overlooking his shop, Long is certain that Baldassarre will make the new deadline--still a month away. The source of Long's confidence lies in a stack of red loose-leaf binders, the main focus of everyone at the meeting. Two years ago Long switched from management by cattle prod to management by the content of the red binders. They contain charts that lay out the schedule for every task of every ongoing Pro Mold job, from writing the computer programs for three-dimensional cutting to shipping products that meet inspection standards.

As he does every Monday morning, Long checks the progress on each of the 26 projects currently under way. When he gets to Job #3464--the vacuum-cleaner part--he walks Baldassarre through each of the task deadlines: "You can finish the mold base by here, right? Core polish a week later? Components around the same time?" Baldassarre nods yes to each question, and a look of relief spreads across his face. Only one obstacle stands between him and his target date: the machine he needs for cutting the mold cavity is being used by another mold-making team. Pointing to the chart for the vacuum-cleaner part, Long shows Baldassarre that if he burns the cavity while he's waiting for the cutting machine, he'll nail the ship date.

Long's charts, known as Gantt charts by project-management professionals, have shifted the focus of everyone at this $7-million company from the confines of their own job descriptions to what customers really care about: successful projects. Job schedules are not new to Pro Mold, but earlier schedules specified only start and end dates for each job, leaving 12 to 16 weeks of blank space in between. Because the new Gantt charts set weekly deadlines for each high-level task, the project managers know early on if a job is running into trouble. The results: an on-time delivery rate that tops 90%, few last-minute marathons, and peace of mind for Long and his 45 employees. "I'm not saying we never have 12-hour days," says Long, "but all that sense of panic is a thing of the past."

Systematic Solutions
Pro Mold's Gantt charts are the products of CA-SuperProject, a Computer Associates work-scheduling and tracking package that falls under the broad category of project-management software. As a discipline, project management has its roots in such midcentury military initiatives as the Manhattan Project and the U.S. Navy's nuclear submarine programs. The number and interdependency of tasks, coupled with the need for accountability and transparency, forced managers of those uber-projects to get rigorous about planning and tracking. According to Lew Ireland, president of the Project Management Institute (PMI), in Newtown Square, Pa., that rigor is trickling through the economy, and smaller companies like Pro Mold are turning to project-management software to meet deadlines and stay on budget. "As big companies set the pace," says Ireland, "small companies doing subcontracts have to use similar tools and techniques to build confidence that they can meet requirements. Even if they're doing their own separate projects, they still have to give that assurance to their customers. We're getting away from 'Trust me' and instead laying it out in a logical fashion to say, 'Here's my commitment to you."

Jim Lewis, whose Lewis Institute teaches project-management skills to businesses, says project-management tools come in handy whenever accomplishing a goal involves a set of standardized tasks. "So cooking a meal becomes a project, and doing brain surgery is a project," says Lewis. "The more important your time deadline, the more important it is to do a project plan. Small companies sometimes fall into the trap of thinking, 'We're too small--we can't afford to do this.' But studies show one-third of project work is rework, so if they want better productivity, they have to practice good project management."

PMI's Ireland says the category of project-management software includes packages that handle any of three functions: work scheduling, resource allocation, and communication for keeping projects on track. Scheduling-and-analysis software like CA-SuperProject helps managers understand whether they can achieve a goal within fixed time and fiscal constraints. Communication tools use computer networks, including the Internet, to distribute project information among geographically dispersed teams, and they give managers the ability to issue remote kicks-in-the-pants when deadlines loom or financial limits are threatened. "If one task slips, it can impact several other tasks, so you have to throw up a flag and say, 'What's happening here?" explains Ireland. "With virtual offices and home offices becoming more common, these communication tools are key to modern projects and how they're managed."

Target Practice
When Pro Mold's Long tested SuperProject's Gantt charts by tracing the schedules of completed projects, he realized that it would take more than cracking the whip on his shop floor to finish Pro Mold projects on time. Each job begins with an engineering phase, in which Pro Mold engineers use customers' computerized drawings to design molds. Using E-mail, the engineers and the customers send the designs back and forth until they get approval. When Long entered approximate start and end dates for the engineering phase of several old jobs, he discovered that engineering had been gobbling up as much as 50% of each project's elapsed time, even though it accounted for only 15% of billable hours in the company's quotes to clients. Digging deeper, Long noted that he'd never set target dates for design approval: neither customers nor Pro Mold's own engineers felt any sense of urgency. They were sitting on decisions, leaving the shop to pick up the slack. "We needed a way of hitting them over the head," he says.

