Sunday, July 27, 2008

My Failed Project, and Lessons Learned

I'll probably come up with a couple more posts about my contracter before this is all over, he's finally back in touch and doing some work for us. It's always interesting having him around, especially when I can reflect on how work we do with him can relate to good or really bad project management.

This time I might as well take the blame.

We asked Fernando to install two wall unit air conditioners in each of our daughters small and stuffy rooms. For reasons I wont go into, window unit A/C's were not an option and fans weren't cooling down the rooms enough (nothing like getting woken up at 2am by a very sweaty baby, I felt terrible about it and we had to fix it as soon as possible).

So, what went wrong? Well, the air conditioners were cemented into the walls and put through to the back, but without a sleeve to hold them. So, two big problems here - the mechanics in the back of the A/C are exposed and not protected by the elements, and there is no easy way to remove the A/C if and when it breaks down. How did this big (expensive) mistake happen? A serious of bad decisions...

Let's start with the purchase of the appliances. My husband (who is a wonderful father and very intelligent and talented in his field of English Literature, but not exactly a handy fixit kindof guy) went to buy the wall units. Ideally we would have went online beforehand and picked out exactly what we wanted and done the research to help us figure out what accessories we needed, but we didn't.

Mistake #1: Lack of research & planning.

We rushed to get the A/Cs so that Fernando's guy could install them ASAP, and before the next brutal heatwave. Apparently wall units are sold without the sleeves, because they assume you might already have one in the wall. So, the sales guy was happy to sell us the A/C, but when my husband asked if he needed anything else, the guy said absolutely not.

Mistake #2: Bad communication and transfer of knowledge (assuming that the sales guy knew exactly what our situation was and would know enough to make the right recommendations).

So, we purchased two nice new wall unit A/Cs and brought them home (without the sleeve, of course). Fernando came by to look it over and raised the red flag. He said we bought the wrong thing, these were without a sleeve and we could not put them into the wall without one. I think it was morning when we came to this realization, and I was juggling getting the girls dressed and fed and getting my own stuff together so that I could get everyone where they needed to be and myself to work on time, and had not planned for this little hitch in my schedule. So, I wasn't focusing enough on the problem and trusted that Fernando would be able make everything ok. We looked through the box and took out all the pieces. I asked Fernando if there was any way to make it work, or what we should do. He said he'd figure something out. Sounded good to me... I dashed downstairs, fed the girls and got us all out the door.

Mistake #3: Rushing the schedule and not taking the time to properly reflect on the issue at hand and manage the new risks of the project.

So, Fernando's guy (who is an electrician by trade and not an A/C installation expert) started working on putting the holes in the wall. Within a couple of days the units were in the wall. The units were cemented back in, so no chance of anything sliding out. When I went to look at the work that was done, it was only then that I realized how important that sleeve was, because I saw the 3-4 inches of mechanics exposed in the back of the A/C. I asked Fernando if this was going to be a problem and he said only in the winter. So, he promised to get it covered by winter.

The next day my neighbors (one of whom is an expert in heating & air conditioning I have recently learned) raised about 10 red flags and told me that we needed to cover that A/C as soon as possible, before the first rain. So, now I have my contractor (who I've trusted for many years) telling me one thing and our neighbors (who we also trust) telling me another. I'm just using common sense here and figuring my neighbor is probably right. Another issue that my neighbor mentioned and I'm kicking myself for not realizing sooner is that if we ever needed to remove the unit, we'd have to break through all that concrete. Without a sleeve, there's no easy way to get the units out of the wall.

So, what was the end result? We cut our losses and decided that rather than remove both units from the wall now to put in a sleeve (and risk breaking the new units while separating from the concrete), we'd cover the exposed parts of the units and 5-10 years from now (hopefully not sooner) when they break down for good, we'll break the concrete and put the sleeves in.

I regret not spending more time to properly think the whole process through and expecting that each player would know exactly what to do. At this point I'm just keeping my fingers crossed that the units aren't damaged by the rain we've had in the last couple of weeks and we can atleast salvage our investment.

The bright side is that I learned some great lessons. I try to be super careful with planning, risk management and communication with the software projects I manage from 9 to 5 (I only wish it was from 9 to 5!) but maybe it's time to be more careful with the stuff that happens after 5.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

If only I could work with my outside contracts the same way the NY DOT does

Anyone who's run a project with an outside vendor or freelance, contract worker, or third party application knows that it's best to plan alot of buffer into the schedule because anything that could go wrong, probably will. I've learned this the hard way a couple times, from communication breakdown, to technical difficulties, to technical difficulties caused by communication breakdown. It would be so much easier if everyone working on your project was working under the same roof, on the same schedules, with the same work style, etc.

But, if this were the case than project management wouldn't be so much fun!

We worked with an outside vendor on the west coast last year and the only way I was able to get them to respond to my email was to mark them high priorty with the red exclamations, and make sure all relavant parties were copied. Kindof annoying, I know...but it worked.

If only I could work with my outside contracts the same way that the street crew works with theirs...

