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From the Sponsor’s Desk: The Zero Defect Project

Change invariably spawns problems. Hopefully they’re small and can be fixed quickly and inexpensively. But sometimes the problems encountered are doozies that disrupt normal, day-to-day operations. The bigger the change, the greater the risk of business disruption.

So, we spend considerable amounts of time, effort and energy trying to detect and eliminate problems before things go live, perhaps as much as 30% to 40% of the total project budget. But, do we aspire to zero defect projects? Usually not. They’re perceived to be just too expensive.

However, in this post, we’ll look at a project that had too many high-risk elements: minimal sponsor involvement, limited business support, a high percentage of contract business analysts, developers and testers, sketchy and evolving specs and a little used offshore testing group. A recipe for disaster? Potentially! The co-project managers on the project in question, one for the business changes, one for the software development portions, decided the only way they could mitigate the mountain of risks was to deliver a zero defect project. And they did!

Thanks to R.R. for sharing this story.

The Situation

This financial services company was challenged, like every other company in the sector, with implementing changes in their processes and systems to support the Dodd-Frank legislation. The Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was signed into federal law by President Barack Obama on July 21, 2010. It was passed in response to the underlying causes of the worldwide recession in 2008-2009. It made changes in the American financial regulatory environment that affected all federal financial regulatory agencies and almost every part of the nation’s financial services industry.

The Goal

The CEO challenged the executives responsible, the CFO and CIO, to make the necessary changes to comply with the Dodd-Frank legislation. Because there was no return on investment for the company, other than avoiding the financial penalties for non-compliance, he urged them to implement the changes as quickly and inexpensively as possible. The CEO assigned a budget of $1 million to get the job done.

The Project

The CFO and CIO met to plan their approach and get the project launched and out of their hands. Their first step was to secure a project manager to guide the effort. Working with the PMO Director, they selected two PM’s – one from the PMO’s internal pool to guide the business change and a contract PM with extensive experience in the financial services sector to look after the IT changes.

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When the two PM’s were on board, they met and attempted to develop a project plan and an organization to carry it out. They ran into challenges immediately:

  • While the Dodd-Frank legislation had been passed, the detailed regulations were still under development.
  • The CFO and CIO, the two key sponsors of the initiative, weren’t interested in being involved and helping out.
  • The business managers who were needed to make decisions about the changed operational processes and practices weren’t interested in participating.
  • There were few in-house business analysts and developers available to the project.
  • The resource available for test planning and execution did not have a great reputation and was based offshore.

Fortunately, the PM’s found that they were in sync when it came to running a project. They had relied on similar practices, tools, and techniques to get the job done in past assignments. They also agreed that the only way they were going to pull off a successful delivery was to do everything they could do to deliver a zero defect project. By focusing on detecting and removing defects during the analysis, design, development and testing stages, they felt they could conquer the risks they were facing. So, the PM’s decided to apply a number of best practice approaches in an attempt to mitigate the ever-present risk:

  • They broke the project into three releases based on their understanding of the readiness of the legislative regulations and the areas of the business that were impacted.
  • Unfortunately, the last release was still humongous, so they planned twenty-one parallel development stages in that release to simplify it and buy some time.
  • Because three-quarters of the business analysts and developers and the majority of the testers would be contract resources, they included extensive time to train everyone. The training covered the Dodd-Frank legislation and evolving regulations as it pertained to the project. It included examination and dry run execution of the existing business processes and systems that would need to be changed. It also included workshops on the project organization, the project plan, and the project management and development environments, tools and practices.
  • As well, the business staff would need training on the new and revised business processes and systems. Because the business managers who normally looked after training on process changes within their organizations were reluctant to become involved, development and delivery of that training material fell to the project. Lack of business subject matter expert availability and involvement simply increased the urgency.

The two PMs wanted everyone on the team to have as broad a knowledge of the project context as possible and encouraged everyone to record and escalate issues or concerns as they surfaced. They also adopted two key operating principles to control and overcome the risks:

  1. Once Around and Up Together – if a problem or issue was encountered, they would take one shot at resolving it within the team. If they couldn’t resolve it quickly, it would be escalated to the appropriate business manager with all affected parties involved.
  2. Hard on the Problems, Gentle on the People – if things went wrong, the team would focus on resolving the problem and supporting the individuals involved. There would be no finger pointing, just solution focused effort and congratulatory slaps on the back when the problem was resolved.

Managing the project was a shell game. Planned activities often had to be rescheduled because supporting regulations weren’t yet available. That meant reassigning staff, adjusting dependent activities and keeping everyone informed. The two PMs operated in lock-step, essentially co-managing the entire project. Each knew the full project spectrum. Decisions were always collaborative and consensual.

The business PM was the face of the project to the business, and he was often in the business’s face. When a decision was required, he would charge the accountable business manager with the responsibility and give him a day. If the problem wasn’t resolved in the day, the business PM would escalate to the next level up. It was aggressive. There was conflict. On occasion, mediation through Human Resources was required. But it worked. Decisions were made quickly.

