Part 3 - The pilot finally gets going

Mike goes out and buys a remotely controlled boat and takes it to pieces. He is not as young as he was, by no means as dextrous or familiar with current levels of technology. The toy never works again and its contribution to the project ends just after eating up a little budget.

Max finds a portable hand held barcode reader with a USB port and sets up a private WiFi network in his office. After a little fiddling about, some head scratching and an enough acronyms to give Sue Denim apoplexy or severe deafness, the barcode reader communicates with Max’s laptop.

Max tries a little barcode scanning and successful transfers the data to his laptop so the link does in theory work. The scanner tries hard to comply but runs low on its in-built batteries long before a day’s work has been done. The experts laugh at this and annoyingly tell Max they could have told him that would happen. His need for guidance stops him from asking why they didn’t but they do rig up a larger remote battery on a length of cable that seems to work for a few days without help.

He realises that they didn’t tell him about the battery’s short life because he didn’t explain to them what he was trying to achieve. Or maybe he did and they didn’t understand it all. Perhaps, he later tells Anna, he should have avoided words with more than one syllable. Max and Anna actually take Max’s laptop and all the bits to a SpendItNow supermarket where they stroll about with a trolley filled with scanners, batteries and WiFi adapters to check that this part of it will all work in practice. They even make calls to each other’s mobiles and use MP3 players to check for interference. They realise that the trolley they have equipped with components lashed together with tape and string is actually the first e-Trolley. They call it Firstborn and take photos and visit the local pub to celebrate.

The result of all this is Max and Anna develop a reasonable level of confidence that a scanner hooked up to a WiFi connecter and a battery can be fixed onto a supermarket trolley

The next step is to get the tills to talk to the e-Trolley. Anna and Max try to remember that whilst this is all great fun and very much a part of the project, the speed at which it moves keeps it way off the critical path. It is lesson in project management – always check the things that you don’t enjoy talking about.

Dead on the critical path is the design work is going on to develop the modified cash register software to by-pass the normal scanning process and accept input from the external source. Fortunately the cash registers store their software locally so a modified version can be built and loaded onto the selected cash registers in the selected stores to run the pilot project. This design work eventually leads to a detailed specification, some programming, testing on the cash registers kept in the IT office at headquarters for this purpose and eventual acceptance. Under Max’s guidance this gets done within the required 3 months.

Also on a parallel critical path is the creation of the actual trolleys themselves. At a minimum these could be lashed up with string but Anna knows the psychological benefit that a smart, hi-tech looking trolley will have on both customers and colleagues alike.

She visits and charms their supplier who it turns out has a number of what they charmingly call third generation shopping handlers under test with a supermarket chain in Italy. They look the business, streamlined and smooth and very up to date. After some persuasion and the very formal signing of a mutual non-disclosure agreement she gets the supplier’s MD interested in the e-Trolley idea. He agrees to fit the scanner/battery/Wifi adapter onto some of his third generation shopping handlers in a suitable way and provide her with 60 trolleys on a test basis. Another success.

Sue is having an easy time as well. She reports back to the first monthly meeting like this:

‘I pressed the button on the process asking for volunteer stores using the form I prepared outlining the project and what its aims and objectives were. I mentioned the CEO’s interest in the project and, guess what, they nearly all applied! Some even apologised for being in the wrong demographic area! I later found that this kind of response was unusual but predictable as I used the CEO’s name. They all want to look good to the board you see. It seems that senior backing smooths a lot of wrinkles in this game.

‘Anyhow, I’ve selected six stores, three in high technology areas where credit card use is high – Slough, Windsor and Bracknell –plus three where, err, we sell more cigarettes, beer and packaged foods, where we might expect more of a challenge – Castleford, Portsmouth and Ross-on-Wye.’

‘I’ve drafted a briefing document for the management of the six stores explaining what we plan to do and how they should manage their part in the pilot. Did any of you think that we are going to have to train some staff in every store to show the shoppers how to use the new device? I think we are going to have to start one store at a time and send a few people to the store to help it start its own pilot. And those people will have to know what is going on themselves, right?  Anyways, let me have any comments on the briefing document – it’s on the Albatross server with the other project documents. Max, where to IT get these server names from?’

Without waiting got an answer Anna presses on, ‘I have made contact with a two nationwide market research organisations and sent them a brief outlining our needs. I expect a couple of market researchers in each store two random days per week running through a short questionnaire with each e-Trolley shopper and some who refuse to use the e-Trolley as well.  We need to think about what we need to know from the customers so that the market research companies can supply us with a feedback report at the end of the pilot.’