So, its finally time for my street to get repaved. They've been putting up signs for the last week, letting us know when we can and can not park on the street. Yesterday they did the block west of me and this morning was time for my block. Now, the residents of my neighborhood who own cars and park them on my street are like outside 'contracters' who can have a direct impact the schedule & progress of the street paving project. At 7am this morning there were still a few cars parked on my block, so immediately the street paving project was delayed. Within a few minutes, we hear out the window, very loud announcements from a truck with a megaphone attached "Good Morning. Please remove your car from Chester Avenue. If you do not remove your car we will have your car towed and issue you a ticket."

What I love most is not the threat, but the way it was delivered. I happened to have been awake already because I have young kids who got me up at 5am, then again at 6:20am, but for those who have a bit more time to sleep in the morning, to be woken up by loud annoucements from the street is just beautiful. This reminds me of my camping days, when the evil counselors would yell at the kids or find some way to be really obnoxious to get them out of bed (of course I never did that as a counselor, I was very nice).

I looked out the window while the truck was going by, and saw a nice big smile on the driver's face. You know he was just loving this job, I bet he was once one of those evil camp counselors. If only I could use these same tactics to keep my outside vendors on schedule and communicating regularly. But, they probably wont ever want to work with me again...

(ps - this is not to say all outside contracts are bad, I happen to be working with one now who is totally on schedule and even more ahead of the game than the rest of us are...maybe he'd like to use the megaphone on us!)

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Everything I learned about (what not to do in) Project Management, I Learned From My Contractor

Well, let me preface all this by saying that my contractor Fernando is the most wonderful person in the world, and we have worked with him for years now and (almost) never regretted it. He's bent over backwards for us when we really needed him, rushing to finish up our bathroom renovations in our old apartment so that when I was coming home from the hospitol with my first child I could have a finished bathroom to use. Then he came back late at night to fix the bathroom floor when I (in my drunken, sleepless new mother state) stepped on the still drying tiles and messed them up.

That said, if he was to be my mentor when I started out as a PM, I probably wouldn't be a PM anymore. Let's start from the beginning...

The Estimate
I called Fernando because I wanted to have him walk around the house with me and show him 4 things I wanted an estimate for. He stopped by and I showed him the 4 things needing work:
- installing a storm door
- fixing a leak & ceiling damage in a side room
- installing a cabinet & counter around a dishwasher (we couldnt afford the cabinets last year, just the dishwasher and wood box around it)
- making holes in the wall in my daughter's rooms and installing wall unit A/C's

He didn't write anything down, but I did (it was the PM in me nudging). I called him up 2 weeks later and he gave me my price. He gave me one number, no ranges, no conditions, no specifics about the deliverables, just the flat price. When I asked about specifics of the 4 deliverables, he broke down the work estimates for me. He didn't specify whether the price covered labor and materials (which burned me in the past because I assumed that the price covered materials and I was wrong). He didn't mention how the cost might change if the wall was harder to bust through then he expected (its a 100+ year old rowhouse, needing repairs), just gave me the flat fee.

I remember from my PMP class that this is one type of contract, which can be very beneficial to the buyer but can be dangerous to the seller.

The Schedule
Ok, so anyone who has a contracter knows that they are completely unreliable and if they show up 2 of the 5 days of the week then we should be grateful. Fernando and his team are the same way at times. So, I've stopped asking how long something will take, because I think it will just get done when it's done and I have no idea when that will be. He does good work, so in the end that's most important to me. Fernando doesn't exactly know about the triple constraint, but as long as he does good work I don't bug him about it (so much).

Change Control

..or lack thereof really. Fernando is so nice, he will let us take advantage of him sometimes. When he's in the house doing work, I'll say "Fernando, can you take a look at ___ or ___ ". And he will, and he'll help us out with other stuff, but what he really should be saying is "I can help with this, but it will have this impact on the schedule of the current work I am doing for you and will affect the cost of the labor by this." Not that I'm complaining really, but I know not to adopt this process when I manage my projects!

Revising Estimates in Project Execution

Last year we needed Fernando to redo all of our electrical wiring because it was more than 50 years old and in dire need of replacement. We got our price quote (7K) and his electrician started his work. This guy was just as unreliable as Fernando, and came maybe 2-3 days a week. When he was there, he worked pretty slow (not that I'm complaining so much, electrical stuff should be done carefully!). The entire work effort took about 5 months, and throughout the project the electrician asked for installments of the 7K because he was running low on supplies. It seemed to me that all of the money was going to supplies, what was going to labor? They never asked me for more than 7K, but it started to seem like they severaly underestimated the work and were totally losing money on the job. Maybe this is why they only came half-time, they were putting their time into more profitable jobs. In hindsight, I kindof wish that Fernando would have come back to me and said its going to take 12K and this will ensure the project will complete more quickly and efficiently, and my employees will get the compensation they deserve. Not that I love throwing money into projects, but that's what home equity loans are for!

Fernando's business is thriving, he does great work and he's always got projects lined up. So, obviously he must be doing something right. We probably shouldn't expect our contracters

to follow PMBok, but maybe some happy place in between might be ok.

Maybe it's just my contractor, who knows!