Part 1 - Delivering the e-Trolley project

The monthly project review meetings become a focal point for the project team. Every month and occasionally shortly before a major milestone, Anna gets Mike, Max, Sue and Jason together to review their e-Trolley Pilot project.

In most organisations these meetings are called progress meetings and it is not therefore surprising that these meetings are generally spent looking backwards and talking about how the team and the project arrived in its current state.  In some organisations, and then only if there is enough time, the last few minutes of progress meetings are spent talking about what is coming up in the near future. Guess which part of the meeting is more valuable.

Anna manages to overcome this and stick to the theory that whilst you can always learn from history you can only manage the work that remains to be done.

So she calls her monthly meeting a planning meeting and splits the agenda in two. Firstly each team member quickly runs through their achievements and problems since the last meeting. They are encouraged to mention problems and to be brief. In the second, and longer, part of the meeting, they all run through their actions, job lists and things to do in the near future. They plan ahead. This forward thinking approach is much more valuable and many problems are foreseen and overcome. The more time they spend on thinking ahead the less time they need for recriminations.

Sometimes discussions about recent problems spill over into talk about the future - about how they will deal with the problem. This is no problem as it is the future that she is mostly concerned about.

She uses the project plan and budget as a topic list for the meeting. She never forgets to plan the next meeting.

Anna brings doughnuts, cakes or tasty biscuits to the meetings in a brown bag so they become known as Anna’s brown bag meetings. They take about an hour and sometimes everyone wonders if it was worthwhile.

Sue expresses the sentiment in her own typical way. ’These meetings are kind of pleasant but a terrible temptation for my diet. Do we really need to spend an hour together like this? Wouldn’t we be more useful running our parts of the project?

Jason supports Anna by saying, ‘The month we don’t will be the month something goes wrong, no one notices and we let a major problem build up.’

Anna tries to find a balance between too many meetings where nothing much seems to need sorting out and too few meetings which could lead to issues left dangling and impromptu, unrecorded meetings springing up.

After each meeting Anna summarises the output into the monthly report she promised to deliver to Mike in the communications plan. This is brief and just compares the schedule and the budget in 5 lines at a high level. Then there is a paragraph or two outlining any problems and worries she and the team have.

At each meeting they run through the activities on the project bar chart checking off any that have been competed, reducing durations of activities where some progress has been achieved and drawing a fresh line down the bar chart to show the date the review was carried out. Some activities drift behind the schedule, some race ahead. Essentially they create a new plan from the date of the meeting to the end of the project once a month. Fortunately not much changes but they are able to predict the next few weeks with a fair degree of accuracy.

On the few occasions anyone bothers to look in the folder on the Albatross server that Max had set up to hold the project documents, they find that the risk register and project plan are being kept up to date, regular meetings are being held and the project is on schedule . Under the ‘project management’ agenda item Anna occasionally checks if there has been any movement on any of the risks. Fortunately for her risks tend to stay steady although their plans to mitigate the risks do change.

For example, Anna adds the risk of store staff not understanding the system and not following through with the pilot.

The mitigation for this risk is to set up the travelling support teams to help each store get up and running with the pilot. Another risk is that the stores forget about the pilot and find it too much bother. Another mitigation step is to ask for regular data from the market research company as the number of interviews will reflect the use of the trolleys.

One mitigation step is to remind each manager that this is Bob’s personal initiative and he might just pop round to check on progress at any time. Anna is shameless about using gentle blackmail and her senior management support to get results. Risks relate to work so they get marked as ‘closed’ as soon as the work has been done but they remain on the list.

Once the software system for the tills has been tested, the new software and WiFi receivers are ready to be installed on the few tills taking part in the pilot. A team arrives at the first store with a collection of the shiny new e-Trolleys already fitted with the barcode reader, display, batteries and WiFi unit. They glide like swans around the store (the trolleys, not the team who are chewing their fingernails nervously) giving no hint to the mad panic going on at the trolley factory where the same trolleys rolled out of the workshop the night before.

Jason drily observes, ‘There is a theory of project management called the swan theory. Everything sails beautifully and smoothly along above water whilst great ugly things are paddling like mad out of sight.’

Max is not about to be left behind, ’Do you also know the mushroom theory of project management? They leave you in the dark and shovel manure on you twice daily.’

The market research team are ready with their forms folded, biros rampant and fixed smiles resplendent. The smart new design of the trolleys and the fact the design team have created a smooth rolling trolley that actually goes where the driver tells it to go is a real bonus. Anna and her team accept the additional benefit the smoothly operating machine delivers despite having played no part in this additional bonus.

The staff are shown what to do and how to recharge the batteries overnight. They are given emergency phone numbers for help – Anna’s and Max’s mobiles.

Anna has taken an idea from the film industry called a ‘call sheet’ – an excellent way of orchestrating a complex single event. A call sheet tells everyone everything they need to know about one big occasion. It says who is going to be there and how and when they are supposed to arrive. Everyone is given jobs to do and objectives to achieve and equipment to bring. Anna has been thinking about this day for many a night and has ensured that Perfect Planning Promotes Polished Performance.

(There is a much ruder saying with a similar sentiment and the same acronym we shall avoid in this book. We’ll just say it includes the word prevents and performance).

‘Yet another great project management saying,’ chips in Anna who reads a lot, ‘project managers need luck, it is amazing how much luck goes to those that plan’.

And so the pilot implementation begins on a high note. The team move around the selected stores and get the system going. Bit by bit customers try the new trolley out and are interviewed for their views. The technology works most of the time. There are lengthy discussions about bags, boxes and how to get the shopping home in an easy way.

