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Early warning systems are critical

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by Stephen Bauld last update:Aug 28, 2014

PROCUREMENT PERSPECTIVES - The creation of an early warning system and a smooth flow of information can be critical to most aspects of any organizational operation.
Stephen Bauld
Stephen Bauld

The creation of an early warning system and a smooth flow of information can be critical to most aspects of any organizational operation.

A major capital project is no different in this respect. Project managers should watch out for potential problems and learn to identify them as they begin to arise.

Problems with people, structures and relationships rarely occur suddenly — they develop gradually.

They are for the most part, easy to fix at the beginning but hard to recognize.

Once they become serious, however, they are easy to recognize, but hard to fix.

Very often problems from an inadequate decision making process have not been modified to meet the special requirements of many larger scale projects.

Often the types of problems that arise within a major capital project will require quick decision-making, funding and procurement decisions.

Slow processes can make the design of a system obsolete by the time final approval is obtained, i.e., before implementation even begins.

Unnecessary restrictions need to be eliminated or streamlined wherever possible.

One of the most valuable techniques in identifying problems early is to set a large number of specific task goals that are tied to particular dates.

If the tasks are completed on time, then there is no emerging problem. If work is not complete, there is an immediate warning that something may be amiss.

If there is a clear goal, then either it has been achieved or it has not. It’s a black-and-white, binary proposition.

Care must be taken in setting goals that represent real milestones.

Vague and imprecise statements of intent, such as “write some instructional documentation”, are complete the moment they are begun, because any amount of effort, no matter how incomplete, constitutes “some instructional documentation.”

Where the task is well defined and relates to a measurable and significant event or the supply of an identified deliverable, then the goal affords real evidence as to the progress that is being made.

For example: “deliver a complete user guide and technical manual” is much more useful as a goal because it affords a clear measure of success.

The only time the task is complete is when the documents are written, have been reviewed and edited and are ready for publication.

Regular meetings of the project team are an important component of the early warning system.

Before the meeting, the project manager should undertake a detailed project review, carefully considering all the tasks that need to be completed in the next three to six weeks, and assessing how close they are to reaching the specific goal.

By doing so, the project management team may identify issues that need to be discussed during the meeting.

The agenda for the meeting should focus on those areas of concern, so as to get the input from all participants.

If decisions need to be made at the meeting, the project manager should confirm that a person with the authority to make the necessary decisions attends the meeting.

In addition to this process of emerging crisis management, the project manager should compare the project’s current status with the original project plan.

It is important to ensure that meetings are not too long and to make sure of the efficient use of the participant’s time.

To confirm the decisions that have been made, a meeting report should be circulated within a reasonable period (e.g., within 24 hours of the meeting), recording (if nothing else) the list of decisions that were made and actions to be taken.

I am often told that municipalities do not have the staff to do this kind of extra work. My answer is always the same - it is easier to do the work on the front end, than trying to figure this out when the project is over.

Stephen Bauld is Canada's leading expert on government procurement. He can be reached at stephenbauld@bell.blackberry.net. Some of his columns may contain excerpts from The Municipal Procurement Handbook published by Butterworths.

last update:Aug 28, 2014

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