Preventing a Communications Failure

by Humphreys & Associates on June 4, 2018

US Army Helicopter

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

From the movie Cool Hand Luke”, you would probably remember the famous line, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. Some men you just can’t reach. So you get what we had here last week….”

Ask people who work on programs and projects, “From your experience, what are the top 10 reasons that projects fail?”  You will nearly always find, at the top of the list, the cause as being one of poor communications. That’s right, failure to communicate, pure and simple. But maybe not so pure and not so simple.

Establish a Communications Plan

There are so many dimensions to communication that it is advisable, even necessary, to establish a communications plan. Think about all the topics we need to communicate; the list is mighty: goals, schedules, budgets, product requirements, status, problems, successes, forecasts, roadblocks, directions, and so on. So, it makes sense that we should take time to define the communications process and actions in our communications plan.

Assuming we are about to undertake a new project rather than inject ourselves into an ongoing one, we should consider the most natural first step in preventing a communications failure. Just as we must define the product requirements, we should also define the requirements for communications through an analysis. That analysis should be rigorous and should cover all apparent aspects of communications.

  • What do we need to communicate?
  • Who are the providers and the receivers of various communications?
  • What are the form and format for the communication?
  • What are the frequencies required for these communications?

Such a requirements analysis could result in a communications compliance matrix that lists the requirement and provides the method by which the requirement will be satisfied.

Formal and Informal Communication

Two major subsets of communications could be the formal and the informal. To start considering the formal we could go to the contract the Contract Data Requirements List (CDRL) and the many requirements for plans, reports, and other deliverables that are forms of communications. The contract could be the root of a large tree that grows level-by-level. For example, the contract might have the Statement-of-Work (S0W) that tells us to use the systems engineering approach and a CDRL item to provide a System Engineering Management Plan (SEMP) in which another level of communication is revealed. On major contracts the SEMP is but one of several plans that are often required and should be extremely useful in defining the communications plan. The totality of these plans is comprehensive and very detailed.

EVMS Structure

Of interest to us here in this blog is the requirement to manage the program using Earned Value Management Systems (EVMS). A properly implemented EVMS can be the key to avoiding many of the problems of communications that are rolled up into the generic problem of “poor communications.” EVMS is one for the formal requirements that can embody wide ranging forms of communications. In the EVMS we will communicate:

  • Goals for scope, schedule, and budget. These are in various artifacts within the EVMS and provided to the stakeholders. Goals are the topic of the Integrated Baseline Review (IBR) to the extent that the probability of meeting the goals is assessed. Goals are clear when you have an Earned Value Management System.
  • Structure for the project work, people, and resources. EVMS requires a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) to formally define and decompose the work. That means it is open and clear to all on the project what must be done top to bottom and by whom it will be done.

Integrated Master Schedule

Timing for work is established in the comprehensive Integrated Master Schedule (IMS). The IMS, when properly built and coded, provides deep insight into the time plans for the project and the relationships among the players. Topics such as “external dependencies” might have once been an obscure bit of knowledge but in the IMS these are clearly defined, and the logic shows what is dependent on these external inputs to the project.

The IMS communicates the milestones that are to be achieved. Vertical integration from the work tasks to the milestones provides the links that communicate the contributors to any major event. We know what and when we must reach a certain capability, and, with the IMS, we know how we will get there and who will carry us to that goal.

Work Authorization Document

The control account Work Authorization Document (WAD) provides a formal documentation of the baseline agreement on scope, schedule, and budget for the managerial subsets of the total project work. Carving out these manageable sections of work and making formal communication of the goals and responsibilities provides a detailed communication and acceptance for the project goals and the responsibility for their accomplishment. It would be nearly impossible to get lost in the well documented baseline of an EVMS managed project.

Measuring Progress

The status of our project is known by measuring our progress and reporting it formally; these are cornerstones of the EVMS.

  • What should we be doing?
  • What are we doing?
  • Are we meeting our scope, schedule, and spending goals?
  • Where are the problems?
  • What are the root causes of the problems? The impacts?

Communicating all of these up and down the hierarchies and even to the customer provides what should be open and clear communication. The generic complaint of “poor communication” often means “I was surprised.” There should be no surprises in a well run EVMS program.

Future Outcomes

Perhaps the most important thing to communicate is the future outcome. Based on our plans and our status, we are always making projections for the potential outcomes of our project from within our EVMS. The forecast for timing is contained within the IMS. The forecast for spending is contained within the Estimate to Complete (ETC). Each period we update out view of the future and analyze what that means. We use the analysis to undertake corrective action plans that have the intended effect of getting us back on track.

Summary

So, in summary, you should see that poor communications of the items that are within the purview of the program management system (EVMS) should not happen. The EVMS should be one the main pillars of communications plans and processes to prevent a communications failure. The outcome of the program might still be less than desired, but the outcome should have been foreseen and discussed many times within the communications engendered by the EVM System. We should know what we need to do, how we are doing, and where we will end up; and those are all things we need to communicate.