A few evenings and nights are spent away from home and these are rather tense and not at all relaxed as Anna, Jason and Max are often together all day and all evening as well.

Anna, Max and Jason visit the stores from time to time to monitor progress for themselves. This is a quiet time for

Anna as the project is under way and there is little she can do apart from worry. She tries not to forget those other jobs in parallel with the pilots like Steph’s reorganisation calculations.  She calls each store before they are due to start playing their role in the pilot to make sure they are prepared. Max is already involved in something else part of the time. The monthly meetings are a lot quieter as their major targets have been achieved and they feel strangely numb and aimless.

The project has reached a stage where everyone in the organisation seems to hold their collective breath. The big question in many people’s mind is this: it is politically wise to support this or not? Most wait for some time and then take a subtle peek at how the thing is going.

Eventually a few brave hearts will jump off the fence and either say it is a waste of money or ‘what a great idea’. Bit by bit, as with most high profile projects, more and people will clamber off the fence and form an ever growing group on one side or the other. This psychology can and frequently does make or break a project because success is always in the eye of the beholder. It is often subjective not objective.

As a project manager you can easily judge the general view. If you find yourself having pleasant meetings with ever more senior people you know things are OK. If more and more senior people start showing up signs are good.  If weeks pass by and you see or hear from no-one, apart from a few who come to shout at you, start scanning the classified job ads.

Jason and Anna find themselves visiting supermarkets with non-executive directors, PR and other senior people.

They arrange the article in the company newsletter and it raises some interest and loads of people visit the trial stores to see it the e-Trolley at work. Bob visits all the stores and that pleases the local management who get to meet him face to face.

Whilst slightly drunk one night in a hotel in Yorkshire, Jason tells Anna that he is gay and confesses to being a bit jealous of Anna and Max’s obviously close relationship.

Anna says, ‘Oh gawd. You’re kidding! Is every available male around here gay?’

She finds herself matchmaking between Jason and Max.

Of course there are other things to do.

Mike has at last managed to get enough information to the purchasing group to enable them to get some supplier research done on the weighing machines They do not seem able to come up with suitable devices which seem to fit everyone’s needs.

Mike trials various weighing devices and decides the ‘weighbridge’ is best of a bad bunch of solutions. His best idea is that every e-Trolley gets parked on a small weighbridge where any non-purchased items – babies, personal items and other stuff that goes into trolleys get parked on a counter therefore allowing the trolley with its contents to be weighed. Mike’s specification for this goes to Purchasing for some guide quotes but there are a significant number of risks. Mike puts it succinctly on one of his visits: ‘How can we expect any weighing device to be sensitive enough to notice a bag of crisps on a trolley laden with bottles of water and bottles of booze?’

Anna bumps into another problem with the purchasing boys. She does not have a formal relationship with them as they are outside the whole project structure. They do however know that this project is a high profile and that they are dealing with the great expert on weighing devices and also that the CEO is hovering in the background. These at least mean that they are prepared to spend some time on the project.

They take a cautious approach as their key motivation is make no mistakes and get everything totally right. They are scared silly of any mistake in the purchasing process including choosing the wrong supplier and not getting the paperwork in order. Their biggest fear is being blamed for the failure of the project.

Anna finds this very frustrating as she has a deadline agreed with the nominated retail stores that the pilot must not get too close to Christmas, their busiest time of the year. She feels a considerable time pressure which conflicts with the purchasing teams’ motivation to get everything in order.

‘They are not prepared to rush,’ Anna tells Jason, ‘in much the same way that a snail is not prepared to rush.’

This battle continues to cause a sore and is something Anna will remember in the future. Fortunately the weighing devices are not actually required for the pilot, something that Mike had not clearly explained, so the careful, totally accurate but late pricing and specification information does arrive before the big presentation that will bring the pilot to an end.

At one of the monthly meetings they discuss a random sampling process. The idea comes from one of the stores via Sue who talked to the psychologist employed by the company on a consultancy basis. She didn’t get a budget from Anna to use this person’s very expensive time for this but Anna lets her off as she has some spare budget left over.

She does point out that it would have been much better to ask for the budget first.

This random sampling process means that customers are told that they are free to just pay and go most of the time but a percentage of trolleys will be stopped for checking completely at random. The trolleys are apparently chosen by a computer so as not to suggest any suspicion but actually this will be trigger-able by security and check out staff as well as the computer. They agree that this might work as a security check in place of or as well as all the problematic weighing technology.

The psychologist suggests that getting a randomly sampled e-Trolley user to check out in the normal way is to raise expectations before dashing them. Customers might be miffed or feel insulted. She recommends that the random check idea should allow some management control them over the number of random checks. To improve relationships the psychologist recommends that customers selected for an e-Trolley check should still get special service, perhaps a very rapid, prioritised check out, the unpacking and repacking done for them as well as help out to their car.

The team discuss what to do when a random check finds someone who has purchased more goods than have been scanned. They decide in the end that they are not really ready to decide on this and recommend that the company’s security team get involved in this aspect, one that might well effect staff training.

They also talk about a process where the customer leaves a credit card with the e-Trolley check-out desk before picking up an e-Trolley. This makes the check-out process even quicker as the bill can be 100% ready when they arrive back plus it allows the store to recognise and stop repeated cheats.  Also knowing and recognising e-Trolley users is excellent demographic information. All this goes into the final report.


Part 2 – Anna’s assumptions about Steph’s work are wrong


Thanks to Geoff Reiss for contributing this book


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