‘Finally I wrote a draft press plan to announce the whole programme if we ever go ahead with it. The Albatross server is looking after that as well.’

‘Brilliant’, says Anna

‘Monty Python’, says Max.

‘Pardon’, says everyone but Max.

‘That’s where the server names come from – old Monty Python TV shows – Albatross, Gannet, Lumberjack, Parrot.’

‘I knew there was something wrong with IT people – I blame the pizzas’, says Sue.

At each of these monthly meetings a short report is prepared and circulated to the project team and key stakeholders. The report includes an update to the schedule, risk register and budget. Right now Anna’s management reserve, inspired by Jason, is looking good.

Jason is getting stranger and stranger. Jason and Anna no longer spend their lunchtimes together partly because Anna and Max spend the few lunchtimes when they are both in the office together and also because Jason is running a project of his own and finding that actually running a project is much harder that pontificating about it.

Anna’s view is that Jason is getting positively rude towards her and Max for reasons she can only guess at. She realises that she may have to tackle him on this but feels their relationship would not permit such a thing. She thinks he might be jealous of her super smooth project. She has a heart to heart talk with Max about all sorts of things over a bottle of wine. Max opens up to Anna for the first time and tells her that he is gay but is not in a relationship at the moment. He too has noticed the way Jason is reacting and finds it very odd.

Anna is a tad disappointed with Max’s revelation but it does clear up their relationship and she understands why she has felt so comfortable with him and why he has never made a pass at her. A new level of understanding and friendliness opens up for them.

In Barcode City things are not going so well. Steph runs her team well and in a very supportive way. They are used to getting involved in projects of all kinds especially working with IT and they all do timesheets to report their time which go to Steph in a consolidated form. These tell her who is and who is not doing timesheets and how they are spending their time.

She holds regular team meetings with her direct reports and at one of these meetings outlines their role in the e-Trolley project and asks one of her team to get someone to do some calculations on the numbers of items that will need to be weighed each week and therefore the number of people the team will need both at start up and thereafter for normal maintenance. They talk about a gadget that reads the barcode, weighs the item and updates the database automatically.

At her meeting with Max and Mike they had outlined the one-off weighing terminals the new team would need and they agreed that this would go in the IT part of the report. She agreed to tell Max how many terminals she will need once she has a head count of the new team. Mike’s expertise in weighing becomes useful at last when he explains they will need different devices for different types of goods.

‘You really can’t expect one machine to weigh packets of crisps and a carton of a dozen bottles of wine, you’ll need a few different machines.’

Steph realises that she is going to have to spend some time with Human Resources to get their feel for the sort of people she will need in the new team and with the Facilities team as they will need somewhere to work with Mike’s range of weighing devices. She will take bets that HR need her to talk about the induction process for the new people and their training needs.

Steph makes notes to attend to these jobs.

But things conspire against the project. Firstly Steph has a problem with her PC causing a loss of data including her ‘to do’ list which included the jobs she decided ‘to do’ for Anna. When the problem is solved by IT the recovered files do not contain Anna’s jobs. They get forgotten. To make matters worse the person who got asked to do the calculations on the team size was taken ill and no one remembered that he was supposed to be doing that work. As the weeks passed by nothing gets done in Steph’s department that was likely to help move Anna’s project forward. No one even noticed that the work wasn’t being done and therefore no warnings reached Anna that there was going to be a problem.

Anna was pretty busy herself with the other parts of the project including the shiny new e-Trolleys for the pilot and this took all or most of her mind and time. She was in her comfort zone and getting on with some work she really enjoyed and that would make her look good when the time came. Just occasionally she noticed that line on her bar chart titled: prepare report on weighing data implications’ but she didn’t actually get round to checking in with Steph.

One of the reasons she fails to check with Steph is that she doesn’t know how to phrase the question. The work in Steph’s team is summarised into one, 3-month bar in Anna’s plan. There were no intermediate milestones to audit, no check points and no lower level activities. This meant that a progress check could only be in very general and vague terms. Anna thought that a vague question like ‘how is it going’ was too unprofessional by half and she didn’t feel like asking it. So she shies away from the problem, subconsciously hoping that the work is going ahead.

As the days and weeks pass by, and due to a little accident, some illness and an oversight this part of the project drifts further and further behind schedule. And no one even notices. Lateness is something we all have to live with as long as it comes to light early. Hidden lateness – the lateness that comes to light late is inexcusable and much harder to handle.

Early warning is OK, late warning of lateness is really bad.

Anna has made the classic mistake of not checking up on the things she doesn’t like working on. Later, she will hope that Jason doesn’t find out.




Thanks to Geoff Reiss for contributing this book


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