Project management for all

How do you create a common language and approach across a myriad of projects? Manchester City Council has embarked on an ambitious project to do just that. Helen Beckett gets to grips with the Manchester Method


How do you create a common language and approach across a myriad of projects? Manchester City Council has embarked on an ambitious project to do just that. Helen Beckett gets to grips with the Manchester Method

In 2003 Manchester City Council decided to rationalise the many flavours of project management flourishing on its capital programme. Standardisation, entitled the Manchester Method, was necessary to bring greater efficiency to the construction portfolio of 800 projects worth £250m per annum.

Now, with the automation of the Manchester Method, the authority hopes it has surpassed this remit. Long-term it aims to create a hub of project management expertise in the North West and give all council employees the capability of being a project manager.

Achieving this objective calls for great project management in its own right and that poses something of a "chicken and egg" conundrum for the authority.

A sound start was to appoint an overseer with a heavy-duty record in project management, and so Kevin Fletcher was appointed as strategic planner. Fletcher came from the KnowledgePool arm of IT giant Fujitsu, and soon realised that the public sector drivers of people and services created a diversity of methods.

"There were a number of different departmental approaches, some better informed than others. Most relied on common sense plus some support," says Fletcher. As well as departmental resources, Manchester had a dedicated project management team and also brought in specialist consultants from IT and construction from time to time. "We had to reduce unnecessary consulting cost," says Fletcher.

With 25,000 people within the authority using different terminologies, there was an obvious need to create one shared language. Fletcher also witnessed a variety of tools in operation, including proprietary methods and MS Project. "We felt that if we could join up this knowledge and add some software expertise there would be a chance to share very diverse experience."

The key to achieving this was to democratise project management. "We wanted to be able to take a librarian and turn them into a project manager," explains Fletcher.

Giving every employee the confidence and capability to be a project manager is no easy task, and called for transformation on a huge scale. However, change is easier to administer and embrace in smaller pieces, and so the plan was broken down into four parts.

First in hand was the task of refining diverse best practice into a single method (the Manchester Method), and this was followed by training staff and creating a project management culture in Manchester City Council (see box). Selecting technology that could support the processes was the third stage and finally, creating a centre of excellence for project management that would cut the amount spent on external consultancy.

The implementation of technology was the enabler of a key objective: transforming every employee into a potential project manager. And the objective of making project management skills accessible largely determined the choice of technology and supplier.

Project management specialist Mantix was picked to manage the technical implementation because of its track record in government work, including the Environment Agency and the Foreign Office. Mantix recommended the use of a low entry-point system based on commodity Microsoft tools.

Microsoft's Sharepoint portal technology enables companies to consolidate intranet content, and allows different users to create custom views of the website. Enabling specific views of a project to different stakeholders simplifies the processes of project management, says Diane Stean, director for government business at Mantix. "You can't suddenly give someone a fully functional system and say 'you're now a gold star project manager'. It's too daunting."

Software selected for the core of the system consisted of other commodity tools, including MS Project Server 2003 and Enterprise Project Management solution for multi-project planning and consolidation.

In addition, SQL Analysis Services and SQL Reporting Services were picked and configured by Mantix to sit backstage and power a "heatmap" view of projects. This presents risks and issues in an easily understood red, amber or green system of alerts. In turn, these are tailored to different user profiles of project manager, programme manager and portfolio manager.

While technology was deemed to be the third stage of the Manchester rollout, Mantix believes that the initial elements of the four-part programme would have benefited from earlier software support. "Had the Microsoft technology been sufficiently mature [to procure] two years ago, it would have made these elements more visible," says Stean.

Even as the designated stages of the project were carried out, the Mantix team knew that success depended on not just training staff in a system, but in using it to support the processes. "We had to show it was relevant to the person and role," says Stean.

 A powerful way of proving the tool before it was actually delivered, was to use it to manage the project, and this partially countered the chicken and egg syndrome. "Traditionally, with a new system you have to pilot it to check the benefits are delivered."

The second project board meeting was therefore paperless, and progress was examined through the Sharepoint portal. Executives were then able to look at various aspects through the highlight report, the risk register, and the issue register screens. "The potential to save money, paper and trees is enormous," says Stean. Additionally, it was possible to demonstrate the different profile usage of the system with various at-a-glance views presented through the red, amber and green status dashboard.