The business PM was also the decision maker when it came to change requests. Because the sponsors had minimal interest in carrying out their sponsorship responsibilities and the business managers wanted no part of the project, the business PM made the call on each change request. If a business manager couldn’t demonstrate how a particular change was necessary to comply with the Dodd-Frank regulations, the change was rejected. Over 230 change requests, many of a pork-barrel nature met that fate.

The business PM also used a strong arm approach to secure the subject matter experts from the affected business areas to develop the test scenarios. The scenarios were the bedrock on which the offshore testing organization would build the comprehensive test case suite. The Once Around and Up Together principle worked beautifully here.

The offshore testing group developed over 2600 test cases to cover system, integration and user acceptance testing. The cases helped reveal almost 600 defects in the four-month testing stage. They were all corrected prior to implementation.

The Results

All three phases of the project were delivered successfully, within three years and ten months from the launch date at a cost of $4.9 million. Six months after implementation, not one production incident had been experienced. It was indeed a zero defect project!

Two months before implementation, when success was apparent, the IT project manager, the contract business analysts and development staff were released. On implementation, the remaining project staff was reassigned to other initiatives subject to any support required to respond to production incidents. There were none.

How Great Leaders Delivered a Zero Defect Project AND How Weak Leaders Missed the Opportunity to Deliver Value

One of the fundamental reasons the two PMs were able to deliver successfully in spite of all the risks was the omnipotent presence of the American government as the change driver. It was that external “big brother” influence that ultimately compelled the recalcitrant managers to capitulate. But even then, the two PMs managed to pull off an amazing result by focusing their efforts in six vital areas:

  • Collaboration – the approach the two PMs used to manage the project was a thing of beauty. Their achievement was more than the sum of the parts.
  • Rigorous Issue and Change Management – aggressive application of the two principles mentioned previously was essential in light of the business participation vacuum. The business PM’s approach showed a great deal of intestinal fortitude.
  • Parallel Development – breaking the project into three phases and the third phase into twenty-one parallel stages reduced the risk and shaved costs and months of elapsed time.
  • Skill Building – the concentrated training developed and offered to the contract resource was instrumental in achieving a zero defect result. The training developed and delivered to the business staff to help them use the new business functionality was vital for a seamless implementation.
  • Aggressive Testing – the professional and disciplined test approach the two PMs adopted helped overcome the knowledge deficiencies and accelerate defect identification.
  • In Your Face Engagement – holding the business managers accountable in spite of their expressed reluctance showed great courage and terrific results. The two PMs showed us how to survive and thrive in the face of inept sponsor and key stakeholder support.

And now to the weak leaders, the CFO, CIO and business managers. They shirked their duties and missed wonderful opportunities to deliver substantial value to the organization. How?

  • Success breeds success! Here was a very challenging undertaking that was delivered under considerable duress. Sure, costs exceed the nominal “budget” set by the CEO, based on nothing but whim. But, the schedule was maintained, quality was outstanding, and the entire organization contributed, even if some participated under protest. Celebrating the success with all the contributors, in-house and contract, would have helped instill that can do attitude so others would be ready to carry the torch going forward. That could have been cultural gold.
  • Lost best practices! Here was a project that managed to deliver against sizeable risk. How did they do it? The clever tactics are outlined above. Those lessons should have been captured and disseminated for others to use to achieve still more successes. Instead of banking those lessons learned to deliver future value, they were ignored and lost. What a waste!
  • Comprehensive test bed! The test case portfolio developed to test the Dodd-Frank changes was a treasure trove of test gold. It could have served as a regression test bed for the new functionality and contributed to lower costs, shorter schedules and superior quality on future change initiatives. Instead, it was thrown away.

As managers and catalysts for change, we often apply practices that have worked well for us in the past. Sometimes, we do it by rote. Please resist that temptation. As shown by this case, the zero defect project, there are often very creative and stimulating ways, other than the usual tried and true, to achieve the desired end. So, if you find yourself in a similar situation, put these points on your checklist of things to do in future endeavors so you too can be a Great Leader. And remember, use Project Pre-Check’s three building blocks covering the key stakeholder group, the decision management process and Decision Framework best practices right up front, so you don’t overlook these key success factors.

Finally, thanks to everyone who has willingly shared your experiences for presentation in this blog. Everyone benefits. First-time contributors get a copy of one of my books. Readers get insights they can apply to their own unique circumstances. So, if you have a project experience, good, bad and everything in between, send me the details, and we’ll chat. I’ll write it up and, when you’re happy with the results, Project Times will post it so others can learn from your insights. Thanks

Drew Davison

Drew Davison is the owner and principal consultant at Davison Consulting and a former system development executive. He is the developer of Project Pre-Check, an innovative framework for launching projects and guiding successful project delivery, the author of Project Pre-Check - The Stakeholder Practice for Successful Business and Technology Change and Project Pre-Check FastPath - The Project Manager’s Guide to Stakeholder Management. He works with organizations that are undergoing major business and technology change to implement the empowered stakeholder groups critical to project success. Drew can be reached at [email protected].

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