Thursday, August 14, 2014

PERT: Micromanagement vs. Engaging Management

By Alexander Laufer and Jeffrey Russell 

In the previous blog entry we learned about a well-known and successful project where PERT (Program Evaluation and Review Technique) served as a key tool, not to manage the project, but rather to manage the external world. In our current blog we present two examples where PERT was used to manage projects, yet in two fundamentally different ways.

Micromanagement: Scheduling the Donuts1

Following is a story from Brian Rutledge who served as the project Financial Manager in the U.S. Air Force. He describes one episode that took place under the first project manager of JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile):

“The project manager demanded that we keep meticulous schedules of our daily activities. He wanted to know what I was doing every day down to the smallest detail. This applied to all of the leads on the program.

I was responsible for putting together the affordability portion of the Request for Proposal, and it was one other person and I working with five companies. To prepare a schedule as it pertained to five companies on a daily basis was a terrible burden. I was spending more time documenting my activities than doing my actual work.

This came to a head one Friday at a 6 P.M. meeting. Someone put up his schedule on the overhead. The next week we were going to have an Industry Day, where the companies would all send representatives to Eglin Air Force Base. The schedule on the overhead included a line that said, ‘Drive to the bakery, pick up donuts.’ The deputy project manager commented that this was exactly what he wanted to see in our schedules.

It may have been because it was a Friday night—the end of a long week—and I was beat; but when I heard him say this I stood up and declared that it was the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard. ‘If you want me to write down when I go to get donuts,’ I said, ‘I’ll never get to the finish line.’

Yes, you need a schedule, but you also need to be reasonable. It was no surprise that the project manager was unable to make meaningful progress and was replaced several months later.”

Engaging Management: Placing the Chart on the Side of a Large Container2

The following story is from Ray Morgan, who was the Vice President of AeroVironment Design Development Center, and the project manager of Pathfinder, a solar-powered airplane.

“From the standpoint of communicating the overall picture of what needs to be done, when and why, to the project team and our customers, the PERT chart is extremely helpful.

We put our chart on the side of a large container right in the hangar, next to the flight test crew and the airplane. When posted, it is a valuable, graphic depiction of the work plan, interdependencies, milestones, and people on the critical path (as well as which ones may need help). It also allows the team to mark it up interactively, adding tasks that come up and checking-off tasks as they are completed. We usually incorporate these changes into a computer model and reprint it once or twice a week during flight tests.

The chart is much more than window dressing, as we often refer back to it in team meetings to help redefine the importance of a current task and to see how it fit into ‘the big picture.’ This becomes a critical tool for the team. Enthusiasm for accomplishing the next goal is reborn each time we view the graphics on our wall.”

In the first example, the PERT was used to micromanage and control the team while in the second example it was used to engage and empower it. These two stories call our attention to the fact that the impact of the same tool may be completely different and will be determined by the purpose and the process of using it.

  1. Laufer, A., Post, T., & Hoffman, E. J. (2005). Shared voyage: Learning and unlearning from remarkable projects, The NASA History Series, Washington, DC, page 87.

  1. Laufer, A., Post, T., & Hoffman, E. J. (2005). Shared voyage: Learning and unlearning from remarkable projects, The NASA History Series, Washington, DC, page 160.