Using the Sharepoint-based system to roll out the Manchester Method across the authority enabled comments to be collated and modifications to be made on the way. "For example, we had made various assumptions about how the high-level dashboard screens would look, but in fact we needed to do some cosmetic changes to the red, amber and green alerts," says Stean.

With such a broad population of users accessing the system, an intuitive interface was crucial.  "The trick was to have the complexity in the background, but with an intuitive interface," says Fletcher.

Additionally, some users wanted to be able to add their bespoke elements to the automated approval processes, explains Fletcher. For example, some departments have a particular need to track funding because it derives from different sources. Central government funds may have to be spent by particular dates or approved in a particular order, and the project management system needed to flag this up.

Aside from automating processes in one coherent fashion, the biggest boon is opening up local authority capital projects to numerous stakeholders by enabling access via the internet. "As an authority we have a commitment to inclusion. And so a headmaster of a school can now look at the floor plan of a new wing and add his comments. The original version would be retained, but the comments are added in one central place," says Fletcher.

Storing all relevant documents and comments in one place also facilitates a more joined-up approach to local government. Plus it makes compliance with the Freedom of Information Act achievable as a robust document management system makes information retrieval easier. "Currently, letters and minutes of meetings relating to an issue may be dispersed over several PCs and servers," says Fletcher.

Manchester council has also seized the opportunity to craft clearer definitions of other key functions such as accounting and finance. Previously there was a fragmented approach, and auditors had to adapt to different departmental methods. "If you ask people to report on progress, cost and risk, the information you get back might be a bit dubious. It therefore took a while for these reports to become meaningful," explains capital programme manager, Bob Rutt.

In fact, one of the problems throughout the project has been how to achieve transparent communication and a shared language. The culture varied in different departments and this was reflected in the terminology of projects. Heads of the project would variously be called a project sponsor or coordinator, for example, recalls Fletcher. When talking across departments, "you had to check very carefully against documentation that the language was crystal clear", says Fletcher.

The Manchester Method has already made its mark, with all projects within the capital programme now delivering to the benchmark of within 5% of time and budget.

Further, cost savings are anticipated on completion of the rollout of automation: efficiencies to the tune of £37,000 per £1m on capital projects are expected to accrue for improved reporting, document management and drawings. Whether front-line workers can be transformed into project managers, however, remains to be seen.

Winning hearts and minds is the vital ingredient

 Creating a shared approach was in part an ideological battle. With no evidence of the outcomes that a new, improved method could deliver, conversion called for a leap of faith. "Winning minds and hearts calls for a confident approach and a mix of great personalities," says strategic planner Kevin Fletcher.

His team offered experience from the public and private sector, and crucially included a working group with representatives invited from every department.

Also key to winning acceptance of the method was ensuring that it was genuinely generic and not tainted with the flavour of any contributing department. For example, the IT department might have argued in favour of including a particular component and accompanied this by a document or tool relating to an actual example. "The problem is that if presented in this way, another department might reject it as being 'an IT method'."

The answer was to base it on Prince2, the widely used government method, but to give it a distinctive, local authority flavour. "Prince2 is a big, thick book of how to manage projects, and the Manchester Method is a more practical manual," says Diane Stean, director for government business at Mantix.

It does this by including lots of worked examples and templates that are presented to the user, on screen, alongside the principles and best practice material.

User feedback: 'Everything is a lot faster'

Manchester's project management software is being piloted by Framework 1, a partnership between government and construction companies, Bramalls, AMEC and Wilmot Dixon

The objective of Framework 1 is to build primary schools in Manchester, and project manager Ian Greenwood is pleased with the ease and speed of access to information (Sharepoint) facilitates.

"Finance, procurement, design and technical services can easily share information now. Technical services, for example, can select a view and annotate the plans with any fresh information."

Change requirements did not comply with Framework 1's paper-based system initially and so had to be amended.

One of the more useful features is the automated update alert that sends additions and amendments to every relevant team member. According to Greenwood, previously this was done with paper or e-mail. "We're not a paperless office yet - but everything's is a lot faster."

Read more on IT project management