To send that message, Long now sets project deadlines for Pro Mold's engineers, and he insists that customers sign off on deadlines for designs and other deliverables. In exchange, Long faxes weekly progress reports to each customer. Those high-level views of the Gantt charts--which he generates using SuperProject--indicate whether a job is on schedule; if not, why not; and how much work remains on each task. "This is a nice way to go to the customer and say that by not getting back to us, they're delaying our schedule," Long says. "They're so impressed, they want to know where they can get the software."

But before anyone rushes out to buy a project-management package, it's important to understand that more than other office-productivity tools, project-management software requires a huge up-front effort before it bears fruit. "Project-management software is not going to be very helpful to companies unless they understand what project management as a discipline has to offer," says Marty Doucette, author of Microsoft Project 98 for Dummies. "You have to determine goals, who has decision power, and how much can be quantified and measured. The software doesn't take the place of some hard head scratching and pencil sharpening."

Long agrees with Doucette that buying the software was the easy part. Pro Mold purchased its copy of SuperProject through a consultant for about $700, but it took six months and countless hours to develop a project template that accurately captured the tasks of a typical Pro Mold project. At first it seemed an impossible challenge: Each mold is unique, comprising as many as 500 steel components. And those components are cut by custom cutter paths through Pro Mold's 40 machining centers. After much trial and error, Long settled on a template comprising 32 activities common to almost every Pro Mold job--steps like part building, cutting three-dimensional cavity detail, and ejector-pin formation. For each task, SuperProject allows Long to specify not only its share of total project time but also its dependencies on other tasks. So, for instance, when Long uses the template to create a project schedule, SuperProject takes into account that cavity polishing can't begin until after a mold comes out of final machining.

The templates Long developed are competitive assets that codify the way Pro Mold does its work. But the first time Long used a template to schedule a job, the results looked anything but promising. It was May 1997, and a mold for a new headlight lens was due in December. Scrolling across the SuperProject schedule, Long saw there was no way Pro Mold could ship before the following April. "It's a good thing we plotted it out," says Long. "Otherwise we would have gone home thinking we were fat and happy." The revelations of the SuperProject schedule convinced Long that he should institute a regular night shift. The headlight mold did ship on time.

These days Pro Mold uses four SuperProject templates--one that assumes a normal 55-hour workweek, an accelerated schedule that draws on the night shift, and a variation on each of those for making two-cavity molds. Eva DelRegno is the production assistant at Pro Mold who prepares day-to-day SuperProject updates and printouts on a PC that also runs Windows 95. When a new job comes in, based on its deadline she chooses the appropriate template. The template lists tasks and dependencies, but to generate a schedule and cost estimates, DelRegno needs to enter a time for accomplishing each task. To get that information, she sits down with Ray Haney, a veteran mold maker whose 40 years' experience helps him estimate how the demands of every job will affect, say, the man-hours necessary to cut cavity detail. DelRegno prints out charts for each job and, with Long's approval, distributes them to salespeople and project managers. Later, if there's breathing room, she'll spread the extra time among the remaining tasks.

But scheduling is only part of project management. To make sure that ongoing projects meet deadlines and stay within budget, Long has DelRegno sit in on the Monday meetings. One after another, the project managers announce the status of their jobs. "Close out the mold base, Eva," says one. "We'll finish the electrodes by the end of the week," says another. And when DelRegno adds that information into SuperProject, it generates charts that illustrate the progress made on each task. She also uses SuperProject to track employee time-sheet data, comparing man-hours budgeted with man-hours actually worked, task by task.

The Monday morning meetings foster cooperation as well as a healthy dose of competition. It's hard to understand why grown men would vie for time with a piece of equipment known as the Ingersoll, unless you know that until recently, Pro Mold had no faster machine for carving out fine mold detail. In the past, when two teams wanted the Ingersoll at the same time, Long had little on which to base his decision. His usual solution was to give the machine to the team whose ship date was closer. But in addition to engendering hard feelings, more often than not his decision meant further congestion down the road. Now, knowing each team's weekly target dates, Long can shuffle assignments so both teams meet their deadlines. "The software provides a tiebreaker that takes me out of the loop," he says.

Long believes the well-defined intermediate targets have a positive impact not only on delivery dates but also on employee morale. "By meeting their goals, they feel better when they're driving home," he says. "People want to feel they accomplished something. I don't know how you can do that without a goal."

Powers of Communication
Unlike Pro Mold's Long, Glenn Isaacson, 61-year-old principal of San Francisco-based Conversion Management Associates (CMA), doesn't enjoy the luxury of executing projects under the roof of his $5-million company. But Isaacson, who founded CMA in 1993 to manage construction projects for owners who lack in-house expertise, doesn't need help planning projects: roughly 15 of CMA's 23 employees are essentially project managers for hire. Some of them are so well versed at plotting tasks on timelines, they refer to the format as "good ol' Mr. Gantt." Isaacson's challenge is to smoothly run to completion the construction portion of development projects--despite the fractionalized nature of the real estate business. "You buy everything in pieces," he says, "the design talent, the construction. You even lease the building and borrow money in pieces. It's an unbelievably complex process, and anything that can tie together a group of people that are a team--rapidly, without friction--is really welcome."