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Summary Level Planning Packages (SLPPs) Misnomer and Alias

by Humphreys & Associates on May 1, 2018

Satellite in Earth Orbit

Origins

One of the confusing terms in the world of Earned Value terminology is “Summary Level Planning Packages” or SLPPs. The term first appeared in Section 1 of the Earned Value Management Implementation Guide (EVMIG), published in 1996 which read:

Summary Level Planning Packages (SLPP) – “When it is clearly impractical to plan authorized work in control accounts, budget and work should be identified to higher WBS or organizational levels for subdivision into CAs at the earliest opportunity.” At this time, EIA-748 was still in draft form.

When 748-1998  was released, the SLPP reference was included with slight modification to its use being limited to; “work scope for business reasons, is not yet allocated to responsible control accounts”.

With that being said, the term was never specifically included in the EVMS Guidelines (neither the original 35 criteria nor the current 32 EIA Standard Guidelines)!  The concept itself was again put forth in 748-B where the title changed to “Higher Level Account”, but the SLPP was still referenced.  With 748-C, the same phrasing is found.  Throughout this time, Guideline 8 has not changed, where it continues to say (underlines added):

“Budget for far-term efforts may be held in higher-level accounts until an appropriate time for allocation at the Control Account level.”

Higher Level Accounts

The term was “Higher Level Accounts” (HLA if you prefer an acronym), and that is the only mention in any of the Guidelines themselves.  In their 25 June 2015 Cross Reference Checklist, however, the DCMA felt the need to clarify the term in several spots:

8.a.(2) Higher level WBS element budgets (where budgets are not yet broken down into control account budgets) also known as a Summary Level Planning Package?

15. b. Does the Contractor’s system description or procedures require that the sum of control accounts, Summary Level Planning Package (SLPP) budgets, Undistributed Budget (UB), and Management Reserve (MR) reconcile and trace to the CBB or Negotiated Contract Cost (NCC) plus the estimated cost of AUW) for any recognized OTB?

27. b. Are ETCs developed at the work package, planning package, and Summary Level Planning Package (SLPP) levels, or where resources are identified if lower than the work package level?

27. j. Are VACs calculated and analyzed with corrective actions at the control account (at a minimum) and Summary Level Planning Package (SLPP) levels?

Created to Help

The term “Higher Level Accounts (HLA)” was created to help contractors comply with the government requirement to distribute budgets from Undistributed Budget (UB) within two full accounting periods after definitization of the contract value.  Many contractors on large, long term contracts were struggling with distributing work and budget for far term effort about which  they were not yet sure where or by whom the work would be performed.

The government allowance to create Higher Level Accounts enabled the contractors to “distribute” the scope and budget to an account – as though it were a Control Account – where someone would “tend it” until the contractor could better define where and by whom the work would be performed.  While in the HLA status, the assigned higher-level manager (the PM or a functional manager designee) would be responsible to ensure the time phasing of the high level budget was current and that the EAC for the work in the HLA was up to date (rates and time phasing ).  Once the contractor determined the appropriate Control Account Manager responsible for getting the work performed, the scope, schedule and budget in the HLA would be transferred (distributed) from the Higher Level Account to the Control Account.

Misnomer

As stated earlier, the origin of the term “Summary Level Planning Package – SLPP” is not really known, and it is really a misnomer:

  1. It is not a Summary Level (i.e., other Control Accounts do not summarize into it).
  2. It is really not a Planning Package (the responsible Higher Level Manager does not perform any planning for the work in the HLA – it is just a holding point until it can be distributed to, and planned by, the ultimate CAM).

This last point is where some people become confused.  Being called a “Planning Package,” some people think the SLPP is part of a Control Account that is at a higher level within the Control Account than a Planning Package.   That is another distinction between an SLPP (HLA) and a Planning Package – an SLPP can NEVER be directly detail planned into Work Packages.  The budget in an SLPP must be transferred to a Control Account for that CAM to detail plan the work as necessary over the period of performance of the Control Account.

To be fair to the CAM receiving the HLA/ SLPP scope, schedule, and budget, the project should also have a “Rolling Wave Planning” approach for the HLA/SLPP, one that is at least 30 days in advance of the normal CAM Rolling Wave Planning process.  This would give the CAM time to incorporate the work and budget time phasing into the Control Account (generally in one or more Planning Packages within the Control Account) in order to then be prepared for any necessary detail planning into Work Packages as part of the normal Rolling Wave Planning process.

Final Thought

Some people do not even consider Higher Level Account to be an appropriate description, since the HLA/ SLPP is essentially at the same level as the Control Account.  The “Higher Level” aspect means it is assigned to a higher level manager than a Control Account Manager (CAM) for that manager to “tend to” the scope, schedule, and budget until it is distributed to a CAM.

So even though HLA is what it is, SLPP is what it has become.

Higher Level Accounts or Summary Level Planning Packages can be confusing and often an area where projects need some help.   A Humphreys & Associates EVM Consultant can provide the guidance you need for your unique production or development project.  Please contact us for more information.

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