Project Management Rescue Tips – Smoke Jumping

Smoke Jumper Image 5

Every year, wildfires ravage huge areas of the world’s forest and grassland resources. One of the specialized tools employed to fight these wildfires in remote areas of Russia, Canada, United States, and a few other parts of the world, is a cadre of highly trained “Smoke Jumpers.” Smoke Jumpers and their equipment are deployed by parachute at the earliest stages of potentially dangerous fires. A Smoke Jumper team, deployed to the right area, at the right time, can significantly reduce the likelihood of a small fire becoming a big one.

The concept of using Smoke Jumpers can also be used effectively as a technique for helping troubled Projects in particularly sensitive business areas. By deploying a skilled team of Smoke Jumpers to assist the Project Manager at the first indications of execution problems, business leaders can significantly reduce the likelihood that “project trouble” will turn into “project failure”. In this blog post some tips on the “What”, “When”, “Who”, and “How” of using Project Management Smoke Jumpers.

Although I’ve had a fair amount of experience in doing this kind of work, I don’t claim to be an expert. I welcome the comments and ideas of others with relevant experience to enrich the discussion.

What is Project Management Smoking Jumping? – Project Management Smoke Jumping (PMSJ) is one of several intervention or rescue methodologies that can be used by business leaders and Project Managers to investigate and determine the causes of, and corrective and preventative actions for, emerging execution issues. PMSJ deployments are initiated and authorized by the Project Manager and Project Sponsor to remedy real or perceived issues in project execution performance. They are quickly planned, short duration (~ 1 week) efforts performed by a small ad hoc team, in collaboration with the Project Manager and Project Sponsor. Deliverables are: 1) a set of findings describing the causes and contributing factors for the observed issues; 2) a set of recommendations for short and long term corrective and preventative actions; and 3) a set of risks and opportunities related to the issue and corrective action plan.
When should the Project Management Smoke Jumping Process be used to intervene in a Project? -Project Managers and Project Sponsors should initiate the deployment of a PMSJ Team in the earliest stages possible of a potentially significant, emerging project execution issue. Picking a point at which to make an intervention isn’t easy and requires a good set project performance metrics, effective risk management and sound leadership judgment. Because the interventions have cost impacts, they should be used only on Projects for which failure could have significant business consequences. When possible, PMSJ’s should be conducted in conjunction with key project milestones. Using this approach, they can provide an additional, 3rd party input to the gated risk assessments that are typically conducted at these project milestones.
Who are the key stakeholders in Project Management Smoke Jumper process?
o The PMSJ Team is a small group (~3) of project management subject matter experts (SME’s) led by an acknowledged expert-level project manager. The SME’s should have experience in the planning and execution of projects, and training in the forensic science of project performance evaluations, and the arts of interpersonal communication. The PMSJ team leader should be a recognized project management expert with demonstrated interpersonal and leadership skills.
o The Project Manager and Project Sponsor play a key role in the PMSJ process. They detect the need for, and the type of intervention required, coordinate with the PMSJ process owner (PMO or equivalent) and authorize the resource expenditure. They brief the PMSJ team, support the investigative process and are responsible for the acceptance and implementation of corrective and preventative actions.
o Project execution issues frequently involve the effectiveness and efficiencies related to the supply chain. Supplier’s, who provide products and services to the Project under evaluation, must be included in the investigation and corrective action activities.
o Last, but not least, the PMSJ process must involve the Project customer. Often, the customer senses emergent project issues, even before the Project Manager is aware of them. Sometimes they even drive the request for an intervention. Customers must be included in all aspects of the PMSJ process.
How should a Project Management Smoke Jumping intervention be conducted?
o In some companies, the responsibility for the organization, training and deployment of PMSJ teams is assigned to a Project Management Office (PMO), which owns the project management process for the business. The PMO identifies and trains a cadre of project management SME’s who will be on call for short-term assignment to a PMSJ team. Business leaders should consider the building and sustainment of this project management SME cadre as an investment in the development of a specialized strategic reserve labor force. The PMO also identifies and trains project management experts to serve as team leaders. Some organizations elect to use retired expert-level project managers as consultant contract employees to lead these PMSJ’s. This prevents the disruptive effects of temporarily borrowing experienced project managers from their current assignments.
o Part of the risk management responsibilities of the PM is to prepare for the possibility of a PMSJ and should establish effective project metrics with meaningful PMSJ triggering criteria to ensure timely call-up of a PMSJ Team.
o Once the Project Manager and/or Sponsor become aware of a condition that should trigger an intervention, they contact the PMJS process owner to initiate an evaluation.
o The PMJS process owner selects a team leader and they collaborate in selecting the needed SME team members.
o The PMSJ Team is briefed by the Project Manager on the circumstances leading to the decision to initiate and intervention.
o The PMSJ Team leader and the SME members prepare a preliminary investigation plan which includes: the project management practices to be evaluated, the personnel to be interviewed, the documents to be checked, and the team timeline and work assignments and the communications and reporting plan.
o The initial ~40% of the PMSJ team period of performance should be spent in the interview of personnel and evaluation of relevant documents. Interviews must include all appropriate personnel including the PM, the Sponsor, the Customer, Project Team Members, and Project Suppliers. The interviews must be conducted so as to be non-threatening and un-biased, and offering anonymity for those requesting it. Facts are critical, but so are perceptions or feelings. The PMSJ team members need to skillfully gather both inputs. Based on the initial interviews, follow-ups may be required.
o The PMSJ must evaluate the Project Teams discipline, effectiveness and efficiency in the application of relevant project management practices, including, but not limited to such things as: Requirements Management (Completeness?, Stability?, Documentation?); Baseline Management (Established?, Change Control?); Planning & Scheduling (Complete?, Documented? Used to Manage?); Performance Measurement (Metrics? EVM?, Variance Mgt?); Risk Management (Plan?, Tracking?, Mitigation Plans?); Communications ( Frequency?, Timeliness?, Usefulness?, Team?, Customer?).
o Daily, short PMSJ team meetings to consolidate work completed, preliminary findings/recommendations, investigation plan adjustments.
o PMSJ briefs to Project Manager and Sponsor at the conclusion of the information gathering portion of the evaluation
o The PMSJ spends the next 40% of their period of performance to analyze, consolidate and document findings; identify the cause network for the project performance issues; discuss and formulate recommendations for corrective and preventative actions; and identify relevant risks and opportunities.
o The last 20% of the PMSJ period of performance should be spent in de-briefing the Project Manager, Sponsor, Project Team Members, Customers and Business Leaders on the findings, and recommendations. Just as with Smoke Jumpers putting out a fire, the PMSJ team must place particular emphasis on the immediate actions required to stop the current unfavorable performance trend and limit any further damage. Although the PMSJ may offer recommendations on long-term preventative actions, their primary job is to “quench the current fire.”
o The final responsibility of the PMSJ team, prior to their extraction, is to document and communicate to the PMO or business, the relevant “lessons learned” from their investigation that should be shared across the business to prevent similar issues from occurring on other projects.