So Isaacson was all ears when he heard about In-Site, from BidCom, a San Francisco-based software company that facilitates project management over the Internet. Using a password-protected Web site for each CMA construction project, In-Site hooks up all the people--from the design team to the host of subcontractors--involved, giving everyone easy access to such project documentation as schedules, architectural drawings, and photographs.

In-Site, a mating of groupware and project-management software, is a valuable tool for grappling with geographically dispersed project teams. At the University of San Francisco, CMA construction manager Gary Meyring is overseeing the construction of a new dorm for the school's 24 Jesuit faculty members, and In-Site is at the core of that project.

When the job started, at Meyring's direction, Swinerton & Walberg, the general contractor, used SureTrak Project Manager to create a Gantt chart for the project. The schedule specifies every aspect of construction (from planning for the purchase of materials to stating when the work should be completed) and breaks each into tasks (for the materials-purchase phase, for instance, ordering the materials and producing shop drawings) for all the participating contractors. Meyring, in turn, converted that chart to a JPG file and published it on the In-Site Web site, where authorized project members are able to review it. The contractors who have access to the site can see when specific tasks are scheduled for completion and how each task relates to other work. For example, the drywall contractor could see what time the framing, electrical wiring, plumbing, and insulation were scheduled to be completed--all tasks that must be done before the drywall can go in. Using DWF, a standard Web format for computer-aided design drawings, Meyring also publishes the architect's construction documents through In-Site.

While Meyring connects to the site from CMA's trendy digs in San Francisco's Rincon Center district, the general contractor's project manager and the construction superintendent log in from the on-site trailer. Because this is one of the first projects to use In-Site, only the general contractor, the architect, the university, the structural engineer, the landscape architect, and CMA have access to the site. Meyring gives printouts to the other contractors.

In addition to serving as an electronic storehouse for such project resources as the plan and blueprints, In-Site is Meyring's mission-control center. Even though this job is relatively small, hundreds of requests for information, or RFIs, fly back and forth among project team members. More powerful than conventional E-mail, In-Site's RFI messaging system allows Meyring to define communication paths among participants, so, for instance, discussion between the general contractor and the architect always flows through CMA. Team members can draw notations and make additions to the architect's documents on-line and send their scribbles as attachments to the RFI.

Whenever an RFI is bouncing among team members, Meyring takes advantage of In-Site's ball-in-court feature to determine who's sitting on a question or a decision. "Then I get in touch with the guy and find out what's going on," he says.

One morning during an early construction phase, Meyring receives an RFI from the general contractor about the length of piers, the long concrete pilings that are to be drilled into the ground to support the structure. The architect's drawings call for 75-foot piers, but the site inspector, upon checking out the soil, thinks the length of the piers should be adjusted. In the old days, such communication would have been sent by mail, and even today most sites still rely on faxes, so it can take weeks to get definitive answers. But because In-Site links project members, it takes Meyring only 45 minutes to get the architect's answer to the site. And he never leaves his chair. "We have the geologist, the testing agency, and the drilling company with its $2,000-an-hour drill rig sitting around saying, 'What do we do?" says Meyring. "Speed is very important."

Isaacson agrees, especially since CMA's fee from the university includes a substantial bonus for on-time delivery. "We're motivated by our clients' and our own self-interest to do anything we can to streamline the project," he says. CMA now mandates the use of the technology by all subcontractors who participate in In-Site-run projects and, Isaacson says, in most cases, he bills BidCom's fees back to his client.

Isaacson believes in In-Site. "Everything you say is recorded," he says, "so it demands a professional degree of accuracy. Those who don't trust their own proficiency and instead rely on bobbing and weaving will be less agreeable to using it. This will weed out the weaker players."

Inside the wood-paneled trailer at the dormitory construction site, superintendent Mike E. Erdman admits that after 30 years of scribbling out daily reports longhand, it may be too late for him to get used to filing them on a computer. He appreciates the benefits of a quick RFI turnaround, but for better or worse, he's stuck in his ways. "Doing this by computer is definitely a thing of the future," says Erdman, flashing a smile. "I guess I'm going to Mexico."

Andrew Raskin is a freelance journalist based in New York City.


