How I Learned to Balance the Project Vital Signs

PM ChangeAgent Commentary

I named the key project factors of Time, Cost, Scope, Talent, Risk and Quality the Project Vital Signs nearly thirty years ago. I named them to evoke the signs one measures in the Emergency Room at a hospital, not measure if the patient was dead yet, but to determine whether he or she was improving. My rationale: Effective project managers use those factors to manage for success, not just to identify when the project failed. But I did not originally learn the importance of balancing those Vital Signs in the project world; instead, I learned it in a number of early formative experiences. This article is about one of those experiences.

Growing Up In the Cherry Capital of the World
I grew up in The Dalles, Oregon, the fresh dark red, ripe, sweet cherry-producing capital of the World. Other competitive regions included Italy, California, and Michigan, but our orchards produced the largest, richest-flavored cherries. They were so much in demand, that flights to Paris would next-day deliver our cherries to such noteworthy gourmet places as Fauchon. One part of our packing process was to box the cherries in elegantly foiled and lined wooden boxes, so they made a classy image in the shops. And one of the choicest jobs, once I turned 18 years of age, was to be one of the workers who made those boxes.

The box-making process involved standing at a large, noisy machine, and following these steps:

  1. Insert two ends (called heads) and one side into the machine, and push the nailing pedal. A large mechanical device containing the hammers would rapidly descend and nail the parts. Caaarrrunch!
  2. Flip the box over and place the lid on the assembly (the boxes were filled from the bottom, with the top several rows carefully arranged by packers, the goal being, when opened, the customer would see exquisitely-perfect rows of artfully placed cherries). Press the nailing pedal; caaarrunch, went the machine.
  3. Flip the mostly-assembled box to its final position, add the last side, push the pedal; caaarrrunnch!
  4. Place the finished box on the slanted track behind me, where four people added the foil, cardboard, and poly liner, while I began to repeat the cycle.

Those four steps required 6-10 seconds for each box. You made 300-600 boxes per hour, and one or two people worked full-time just to supply the boards (called shook), and replenishing the nails. Because this was piecework, I was paid by the successfully completed box. In an era when minimum wage was around $1.50 per hour, I had the potential to make $18 per hour.

Understanding Performance
When I began box-making, there were legendary heroes, who were faster than anyone else. They would work 50 minutes, producing 600 boxes in the 100-110 degree Summer heat of The Dalles, take a 10 minute break, and then continue that cycle, for 8 hours straight. So I decided, in my ambitious youth, to meet and exceed their performance.

My first discovery was that if I worked too fast, I produced too many defective boxes. A defect could be one side that was slightly out-of-position; or, it could be a box that was severely damaged. I was paid only for the good ones, and I was penalized 10x as much for the defects. My first day I spent 8 hours making boxes, and another 8 hours cleaning up most of my mistakes. That was my first glimmering of the importance of balancing the Time/Cost/Quality trade-offs. Slowing down just a bit nearly doubled my throughput.

Then came the process analysis. Of course, we didn’t call it that back then. But my Dad was an inventor, and a natural process engineer. So I applied things I’d learned from him. My hands were moving faster than a casual observer could see; of course, I could see exactly where they were, and I had ample spare time to observe the bottlenecks in the process. So I experimented with all the ways to optimize the process. There were several lagging points, each an opportunity for improvement:

  • As my speed increased, the latency between pushing the pedal and the nailing hammers hitting the box soon became a bottleneck. I adapted by pressing the nailing pedal before the parts were in place, so there was no lag. Delicate timing, but worthwhile in performance improvement.
  • The path of the “shook” (the boards) was from the left and right concurrently, but involved an inefficient right angle. You bring the shook from left and right, to your chest (or waist, for the taller men), then insert the parts straight forward, into the machine. I began experimenting with a straight path directly under the hammers, with no right angles. This was much faster, although together with pressing the pedal early, it added significant Risk. But I still have all my fingers (there were, however, several split-second recoveries).
  • Between slowing down a bit, then implementing these improvements to speed back up, I was able to more than double my throughput. But that caused new problems. The other six people on the team were paid by the hour; I was paid by the error-free box. There was no incentive for them to keep up with my pace. So all too often, in Step 4, when I placed a completed box on the track behind me, there were still 1-3 boxes in the way; they could not keep up. Yet my rhythm required that the pedal come down again in about 2 seconds. This distraction created new defects. To solve that problem I had to learn how to lead, create excitement, and reward others. My learning to develop the talent and excitement of others was even more powerful than learning how to balance the more-common of the Vital Signs.

This was just one of the Summer jobs that I performed, working my way through College. When my box-making shift was over, some nights I would drive the semi, with its 45-foot trailer, eighty miles down the Columbia River Gorge to the Portland fruit markets, arriving before dawn, winding that big semi through the narrow streets, delivering a load of fresh cherries, then heading 80 miles back home to get some sleep before my next box-making shift. From this experience I learned the benefits–and risks–of working day and night to get the job done. Fresh fruit has a narrow window of opportunity before it goes over-ripe, then rotten; just as with projects.

Relating the Vital Signs Balance to Projects
I never did achieve the consistent performance of the best, but this experience, at a young age, ingrained in me a number of key lessons about balancing trade-offs that I have applied ever since. Some of those lessons were painful, but only physically so. For example, the constant rapid handling of the shook would wear off all my fingerprints within two days. Soaking in water brought them back temporarily, but I was worn all the way down to raw flesh within a week. So I adopted thin leather gloves. They also wore quickly, but not as painfully. The trade-off: It slowed me down a bit, but a bit slower for six weeks was better than no fingertips remaining after one week.

There are strong parallels, and significant differences between the process world and the project world, especially in understanding the balance in what I call the Project Vital Signs. I understand that Talent is the most powerful Vital Sign to manage. In the years after my box-making experience, as I finished college, I got a job first as a programmer, then business systems analyst; I honed my process analysis and Talent development repertoire. And as a Project Manager, then as a Manager, I continued to practice those skills, and helped instill them in others.

At an early age, I had the opportunity to understand the balance between too fast and fast enough; a quality result, that also captures speed; the costs of unrewarding haste; and the benefits of getting others excited about achieving high performance. I also learned how to perform while evaluating and fine-tuning my efforts, and those of others. I learned how to ebb and flow; to keep focus and intensity for extended periods; and then to totally relax and quickly recoup. In fact, the above story, and the learning I gathered from the experience, clearly helped me in my Sports Car Racing 12 years later. But you will have to read that story on the ProjectExperts website.

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