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About donmcalister

I retired at the end of 2011, after a 39 year career in the Aerospace industry as an Propulsion Engineer, Engineering Manager and Program Manager. My professional interests and expertise is in the areas of Program, Risk and Knowledge Management. I'm passionate about life-long learning involving a wide variety of topics and I'm committed to sharing my knowledge and ideas with those who are interested. My primary hobby is performing jazz music. I'm a jazz keyboard player, and vocalist, and I'm on the Board of Directors of the non-profit Simi Valley Jazz Club, which is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of jazz music from the '20's through the 60's.
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3 Responses to Project Management Rescue Tips – Smoke Jumping

  1. Don, this concept resonates for me because I’ve experienced projects like wildfires and “ongoing” business which was also out of control. I’ve long described my work in these performance turnarounds as being like a corporate fire fighter. Aside from needed corrective and preventive actions, the lessons learned has been a large part of the value in my work of this sort and I was glad to see your explanations and recommendations.

    I think the greatest challenge remains in getting people – leaders and their organizations, to learn from the answers to the preventive questions. Organizations that lack constancy of purpose will see the same things reoccur again and again.

  2. tim higgins says:

    It might be interesting to figure out how knowledge of the distinction between common causes of variation and special causes could be applied to help aid in identifying the WHEN portion.

    Even if we figure out a way, it don’t propose that it be the sole determiner of WHEN to engage in smoke jumping.

  3. behrfacts says:

    Don, I think this a great analogy and sums up the actual tasks that many organisations require to bring a project back on track.

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