A Project-Management Primer

Project management means making good on promises to customers, superiors, and investors. Joan Knutson, president and CEO of Project Mentors, a San Francisco-based consulting firm that, among other services, teaches project-management skills to companies large and small, believes that being able to honor commitments is an increasingly important competitive weapon for small businesses. "Companies with good project management can say, 'Not only do we have the best product or service, but we also have an organized process by which we can promise you it's going to be ready on time and on budget," says Knutson. She warns that the project-management functionality of some software packages is simply too much for most small companies and recommends an approach focused on three project-management principles:

  • Set milestones and "inch-pebbles." Milestones indicate when major deliverables are due. Break them into inch-pebbles--shorter time periods attached to well-defined interim results--so trouble can be spotted early on.
  • Schedule resources evenly. Small companies need to plan week-to-week assignments for people and equipment. Are there enough people and machines to handle peak periods? Most people willingly give for the Gipper, but eventually they burn out, causing productivity to plummet.
  • Communicate across functions and distance. When a project affects people in different departments, make sure everyone can--through a network or a human administrator--retrieve and update the complete task list. Use the Web to communicate deadlines, to keep an issue log that enforces accountability by letting everyone know who's responsible for resolving problems, and to track changes.

Expansion Plans
With a little creativity, project-management software can do a lot more than its name implies

Eric Stoop's goal is to keep his company growing. Stoop is CEO of Newport Trading, a securities-trading facility that caters to day traders--individuals who cash out their positions by the end of each day. Within six months of the company's November 1997 founding, monthly revenues from trading operations, which were climbing at a 25% rate, had reached $25,000. Some of Stoop's clients trade via the Internet, but most drive to his office, in Newport Beach, Calif., where they use the company's in-house trading stations. Since his office has room for only 15 stations, Stoop knew it would soon be "busting at the seams." But the to-do list for expanding the business--from negotiating new contracts to configuring additional hardware--was overwhelming. "There were so many contingencies that everything had to be done in a step-by-step order. I needed a road map."

To chart his company's growth, Stoop fires up TurboProject, a project-management package from IMSI. Back in April 1998, Stoop used TurboProject to lay out all the tasks necessary to double Newport Trading's capacity. For starters, he knew he'd need new suppliers. His broker-dealer--the company that executes trades--wasn't up for the expansion, and contracting with a new one meant obtaining price quotes, discussing clearing costs, and negotiating and then signing an agreement. Stoop entered those tasks into TurboProject, along with estimates of how much time they would take. With twice as much business he'd also need more office equipment--computers, phones, phone lines, and so on. So Stoop added tasks for bolstering infrastructure: pricing equipment, placing orders, and negotiating lease terms. The new hardware, Stoop knew, would never fit into the company's office. Which led him to enter a third set of tasks: finding a new site, signing a lease, and moving in.

Next Stoop defined dependencies between tasks. For example, he had to sign the lease before the company could move into its new space, and he needed to finalize a broker-dealer relationship before he could order signs. TurboProject's Gantt view uses a green bar to indicate the duration of every task, and to establish dependencies Stoop simply clicked on the bar for one task and dragged a line to another. The default dependency is "finish-to-start"--that is, the first task has to end before the next can start, but users can change that to start-to-finish or finish-to-finish. Once Stoop set all the dependencies, he entered the start date for his first task, and TurboProject did the rest.

The schedule showed that the expansion would be complete by September 1998, but because it took longer than expected to find the right site, the move was delayed two months. Still, by November the company was booking more than $2 million in revenues on an annualized basis. Stoop credits TurboProject with keeping him focused. "I've gone to it whenever I've felt overwhelmed," he says. "Now I'm near the end of my first road map, so I'll start over with a new one."


Popular Software

Work Scheduling and Tracking

Microsoft Project 98
Microsoft, $499

CA-SuperProject
Computer Associates, $455

SureTrak Project Manager
Primavera, $399

TurboProject 3.0 Professional
IMSI, $296

Web-Based Project Coordination and Communication

In-Site
BidCom, $45 to $75 a month per user per project, plus setup fee

ProjectNet
Blue-Line/On-Line, $1,250 per project per month

TRAQtix
Red Rock Software, $399 for five users, $20 for each additional user


Resources
Web Sites

Books

  • The Complete Idiot's Guide to Project Management, by Sunny Baker and Kim Baker
    Macmillan General Reference, 1998, $16.95
  • Critical Chain, by Eliyahu M. Goldratt
    North River Press, 1997, $19.95
  • The Deadline: A Novel About Project Management, by Tom Demarco
    Dorset House, 1997, $24.95

Conferences

  • ProjectWorld
    Boston, May 17-21, 1999, and
    San Jose, December 6-10, 1999
  • Project Management Institute's PMI '99
    Philadelphia, October 10-16, 1999